Today’s Pledge of Allegiance originated 125 years ago, in 1892, as a publicity stunt by a popular youth magazine. In 1948, a Chicago lawyer initiated a campaign that would add the words “under God.”
The Pledge to Allegiance began as a way for the magazine to lure schools across the country to buy flags from it for public display. As the hook, the magazine heralded a nationwide Columbian Public School Celebration on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas and the ceremony dedicating the Chicago World’s Fair. (The fair didn’t open to the public until May 1893.) The pledge was written by Francis Bellamy, a former Baptist minister who had been sacked by his church for promoting socialist values. The promotion generated sales of a whopping 26,000 flags.
The effort was bolstered by an impressive publicity campaign directed by Bellamy. He happened to serve as National Education Association committee chair and actively touted his pledge to the group. He also arranged for extensive newspaper coverage and a proclamation from President Benjamin Harrison recognizing the pledge and the commemoration of Columbus’ journey.
The pledge that Bellamy composed expressed solidarity with the flag and the nation’s ideals. “I pledge allegiance to my flag, and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
Bellamy thought about including “equality” along with “liberty and justice,” as referenced in the French Revolution motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” But, he realized that doing so would provoke the school superintendents and Congress. Recall that at the time blacks, women and other minorities were treated dismissively and not as equals to white men. (Before you think Bellamy progressive, he turned into an ultra-right wing nationalist warning against unions and the “corruption to the stock” by “alien immigrant[s] of inferior race.”)
A colleague of Bellamy’s thought that children should do something with their hands while looking at the flag and reciting the pledge. He came up with a salute — right arm stiffly stretched out and raised palm down, toward the flag. The salute, however, so resembled the Nazis’ and Italian fascists’ hand-and-arm gesture that in December 1942, Congress officially replaced it with the right hand over the heart.
Change to the wording of the pledge came only weeks after its original publication. “To” was added before “the Republic” for better rhythmic flow. In 1923 and 1924, the National Flag Conference replaced “my flag” with “the flag,” and introduced “of the United States of America,” so immigrant children would know to which flag they were pledging.
The most dramatic change originated with Chicago lawyer Louis Albert Bowman, the chaplain of Illinois chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and a devout Christian. SAR (which still exists) is a “linage” society limited to descendants of men who aided the American Revolution and emphasizes patriotism and display of and respect for the flag. On Feb. 12, 1948, Bowman, who joined the Illinois bar in 1901, advocated inserting “under God” after “one nation,” in a nod to Abraham Lincoln’s mention of “under God” at Gettysburg. (Whether Lincoln actually said “under God” has been much debated.)
Bowman’s overture gained momentum, especially in the midst of America’s anti-Communism hysteria. On Flag Day 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower, in approving the joint resolution of Congress adopting “under God,” reaffirmed “the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that pupils cannot be compelled to salute the flag and say the pledge, and, in 2004, turned down a challenge to “under God” on standing grounds, though three justices would have upheld the phrase on the basis that it refers to an ecumenical God. Nevertheless, the pledge remains controversial, and in the coming years may very well reappear on the Supreme Court’s docket.
Meanwhile, Louis Bowman’s “under God” will continue to engage the tug of wills between the First Amendment’s two religion clauses, the establishment clause prohibiting the government from specially favoring one religion over another or promoting religious beliefs and the free exercise clause prohibiting the government from interfering with a person’s exercise of religion.