The Pledge of Allegiance: What is the History of Our Pledge?

The Pledge of Allegiance: What is the History of Our Pledge?

by Corie Lynn Rosen, December 2009

With so much talk about The Pledge of Allegiance in the press and the courts, its history is a relevant talking point. But how much do most people really know about it? You may have recited the Pledge every day in elementary school - with the entire class standing in unison and dutifully placing their hands over their hearts - but it is unlikely that more than a few students knew where the Pledge originated and what it meant to recite it.

The history of the Pledge is a frequently treated topic, especially with the constitutionality of the phrase "Under God" so recently under fire in California. So where did our Pledge originate?

Francis Bellamy, a socialist Christian figure, wrote the Pledge in 1892 for a magazine called "The Youth's Companion." The original Pledge was printed on leaflets and sent out to schools, where some twelve million children recited it in observation of Columbus Day, 1892- the four hundred year anniversary of the explorer's famous voyage.

The Pledge recited that day in 1892 had two distinct differences from the Pledge so many contemporary Americans grew up reciting: at that time the Pledge had neither the phrase "The United States of America" nor the phrase "Under God."

By the 1920's, the tradition of morning Pledge recitation had become widespread. While the original Pledge used the words "My Flag," the Pledge being used in schools in the 20's had evolved to substitute the words "The United States of America." This gave the Pledge a more distinctly American flavor and infused national identity into the daily recitation ritual.

In 1942 Congress officially recognized the Pledge, which by then included the phrase "The United States of America." Popular myth has it that the phrase "Under God" was added to the Pledge as a response to McCarthy era communism. That myth is not far from the truth. On the addition of the phrase, president Eisenhower said, "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war." The phrase was officially added on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.

The addition of the "Under God" phrase is the most significant change in the Pledge of allegiance, since it introduces a concept into the Pledge that was absent at its inception. There is little controversy today as to the government's intent in adding the religious element to the Pledge. The debate in Congress signaled that the overriding purpose of the addition was to reject communist ideals and exalt the relationship between the United States and spirituality.

Not surprisingly, the phrase has engendered substantial debate. Many see little wisdom in the inclusion of religious language in a previously secular Pledge, a Pledge intended for a nation that deliberately separates Church and State. Because the Constitution so directly treats the issue of religion as one that has no place in matters of government, the post-1954 Pledge has received heavy criticism.

The Supreme Court has not ignored that criticism. In 2000 the court held that public recitation of the Pledge at football games was unconstitutional because of the coercion it implicated - despite the ability of students to opt out. The Supreme Court of California has ruled that the phrase "Under God" does not pass Constitutional muster, but the country's high court did not render a ruling on the issue because, after granting a writ of certiorari agreeing to review the issue, the case was dismissed for procedural reasons.

Regardless of the final decision rendered by any court, no ruling is necessary to see that the Pledge of Allegiance is a living document, still the subject of debate more than a hundred years after its initial publication.