Autopsy of the Pledge of Allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance: An Autopsy of Patriotism

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This project sheds light on the history of the United States cultural ritual of saying the Pledge of Allgeiance, while at the same time highlighting ongoing controversies surrounding the Pledge. 

Why an autopsy? As the pledge nears its 125th anniversary — recited for the first time on the same date as the opening ceremony of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 — we ask: is this a living document or a living practice? Or must we trace back through its history, as a doctor does with an autopsy, to see the twists and turns that this document and the practices accompanying it have taken through its lifetime?

Why a speech act? A central principle of this project is that the Pledge of Allegiance is a ritualistic speech act. A speech act is an act of language that has a performative function; the manner in which the words are said is as important as the words themselves. Think, for example, of what happens when a couple says "I do" at a wedding, or when an official takes the oath of office. The words said in these situations are not just words; they also do something, and have a ritualistic, performative function. 

The Pledge of Allegiance is not simply a one-time oath of allegiance to our nation or values: otherwise it would need only to be recited once, like the oath at a citizenship ceremony. Instead, America's grade school children recite the pledge day after day in almost every public school in America, using almost exactly the same mannerisms, tone, and gestures. These actions add a layer of ritualistic functionality to the pledge as a speech act. The pledge is thus both a swearing of allegiance and an acknowledgement of American ideals to which we should subscribe.

Read further to learn more about this history, ask your own questions, and consider your own relationship to the Pledge.