Autopsy of the Pledge of Allegiance

The Pledge's Chicago Connection

On October 21, 1892, thousands gathered in the still-unfinished  Manufactures Building for the Dedication Ceremony of the World's Columbian Exposition. Although scheduled to coincide with the 1892 as the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World, construction delays on the nearly two hundred buildings postponed the official opening until May of 1893. 

At the ceremony, amid the songs and speeches, a mass of schoolchildren stood in military fashion as they saluted the flag with the words of the original Pledge of Allegiance, written to commemorate this occassion. 

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The interior of the Manufactures Building held thousands during the Dedication Ceremonies of the World's Columbian Exposition, on October 21, 1892. 

Across the nation, the Youth's Companion periodical had promoted their Flag campaign, selling millions of flags and a Pledge to go with them. On the same day as the dedication ceremony, millions of school children took part in a Columbus Day ceremony, which included a recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. Bellamy heard the pledge aloud that day, when "4,000 high school boys in Boston roared it out together."

These actions marked the birth of the ritualistic speech act the pledge was soon to become. 

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Image of the original handwritten Pledge of Allegiance by Francis M. Bellamy.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" - George Santayana

If we wish the Pledge to have meaning in twenty-first-century America, we must remember its forgotten history, from its origins as a sales campaign by an American flag company, to the many controversies surrounding is practice.
We must think, also, about what it feels like for American schoolchildren and in some settings, adults as well, to recite this pledge: is it a living ritual that enhances their patriotism? Or do we perform the ritual as if without thinking, saying the words by rote? 

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1888 - 1923: Construction

In 1888, The Youth's Companion - an American family magazine established in 1827 - began to sell American flags to public schools. They aimed to have an American flag in every classroom, making patriotism an inherent part of the public school curriculum. This fervor in American patriotism was no coincidence. Two decades after the American Civil War, the country finally seemed to be healing, ready to nurture its patriotism; and the best way to nurture patriotism, like any solid moral value, is to teach it early.

For this campaign, the Youth's Companion hired two men to work on a flag-raising campaign for the upcoming Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Assigned to the Promotions Department, Francis Bellamy, a former Social Baptist pastor, joined James B. Upham, a longtime employee, at the helm.

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The official program for Columbus Day

Upham viewed the Exposition as a celebration of the materialistic world that the late nineteenth century was bringing into existence. Upham wanted to use flags promoted by the Youth's Companion as a way to both sell more flags, but also to use the Exposition to teach Americans, young and old, a lesson in patriotism. The World's Fair would celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" (our quotes, not theirs!) of America; a flag campaign tied to the fair represented the perefect opportunity to promote America's high ideals.

In the designing the program for the Exposition, Bellamy and Upham decided to devote a portion of the Dedication Ceremonies to patriotic songs, addresses, and odes. Upham urged Bellamy to come up with a simple pledge that everyone could recite to the flag. Looking ahead to the October 21, 1892 official dedication ceremony for the fair, the Pledge of Allegiance appeared in print for the first time on September 8, 1892, when the Youth's Companion published the official program for the Columbus Day Celebration in Chicago. 

Bellamy's original statement emphasized national unity and American ideals, as follows: 

"I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands - one nation indivisible - with liberty and justice for all."

Instructions for reciting the Pledge, as published in the Youth's Companion on September 8, 1892, read as follows:

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Full-page spread of the Youth's Companion original Columbus Day activities

The idea of the pledge spread quickly to almost every public school in America. New York passed the first law requiring pledge recitation at school in 1898, the same year as the Spanish-American War, which expanded America's fooprint in the world. Once New York required recitation of the Pledge, other states soon followed in suit, and a national Flag Day was celebrated on June 14, 1923. 

Over the ensuing decades, changes occurred in the maner of reciting the pledge, the gestures used to salute it (did you know that a Nazi-like salute was used prior to World War II?), the words in the pledge, and eventually  over the constitutionality of reciting the pledge itself. These transformations are what we hope to show in this project, upending the udnerstanding of the Pledge as a document inscribed in stone, and opening it to new interpretations and understandings.  In other words, an autopsy.