The Pledge of Allegiance is recited every day across the United States of America, whether it’s in school, a group meeting or a commemorative service. People of all ages know to face the flag, place their right hand over their heart and recite the words.
As an American, we learn the pledge of allegiance at a very young age and often recite it each day of our lives. But what is the history and meaning behind the Pledge of Allegiance, and how were its words (some of which have been highly debated) chosen?
Let’s first take a look at the man who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance back in August 1892. His name was Francis Bellamy, and he was a minister’s son from upstate New York who later also became a Baptist minister in New York and Boston. After some time as a minister, he accepted a job with a magazine called Youth’s Companion in Boston.
Francis’ new job led him to a big project: to arrange a patriotic program for schools around the country that coincided with Christopher Columbus’ 400-year New-World-arrival anniversary. He convinced President Harrison to declare Columbus Day a holiday. In addition to securing a holiday for this celebration, he included a new salute to the American flag for children to recite together in school.
At this point, there was an existing salute used that was presented five years before in 1887 by U.S. Navy officer George Balch. The words were, “We give our heads and our hearts to God and our country. One country, one language, one flag.”
According to historians, Bellamy did not like that salute, so he decided to write a new salute himself, which he believed needed to have a theme of allegiance. After two hours of mulling over what it should say, he wrote, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.” Bellamy later added the “to” before “the Republic”, but that’s not the only difference from what we recite today.
On October 21, 1892, approximately 4,000 high school boys recited it for Bellamy for the first time. Students and others continued to use both salutes during the late 19th Century until the early 20th Century.
The changes to the Pledge of Allegiance first came in 1923 when the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution ordained at a National Flag Conference that “my flag” should be changed to “the flag of the United States” so everyone was clear on which flag was being saluted. “America” was added a year later at the same National Flag Conference.
It was not until 1954 that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower signed the bill into law on June 14. The added words provoked controversy, which is still ongoing today in 2017.
The sponsors of the bill that added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance explained it to be only a recognition of God in the country’s national affairs. It is also interesting to note that 1954 was during the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was atheistic, so it is said that some members of Congress wanted to emphasize the difference between the two countries.
There was also an official Flag Code adopted by Congress in 1942 on the 50th anniversary of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the code states that the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, “should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform, men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag and render the military salute.”
This differed from the original salute instructed by Bellamy, which was described as starting with a military salute and extending the arm toward the flag, after saying “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” Placing your right hand over your heart became a tradition after 1940, because extending your arm toward the flag resembled the Nazi salute.
While “under God” is still an ongoing argument among some groups in the United States, the Pledge of Allegiance still holds that message that Bellamy intended—one of allegiance. So, the salute written for high school boys at a ceremony celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering the New World is still recited in front of the American flag at schools, events and locations every day. The years have passed, and only a few changes have been made to a short salute that holds a lot of history and a lot of meaning.