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Various people had their hands on it, adding as little as a word or two, but the credit for the bulk of the pledge goes to Francis Julius Bellamy (May 18, 1855 – August 28, 1931), a Baptist minister from New York. Bellamy had some interesting political ideas—he was a Christian Socialist who believed in the equal distribution of economic resources in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, but not the distribution of voting rights to women or immigrants.
By 1891, Bellamy was tired of his ministry and accepted a job from one of his congregants, Daniel S. Ford, owner and editor of Youth’s Companion, a nationally circulated magazine for adolescents. Bellamy was hired to help the magazine’s premium department, where he worked on a campaign to sell American flags to public schools as a way to solicit subscriptions. By the end of the year, the magazine had sold flags to some 26,000 schools. But there were still more than a few holdouts.
They gave the campaign a shot in the arm by arranging a patriotic program for schools to coincide with the opening of the 1892 Columbian Exposition in October, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. Part of the program would be a new salute to the flag that schoolchildren would recite in unison. That August, just a few weeks before the exposition and mere days from his deadline, Bellamy sat down and composed the pledge. He approached it in part as a response to the Civil War, which was still fresh in the national memory, and decided to focus on the ideas of allegiance and loyalty.
Bellamy’s pledge was published in the September 8, 1892, issue of Youth’s Companion as follows:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Initially, the pledge was accompanied with a salute (seen above). According to Bellamy’s instructions, “At a signal from the Principal, the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it.” The pledge would then be recited, and at the words “to my Flag,” the “right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.”
After the pledge had taken root in schools, people started fiddling with it. In 1923 a National Flag Conference, presided over by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, decided that “my flag” should be changed to “the flag of the United States,” so newly arrived immigrant children would not be confused about exactly which flag they were pledging to. The following year, the Flag Conference refined the phrase further, adding “of America.”
By 1942, the pledge’s 50th anniversary, the pledge was ingrained in schools and many states required their public school students to recite it each morning. Around this time, people decided that the extended-arm salute looked a little too much like the Nazi salute, and began to simply keep the right hand over the heart throughout the whole pledge.
One Last Tweak
By the next decade, the Knights of Columbus—a Catholic fraternal organization—had adopted a modified pledge that mentioned God for use in their own meetings and soon began lobbying Congress with calls for everyone to do the same. Other fraternal and religious organizations backed the idea and pushed the government hard. In 1953, Rep. Louis Rabaut (D-Mich.), proposed an alteration to the pledge in a Congressional bill. Congress approved the addition of the words “under God” within the phrase “one nation indivisible” in an Act of Congress, and President Eisenhower got on board the next year at the suggestion of the pastor at his church.
The act was signed into law in 1954. Its sponsors, anticipating that it would be challenged as a breach of separation of church and state, wrote a disclaimer into the act explaining that the new phrase was not, in fact, religious. “A distinction must be made between the existence of a religion as an institution and a belief in the sovereignty of God,” they wrote. “The phrase ‘under God’ recognizes only the guidance of God in our national affairs.” Of course, not everyone bought the line, and a succession of people all over the country have been challenging the language in the courts for the last half-century.
This story was republished in 2019.