Our Secret Pledge

Turns out that the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by a Christian socialist, Francis Bellamy -- first cousin of Edward Looking Backward Bellamy -- a hater of capitalism whose sermons about "Jesus the Socialist" got him fired from his Boston church. Turns out that before World War II, many schoolchildren recited the Pledge not with their hands over their hearts, but with their right arms outstretched toward the flag in a pose we now associate with fascist storm troopers. Turns out that until the 20th century, the flag was rarely displayed in classrooms at all, and that the Pledge was part of a campaign by the ostensibly anti-capitalist owners of the magazine Youth's Companion --where the Pledge first appeared -- to sell a whole lot of flags to schools.

That information -- and much more like it -- comes from a history of the Pledge that was originally written in 1989, and which has long been sitting on the ACLU's Web site. After a federal court found the Pledge to be in violation of church/state separation Wednesday, this secret history began bouncing around the Net. That exemplified not only the quicksilver fluidity of context in an open system of debate, it illustrated even more the fluidity of meaning of an artifact like the Pledge. A recitation whose leftist author apparently intended it to instill regard for a benevolent central authority was soon read by rightists as an indispensable performance of patriotism. This rightist interpretation long ago established itself as the only valid reading.

Of course, Bellamy didn't write the "under God" clause that offended the court; that was the 1954 addition of the Knights of Columbus. But judging from the widespread rejection of the court's ruling as lacking "common sense," whether by Tom DeLay or The New York Times' editorial page, the phrase has become indispensable to the whole. Removing the clause would by now threaten the meaning that Pledge recitation developed prior to 1954, when it didn't contain the phrase at all. It appears to be a certainty that God will remain in the Pledge, even if that means amending the Constitution so as to remove any possibility of future legal challenges.

We often pretend otherwise, but cultural meaning trumps everything else, from taste to law. In the case of the Pledge, the meaning lies less in the words - which may well lose their resonance in rote repetition - than in their performance. The fact that the Pledge had a substantially different meaning to its author than it does to its admirers is insignificant; the fact that a godless Pledge was good enough for, say, the generation that fought World War II is beside the point. Americans are almost unique in pledging allegiance to a flag, but they have come to impute significant meaning to their rite, and to associate it with their national identity.

While he was composing the Pledge, Francis Bellamy originally considered adding references to "fraternity" and "equality," as if he were preparing students to storm the Bastille. Deciding these ideas were too radical, he cut them. He imagined, foolish man, that he was determining the meaning of his work.

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