Face the Flag

The surprising history of the Pledge of Allegiance


To patriotic beverage entrepreneur Don Sessions, the Pledge of Allegiance is more just than the Pavlovian mantra of sleepy six-year-olds. It's a virtual law every American should abide by, a sacred text. So when federal regulators at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) reportedly told him he'd have to change it if he wanted to slap it on a can of beer so star-spangled it makes the average Fourth of July fireworks display look positively funereal, he stood his ground. "In the Pledge, it says, 'I pledge allegiance to the flag," the 75-year-old gadfly explained to Fox News last month. "They wanted me to change that to 'I pledge allegiance to my country.' And I said, 'No, no, no, I can't change the words to the Pledge. To me it would be like changing the words to the Bible.'"

Others haven't shown as much restraint as the Barnumesque beer salesman. In the recently published The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance, authors Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer explain how it took 62 years of editing for the  31-word oath to achieve the form we know today. And even now, though it has remained unchanged since 1954, when by official Congressional decree the phrase "under God" was inserted to help distinguish the United States from its godless Communist foes in the Soviet Union, would-be editors of the American experience dream of tailoring it to their own visions of democracy. Atheists want to strike God's mid-century cameo. Those who oppose abortion would like to append the phrase "born and unborn" to the end of the current Pledge. Some women's rights advocates, Jones and Meyer write, would like it to read "with liberty and justice for all men and women." For 118 years, the Pledge has functioned as a paradox, binding us all in indivisible groupthink and promising individual liberty in a single sentence.

In 1892, when former Bapist minister Francis Bellamy penned the original version, he no doubt never dreamed his work would help sell a militarized beer that evangelizes "peace through strength" and promises to "support our troops." Bellamy was a Christian socialist who, according to The Pledge, championed "the rights of working people and the equal distribution of economic resources, which he believed was inherent in the teachings of Jesus."  

And yet the Pledge's genesis had a strong commercial component of its own. Bellamy worked for a magazine, Youth's Companion, that had boosted its circulation by offering American flags as premiums to schoolchildren peddling subscriptions. One hundred sales equaled one flag, and over the course ?of a few years, the magazine's Flag Over the Schoolhouse Program put the Old Glory in tens of thousands of public schools around the country.

To expand on such efforts, Bellamy's boss in the Premiums Department at Youth's Companion, James B. Upham, concocted the idea of partnering with the World's Columbian Exposition, a.k.a. the Chicago World's Fair, to promote a nationwide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus Day (which wasn't yet an official national holiday). The proposed ceremonies would take place in schoolrooms and feature lots of flags. It would honor the spirit of enlightenment and progress Columbus embodied, and acknowledge the public school system as an uplifting, democratizing force in American life. "Our public school system is what makes this Nation superior to all other Nations—not the Army or the Navy system," Congressman Sherman Hoar (D -Mass.) insisted when discussing the coming celebration with Bellamy. "Military display…does not belong here."

To lend gravitas to the occasion, Bellamy felt a more dignified salute to the flag than those that already existed at the time was in order. As The Pledge recounts, Bellamy penned the Pledge "at a time when anxieties over the impact of mass immigration coexisted with expansive optimism about the nation's future." The entire Columbus Day celebration was calculated, as Theodore Roosevelt approvingly observed, to inculcate a "fervent loyalty to the flag," and Bellamy himself viewed his Pledge as an "inoculation" that would protect immigrants and native-born but insufficiently patriotic Americans from the "virus" of radicalism and subversion. A few years after writing the Pledge, The Pledge recounts, Bellamy would eventually write a less inspiring ode to indivisibility: "A democracy like ours cannot afford to throw itself open to the world where every man is a lawmaker, every dull-witted or fanatical immigrant admitted to our citizenship is a bane to the commonwealth; where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another."

In 1919, 27 years after Bellamy's Pledge made its debut in 1892, Washington became the first state to pass a law requiring schools to make a weekly recitation of it a mandatory part of their curriculum, thus adding an explicitly coercive element that intensified its paradoxical nature. The Jehovah's Witnesses, who believed that government was a Satanic tool and the Pledge a salute to the Devil, were amongst the first to publicly recognize the contradiction inherent in a compulsory oath lauding individual liberty. In 1935, the group "embarked on a focused campaign against the Pledge," with hundreds of Jehovah's Witnesses schoolchildren choosing expulsion over participation in the Pledge. A lawsuit ensued, and in 1938, a federal judge ruled in their favor, noting that the "totalitarian idea of forcing all citizens into one common mold of thinking" was not necessary to ensure the country's safety and also curtailed the freedom of those who opposed it on the basis of "sincere religious convictions."

In 1940, however, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of the case, and ultimately reversed the lower court's original ruling by an 8 to 1 margin. National unity, it concluded, trumped individual liberty. In the wake of this decision, unified Americans tarred and feathered a Jehovah's Witness in Wyoming, castrated another in Nebraska, and publicly beat others in Texas and Illinois as police and city officials watched.

Three years later, with the U.S. in the midst of war, the Supreme Court  reversed its decision. Since then, recitation of the Pledge has not been mandatory, at least from the perspective of the highest court of the land. On occasion, though, there's an outlier: In October 2010, a judge in Mississippi threw an attorney in jail for five hours after the attorney refused to recite the Pledge as directed.

In the same way that we don't have to say the Pledge if we don't want to, what the Ol' Glory story suggests is that we also have the power to deploy it in ways not every patriot might approve of. In a correction notice the TTB sent Don Sessions on November 3rd, it simply states that he cannot use the Pledge at all on a beer can. "Use of the Pledge of Allegiance on a malt beverage label is prohibited under 27 CFR 7.29 (d)," it informed him. "Delete this text."

In essence, 27 CFR 7.29 (d) exists to maintain the sanctity of the flag and other statements and representations relating to the flag or the armed forces of the United States, including the Pledge. In other words, while Sessions bills himself as a traditionalist, he's more of a maverick than he gives himself credit for. He wants to use the Pledge in ways that both the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Flag Code ostensibly prohibit. But as Sessions' attorney Robert Lehrman argued in an appeal to the TTB, Sessions' First Amendment rights take precedence over these regulations. Just as you can burn a flag or use it to sell bikinis, you can put the Pledge on a beer can—prior court rulings have found that the government cannot prohibit expressive conduct related to the flag.

Earlier this year, atheist Michael Newdow's 10-year quest to remove the phrase "under God" from the Pledge on the grounds that it constitutes a government endorsement of religion ended in defeat in the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. While that decision may enhance the Pledge's status as a symbol of coercive, one-size-fits-all conformity, Sessions' less radical triumph is nonetheless a reminder that the Pledge's promise of individual liberty remains valid as well. When Ol' Glory hits shelves, buy a six-pack and toast that.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @GregBeato.