The History of the American Pledge of Allegiance

I feel very fortunate to be able to celebrate both Canada Day as well as Independence Day in America as I am a citizen of both countries.   I started my day by happening across a wonderful  version of “The Pledge of Allegiance” by Red Skelton which was first televised in 1969.  It was so moving that I had to share it in this blog.

And in case you were wondering how this custom originated, here is little about the history of the Pledge.

It all began in 1892 as a campaign to inspire patriotism and encourage schools to display the American flag.  It was the brainchild of James B. Upham, a marketer for a popular children’s magazine, who thought it would be a grand idea to involve school children in a special celebration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The plan was to have a flag raising ceremony and salute in as many schools as possible on Columbus Day.

The Pledge was written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister from New York.  Upham saw that it was  published in the September 8th, 1892 issue of  The Youth’s Companion. The original version was 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.”

Thus began the reciting of the Pledge which stayed the same as Bellamy had written it for just over two decades.

The correct hand position, when all of this started was different than our customs today, which currently call for the hand to be placed flat over the heart.  Men, of course, would remove their caps and place them over their heart.

But when the Pledge was first conceived it came along with what was described as the Bellamy Salute.

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. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” 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.

— From The Youth’s Companion, 65 (1892): 446–447.

The Bellamy salute was officially dropped in 1942 when a similar salute was adopted in Germany.  Congress amended the Flag Code. President Franklin D. Roosevelt required the change and the hand-over-the-heart gesture became the new salute for civilians to perform during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem.

There have been other changes as well.  The words, “my flag” were changed in 1924. The National Flag Conference amended the line to read “the flag of the United States of America.”

Thirty years later, the Pledge was changed again, when Congress added the words “under God”, in 1954. This is the version that is still recited today:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Happy Independence Day!

For those who are interested in more information on flag etiquette, please click here.

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