On this day in 1892, the United States Pledge of Allegiance was first used in public schools to coincide with the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing and America’s emergence as a world power. While originally composed by Captain George Thatcher Balch of the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War, the form of the pledge used today was largely devised by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist and minister—an ironic fact given the Pledge is especially popular among conservatives.
In its original form, the Pledge read:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
As a socialist, Bellamy had initially considered using the words equality and fraternity in the pledge–modeled after the motto of the French Republic–but decided against it, knowing that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans.
In 1923, the words “my Flag” to be changed to “the Flag of the United States,” so that new immigrants would not confuse loyalties between their birth countries and the US. The words “of America” were added a year later.
The Pledge would not be officially adopted until 1942, amid the patriotic fervor of the Second World War. Congress also mandated the now-familiar hand-over-heart gesture, because the previous “Bellamy salute” traditionally made during the pledge resembled the Nazi salute.
Beginning in the 1950s, private religious groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, began urging for the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge, namely as a rebuff against the officially atheistic ideology of communism, as represented by our Soviet rivals. After attending a sermon by Scottish-born Presbyterian pastor George MacPherson Docherty that called for adding “under God” in the Pledge, President Eisenhower—who had been baptized a Presbyterian just a year before—teamed up with Republic Congressman Charles Oakman of Michigan to introduce a bill to amend the Pledge accordingly.
All but four states—Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont and (surprisingly) Wyoming—require a regularly scheduled recitation of the pledge in the public schools, although the Supreme Court’s 1943 ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette—just one year after the Pledge was made official—found that students cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge, nor can they be punished for not doing so, as this would violate the First Amendment right to free speech. Curiously, this reversed the Court’s own ruling just three years prior, in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, which found that schools could and should compel students to recite the Pledge; the difference between the two cases came down to the basis for the objection—though both involved the First Amendment, Barnette concerned the right to free speech, while Gobitis was about freedom of religion.
Both cases had in common Jehovah’s Witnesses as plaintiffs, as their faith does not permit allegiance to anyone but God. Our Nazi enemies persecuted this Christian sect for refusing to pledge to the Nazi state, an uncomfortable parallel to the U.S. that may have prompted the Court to change tact. Other Christians similarly oppose the Pledge, even the inclusion of “under God,” since it is seen as politicizing their faith. Many atheists, as well as secular believers, oppose the presence of God in the Pledge altogether, believing it to undermine constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state.
Despite multiple lawsuits on the matter, as of today none have succeeded at either the state or federal level, and the U.S. Supreme Court has thus far rejected to hear any appeals.