For the next segment of our Rediscovering Delta History series, I hope you will forgive me if I include this one piece of American history. You might find it odd that the subject deals with 29 words that most of us repeat often.
Odd also, because the origin of the Pledge of Allegiance had absolutely nothing to do with our national flag. Odd or not, those 29 words are heard and repeated so often that for most Americans, they are “automatic.” Yet how many of us are aware of their origin?
At least once a week, millions of Americans repeat this sentence: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It has been said that “The Pledge to the Flag” has been repeated more than any other quotation from modern literature. For that reason the man who wrote the original 27-word pledge (the words “under God” were added many years later) and the circumstances under which it was written deserve to be remembered.
It is singularly appropriate that this pledge, which has been repeated so many times by so many millions of school children, should have been written by a member of the editorial staff of the publication which for so many years was Young America’s favorite magazine — the Youth’s Companion. Francis M. Bellamy was his name, and at the time of his death on Aug. 28, 1931, the memory of his greatest claim to distinction had almost faded. Here is the account of the origin of the pledge.
A little group of men, who in 1891 believed the flame of patriotism was dying out because of momentous developments in industrial and political circles, sought to “fan the spark into new life.”
This effort resulted in President Benjamin Harrison proclaiming Oct. 12, 1892, as the first national holiday in honor of the discovery of America. Delegated to write a proclamation as part of the original ceremony, Bellamy produced a 27-word pledge that has stood the test of time.
If you think that the Pledge of Allegiance originated early in our nation’s history, consider the fact that 44 states had already been admitted to the union by 1892.
Chief among the leaders of the movement were President Harrison, James B. Upham, publisher; William T. Harris, federal commissioner of education; and Mr. Bellamy, a member of the editorial staff of the Youth’s Companion.
Mr. Upham conceived the idea of a revival of patriotism at a time when material things occupied the attention of most people. (Not much has changed there.) His first plan was to place an American flag over every schoolhouse. As a result, over 25,000 flags soon waved on as many school buildings.
Then the suggestion was adopted for a national holiday. Committees were formed, public men were interviewed. This handful of men virtually consecrated their lives to the task of obtaining governmental recognition of Columbus Day.
Mr. Bellamy saw congressmen, senators and others in the public eye. He interviewed President Harrison and Grover Cleveland among others.
Afterwards he aroused interest among congressmen by inducing them to give interviews endorsing the project to newspapers. It wasn’t long before the U.S. Senate and House passed a joint resolution giving the President authority to proclaim the holiday, along with standard exercises in public schools.
At last everything was completed except the opening proclamation. The secretary of state asked Mr. Bellamy to do that. Mr. Bellamy nominated Mr. Upham, but the latter refused. After many long weary hours over the draft, Francis M. Bellamy produced the pledge that remained unchanged until 1954.
In Mr. Bellamy’s own words, “The true reason for allegiance to the Flag is the ‘republic for which it stands.’ … And what does that vast thing, the Republic mean? It is the concise political word for the Nation — the One Nation which the Civil War was fought to prove. To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible, as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches.”
In 1954, during the Eisenhower administration, Congress, after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, added the words, “under God,” to the pledge. The pledge was now both a patriotic oath and a public prayer, and has since, caused much conflict among “separation of church and state” activists.
Fortunately, “political correctness” has not significantly impeded the nationwide declaration and use of this timely and historic pledge.
It is unfortunate that our schools are not in session on June 14, known as Flag Day throughout our nation. Perhaps this history would then be taught, and why we include it in this segment. It is also interesting to note that the origin of the “Pledge of Allegiance” had nothing to do with the flag itself, but to the discovery of America.
This historical series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Delta County Historical Society.