Allegiance to the pledge

Authority says it always has been a political football

July 04, 2002|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Dr. John Baer of Annapolis, a retired professor of economic education, is one of the nation's foremost scholars on the Pledge of Allegiance. His book, The Pledge of Allegiance: A Centennial History, 1892-1992, recounts the oath's origins and its past, providing among other things a glimpse of its use over the years as "a political football."

Retired since 1990 from a 24-year position at Anne Arundel Community College, Baer had been able to indulge his fascination for the pledge in relative anonymity. Until last week, that is, when the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled the pledge unconstitutional, setting off a national debate and a media frenzy, and bringing the whimsical scholar's work to light.

After a judge stayed the ruling, the controversy quieted a bit, and Baer took time to speak with The Sun at his home.

How did you first get interested in the pledge?

I was teaching the Soviet socialist economy, but the Soviet Union blew up in 1989, so they canceled that course. By then I was interested in patriotic education.

How did the pledge originate?

Two influential cousins - Edward and Francis Bellamy - lived in Boston in the late 1800s. Edward Bellamy was a widely read novelist. Francis Bellamy, who was less well-known, was a Baptist minister. Both believed Jesus Christ was a socialist: "A rich man can no more enter heaven than a camel through the eye of a needle." They believed the rich had a duty to help the poor. They were hot for equality - political, economic and social. They were part of the Christian Socialist movement.

Was that a popular movement at the time?

Looking Backwards, a novel Edward wrote, depicted his view of an ideal society, and it sold well. But Francis' church was subsidized by wealthy businessmen. They certainly didn't think everyone was equal. They got tired of this guy and his radical ideas. The pressure was on, he refused to back down, and in 1891, he quit the ministry.

Luckily, one of those businessmen - a fellow Baptist, Daniel Ford - was the owner and editor of a hugely popular weekly magazine, The Youth's Companion ... the Reader's Digest of its time. Very patriotic. It had a circulation of half a million.

Ford liked Francis Bellamy. Ford became his mentor and hired him. He told him, "My nephew, James Upham, is setting up a big program for Columbus Day (1892). Join in and help work it out." Upham probably wrote the first draft, but Bellamy wrote the last.

The original pledge was different from the one we have now?

Yes. It read: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It was written as part of the Columbus Day program, which the magazine set up for the National Education Association. They built the whole celebration around the public schools. Bellamy built the program around a flag-raising ceremony. He even gave directions for how to do the salute.

Did Bellamy suspect that his pledge would become part of history?

Yes. The words fell together well. And he put his finger on some major aspects of the American Dream. He wasn't modest. He predicted the pledge would sweep the country. He forecast just about everything that would happen. ... It's written for kiddies, right? He forecast it would be taken over by adults. He forecast it would be taken over by the politicians. ... Bellamy later became a successful adman in New York. He knew how to give the customers what they wanted.

At the time, was there anything controversial about the pledge?

Not that the public knew. Bellamy actually believed that the three Great Ideas were "liberty, justice and equality." He would have used the word "equality," but he knew that was a no-no. At the time, the NEA was highly segregated; it wasn't integrated until the 1950s. ... When you look at the phrase "all men are created equal"- it was an outright lie at the time. We didn't achieve equality until 1964, with civil rights. We still haven't achieved it, really.

When were the key times the pledge was changed or challenged?

The federal government did away with the stiff-arm salute - well, not quite "did away with"; the laws are local, state-by-state and even district-by-district. Maryland got rid of the salute in 1917. In the 1920s, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution changed the words from "my Flag" to "the flag of the United States" to "the flag of the United States of America." Bellamy didn't like that.

Also in the 1920s, the American Legion started a campaign requiring all students to recite the pledge [or be expelled] ... Then in 1942, the federal government supported the idea, adding that the pledge should be recited with the hand over the heart. In 1943, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling in a West Virginia case that students could not be expelled for refusing to recite the pledge.

And as we've learned recently, "under God" was added in 1954.

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