The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance

By Richard J. Ellis

University of Kansas. 297 pp. $29.95

Like most children growing up in the 1950s, I began each school day by pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. I paid no attention to the meaning of the words, although I do recall some confusion about the distinction between "indivisible" and "invisible." I also remember my entire class having trouble mastering the placement of "under God" when that phrase was inserted into the pledge while I was in second or third grade. I never wondered why I was saying the pledge every day or where it had come from; this was simply the way the school day began, as it doubtless had done from time immemorial.

Yet as Richard J. Ellis informs us in his thoughtful new book, "To the Flag," American schoolchildren have not always participated in this ritualized declaration of loyalty. The pledge itself was composed only in 1892, by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist from Massachusetts; not until the 20th century did American flags became standard equipment at public schools. The wording of the pledge also has changed, as has the salute that accompanies it: Until World War II, the salute was sometimes military (rather than today's hand-over-heart pose) and occasionally included an outstretched arm that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Nazi salutes.

"To the Flag" is an effort not simply to chronicle these changes but also to explain why we have the pledge and how it came to occupy such a central place in our public culture. There is, after all, something odd about a proud and self-confident nation demanding that children repeatedly intone what one skeptic has called a "forced loyalty oath." According to Ellis, the history of the pledge reflects not self-confidence but its opposite -- a shifting array of American anxieties about immigration, freedom, materialism and radicalism.

Written for the National Columbian Public School Celebration of 1892, a commemoration of the discovery of America, the pledge was originally designed to affirm both the unity of the post-Civil War republic ("one nation indivisible") and core American values ("liberty and justice for all") in an era of rampant materialism and growing inequality. At the same time, it was closely linked to efforts to promote the "American spirit" in the face of a flood of allegedly undesirable immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. These anxieties about immigration and the perceived need to imbue immigrants with loyalty to the United States fueled the early-20th-century drive to require flags and pledges in the public schools; repeatedly pledging allegiance would somehow "Americanize" the young and inoculate them against the disease of radicalism. (Notably, the South, with fewer immigrants and lingering attachments to another flag, came to this movement late, but Ellis, unaccountably, tells us little about the history of the pledge there.)

Not surprisingly, the impulse to display and inculcate patriotism was further reinforced by the two world wars and the Cold War: Congress added the phrase "under God" to the pledge in 1954 to underscore the critical difference between our God-fearing nation and its communist foes.

The principal storyline in the legal history of the pledge has involved the efforts of local and state governments to require public school students and teachers to recite the pledge daily or weekly. Whether state legislators and school boards genuinely believed that repetitive recitation would nurture patriotic sentiments is difficult to gauge, but, predictably enough, not everyone in this large and diverse country has welcomed mandatory pledge laws. In the 1930s, Jehovah's Witnesses refused to utter the pledge because they thought it amounted to idolatry; some students in the 1960s and '70s insisted that they could not affirm that the United States offered "liberty and justice for all"; and civil libertarians, atheists and many more have repeatedly objected that public schools have no business compelling students to say the phrase "under God."

Ellis's account, on the whole, portrays politicians as all too eager to wrap themselves in the flag, with the judiciary (often, but not always) serving as a bulwark of reason against the sometimes overheated impulses of patriotism. In the middle of World War II, the Supreme Court, reversing a decision made only a few years earlier, ruled that states could not compel Jehovah's Witnesses -- thousands of whom had been expelled from schools and some of whom had become objects of violence -- to salute the flag. In language still celebrated by defenders of civil liberties, Justice Robert Jackson wrote in the majority opinion that the "fixed star in our constitutional constellation" is that "no official can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion." Magnificently, Jackson added, "To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds."

Jackson's words, of course, are as relevant in the era of the Patriot Act as they were during World War II. Indeed, the best chapters of "To the Flag" constitute a timely and engaging meditation on the public culture of patriotism in the United States. Ellis approvingly notes the moving scenes that took place across the nation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when countless groups of Americans gathered to spontaneously and emphatically recite the pledge; one observer of a high school recorded the absence of the "eye-rolling and groans" that had previously accompanied the recitation.

At the same time, Ellis is skeptical of efforts to embed displays of patriotism in partisan politics or to make them compulsory -- an impulse that some politicians find difficult to resist. He cites the example of Jesse Ventura, who as governor of Minnesota vetoed a 2002 mandatory school pledge bill, even though it allowed individual students and teachers to decline to participate. Ventura, a former Navy SEAL, declared that he was vetoing the bill because "patriotism comes from the heart. Patriotism is voluntary. It is a feeling of loyalty and allegiance that is the result of knowledge and belief." It is hard not to sympathize with Ventura's viewpoint; but a year after the maverick governor left office, his successor, to great public applause, signed a nearly identical bill into law.