Pledging Allegiance

Many years ago, I met a guy about my age who was visiting mutual friends in the US from South Africa. He was studying architecture and we walked around Washington, DC together, pretty much looking at statues and buildings. He remarked that, compared to the other world capitals he’d visited, DC’s buildings were the most self-consciously monumental, or something like that.

He asked me why I thought that might be true.

And I said I thought it was because, relative to European cities, we had such a short history, we needed to create purposefully the gravitas their capitals had by virtue of their longevity. “So, it’s to cover over your insecurity, then?” he asked. “Yeah, basically.” I replied.

Reminds me of the time I visited the farm in Greece that’s been owned by my family for generations. While showing us around, my great-uncle George pointed at an old shed and said with a teasing laugh, “See that building? It’s older than your whole country.”

In 1892, as part of America’s public school celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the West Indies, Francis Bellamy, an American Christian Socialist, wrote the first pledge of allegiance and it went like this:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The pledge wasn’t adopted as any sort of nationwide standard until 1942. Since that time, the pledge of allegiance has undergone changes. The most significant being the addition of the phrase “under God,” as a contrast to “Godless communism,” in 1954.

The pledge, as most say it today, goes like this:

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.

The salute has also changed since the early days. The earliest version I could find appears in the top photo (above). A bizarre Nazi-esque salute was used in the 1940s (below). Today, while those in uniform hold a standard salute, the United States Flag Code calls for civilians to hold their right hand over the heart.

One might well ask why we Americans pledge our allegiance to a flag to begin with. I mean, specifically, why a flag? Why don’t we pledge our allegiance to the nation? The republic itself? Our form of government? Each other? Certain principles?

Why a flag? A flag is a tangible thing. It is just dyed cloth. Thinking people can’t really pledge their allegiance to a piece of cloth.

The flag, and not some more suitable abstract concept, was purposefully chosen by Bellamy as the object of our collective allegiance, because in 1892, the country, then less than 30 years after the Civil War, was deeply divided over very significant matters. Bellamy wanted to highlight a certain set of commonly held American principles without explicitly listing them because there wasn’t the consensus on them necessary to support a common list. One example: he initially included the term “equality” in his pledge but decided against it because the country wasn’t fully behind equality for people of all races.

I believe we still use pledge to a flag today for much the same reason. If we pledged to a certain set of commonly-held principles, what would those be? These days, I can’t imagine reaching any level of national consensus on much. So, we’ll continue this bizarre practice of swearing our loyalty to cloth. And yet, because of our national insecurities, of which there are legion, we cling with a death-grip to anachronisms like the pledge, and simultaneously use it like a war club to attack those who don’t publicly exhibit adequate patriotism.

The pledge of allegiance has become little more than the equivalent of the red, white and blue Dacron bunting that gets unpacked on holidays to festoon sales at shopping malls. I suggest we scrap it now and have a real national dialog on what matters: what it really means to be an American and what we stand for as a people.

I’d pledge allegiance to that.