I Pledge Allegiance

Have you ever wondered about the history of the Pledge of Allegiance? I know I did after coming across the photograph to the left.

This image comes from a collection of photographs and documents that U.C. Cooperative Extension agricultural advisors in San Joaquin County gave to the Museum some time ago. It shows a group of women participating in a retreat that the University sponsored in the Tahoe area. The year is 1929 and the ladies are wives and daughters of San Joaquin County farmers. Writing on the back of the photograph verifies that they are, in fact, pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States.

These are not ordinary salutes. Look closely and you’ll recognize one stage in a ritual recommended by Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), Baptist minister, Christian Socialist, and author of the Pledge of Allegiance. The so-called "Bellamy Salute" went like this:

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all." At the words, "to my Flag," the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side. (Youth’s Companion 65 (1892): 446-47)

Bellamy’s Salute dates from 1892, the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. In September of that year, Bellamy published an article in the Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine, suggesting adoption of the Salute and Pledge to promote national unity. The idea caught on, and public schools started to use them the next month. However, the U.S. Congress didn’t officially recognize them until half a century later, in June 1942.

The Museum’s photograph offers a glimpse into an often-forgotten era. In December 1942, just half a year after official recognition, the United States abandoned this version of the Salute due to obvious similarities its final stage shared with a common Nazi greeting. Then, twelve years later, pressure from a cluster of religious groups convinced Congress to insert the words "under God" into the otherwise-secular text. The Pledge and Salute we use today reflect these and other minor changes.

Sometimes we assume that American’s most venerated institutions and rituals have existed unchanged since the founding of the Republic. However, this photograph points toward something else: a valued ritual relatively young in age and a delivery and message that have changed significantly over time.

Looking at this photo reminds me to expect the unexpected whenever I explore the past.

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