Tuesday, June 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Decoding "Pledge": history of flag oath

Special to The Seattle Times

"To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance"
by Richard J. Ellis
University Press of Kansas, 297 pp., $29.95

The Pledge of Allegiance was promoted for decades before any government adopted it. It was not even the only flag oath; others had their day and died. The pledge achieved immortality by achieving a critical momentum when Americans were worried about war, immigration and radicalism.

The story is told in "To the Flag" by Richard Ellis, professor of history at Willamette University. He approaches his topic with probably as much objectivity as anyone could.

The pledge was written in 1892 as a patriotic oath for children in the public schools. It has become part of American life because it appealed to so many others than the man who wrote it.

That was Francis Bellamy. He was a former Baptist preacher and an employee of Youth's Companion, a magazine of 400,000 circulation. Bellamy wrote the pledge at a time of nostalgia for the Civil War, and a worry that the country was coming unmoored by commercialism and immigration. A movement arose that every public school have an American flag. The magazine, which had been part of that movement, asked Bellamy to write a ceremonial oath for the 400th anniversary celebration of the landing of Christopher Columbus.

Bellamy wrote: "I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The "indivisible" was a reference to the Civil War — and the pledge was promoted by Union veterans and spread first outside the old Confederacy. The "liberty and justice for all" stated, with bumper-sticker brevity, why one might love America.

Though Bellamy was a socialist, there wasn't any socialism in the pledge. There was no "under God." It was strictly patriotic, which fit the needs of the veterans, educators and politicians who promoted it. Their motives, Ellis writes, were conservative — to affirm American values as those values seemed to be threatened.

The first state to require that all children in the public schools say the pledge was Washington. It was done three months after the end of World War I, in February 1919, the same month as the Seattle general strike, which had spread fears of a communist takeover.

Other states mandated the pledge in the 1920s, and legal battles began over it. One of the harshest fates befell a 9-year-old Bellingham boy, Russell Tremain. Following his parents' religious faith, the boy refused to say the pledge, and in 1925 was expelled from public school. When the family did not back down, a judge ordered the boy put in a state home. The state kept him for more than two years, forbade his parents to visit him and began the process of putting him up for adoption. In November 1927 a different judge restored him to his parents, who sent him to a private school.

Twice the question of whether a child could be forced to say the pledge went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first case, in 1940, came when German tanks were storming across France, and President Franklin Roosevelt had declared a national emergency — and the answer was yes, the pledge could be mandated. The second case came in 1943, when the Allies were winning. The court, wanting to distinguish America from totalitarian states, reversed itself. To this day, no person may be forced to say the pledge.

The book also contains the story of the two times the pledge was changed. Both had to do with radicalism. The first change, in the early 1920s, was to say "the flag of the United States of America" rather than "my flag," so that no one could privately pledge to a different flag. The addition of "under God" came in the early 1950s to distinguish America from atheistic communists. "Under God" is now defended as "ceremonial deism" — a phrase with no religious content — but, Ellis writes, "That is certainly not what those who added the words intended them to mean."

Toward the end of the book comes the story of how the pledge became a weapon of the Republicans in the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush. It will be familiar to most readers, but by then they will be able to place it in the context of the preceding century.

One thing lacking from this book is a consideration of whether the pledge works. Does it help turn children into patriots? For all the dark corners of this story, I think the author's answer would be that it does. If it didn't, people wouldn't be so passionate about supporting it, and a professor wouldn't be writing such an entertaining book about it.

Bruce Ramsey:

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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