Loud and Proud: The Pledge of Allegiance

Book Review by Charles Davenport Jr.

A few months ago, I experienced a “Chris Matthews moment” of my own. A giddy
Matthews, you’ll recall, informed a television audience during post-speech analysis
that Barack Obama’s remarks sent a chill up his leg. The source of my spine-tingling
sensation was not President Obama, but the Pledge of Allegiance, recited in unison and
with uncommon zeal in a unique forum: a public school. Not just any public school, mind
you, but a school which takes in newly-arrived immigrants from all over the world and
teaches them to speak English.

I arrived at the Newcomers School in Greensboro, North Carolina early in the day,
and as I waited in the main office for Principal Jake Henry, a couple of young girls
carried on a conversation in Spanish. Moments later, the younger of the two took to the
PA system and led the entire school in the Pledge of Allegiance—in English. Echoing
through the halls was the collective voice of the student body, flawlessly reciting the
flag salute that quickens the pulse of patriots. As a long-time champion of assimilation, I
reveled in the sound of newcomers speaking, in my native tongue, one of the most often-
repeated and patriotic sentences ever written. This was my Chris Matthews moment.

Of course, to many of us, the Pledge is inspirational in every setting. Like-minded
readers—those who do not shrink from public displays of affection for their country–will
thoroughly enjoy The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance, by Jeffrey Owen
Jones and Peter Meyer. From this volume we learn surprising facts about the author of
the Pledge; about the forces that inspired the writing of a new salute; and of course, about
the many controversies the Pledge has spawned, from local school boards to the U.S.
Supreme Court.

The authors take us on a journey that begins in Boston, on a sweltering August evening
in 1892. Francis Bellamy, a writer for a wildly-popular periodical called the Youth’s
Companion, raced a deadline of the following morning, before which he was obligated to
pen a new salute. The Pledge was to be utilized at the Chicago World’s Fair in October,
as part of a national celebration of Columbus Day. Bellamy, a former clergyman and self-
proclaimed socialist, submitted the following, which was published in the Companion on
September 8: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands—one
nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.” (Bellamy would be haunted by the
fact that much of the writing contributed by Companion staff, including the Pledge, was
published without attribution to the writer: for several years, others claimed authorship of
his work.)

Jones and Meyer have written a volume bursting at the seams with historical facts,
many of which, I suspect, are unknown to the average citizen. For several years, for
instance, recitation of the Pledge was accompanied by a Nazi-like, raised-arm salute
which became highly controversial in the 1940s. Readers will also discover that, prior to
Bellamy’s Pledge, there was another commonly used salute—a shorter tribute by Colonel

George Balch, a Civil War veteran and New York City teacher: “I give my heart and my
hand to my country—one country, one language, one flag.”

Conservative readers, however, should be forewarned that Jones and Meyer frequently
indulge in political asides—most of them irrelevant to the Pledge–which reveal their
liberal perspective. Here is their take, for example, on the addition of “under God” to the
Pledge in the 1950s: “Anticommunism had become a national obsession, and vestiges of
the paranoia stoked by Senator Joseph McCarthy still lingered.”

Liberals have assured us for decades that “McCarthyism” was nothing more than
a “witch hunt,” but if so, it was a very successful quest for witches: according to “Venona
project” documents released in 1995, approximately 349 Americans were actively
engaged in espionage in the 1950s. The Venona project began in 1943, when the Army’s
Signal Intelligence Service began intercepting and decoding messages between Moscow
and its agents inside the U.S. McCarthyism, then, was actually quite effective.

The authors also write that there is a “general phenomenon” of citizens who may or
may not recite the Pledge, “depending on [their] feelings about the political situation
at the moment.” This may be true among progressives and socialists, but conservatives
proudly recite the Pledge at every opportunity, regardless of the political situation.

Despite these unfortunate blemishes, The Pledge is an informative and entertaining
volume, one that I highly recommend.

The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance
by Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer
St. Martin’s Press/188 pages/$23.99

Charles Davenport Jr. is a freelance writer in Greensboro, NC. Contact him via e-mail:
cdavenportjr@hotmail.com

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One Comment on “Loud and Proud: The Pledge of Allegiance”


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