With Liberty and Justice for All

Twenty-six states now require the pledge of allegiance to be recited in public schools. Some states require schools to reflect on the history and meaning of that pledge. Reflection would be instructive, since the story of the pledge reveals the fears and strengths of this nation.

At the end of the 19th century, millions of immigrants poured into a country beset with social unrest. Many people believed America needed some symbol to tie the nation's peoples together. The first widely used pledge of allegiance was written by a Colonel Balch of New York. It was a simple pledge of fealty and devotion: "I give my heart and my hand to my country -- one country, one language, one flag."

In 1892, Francis Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister who had been booted out of his Boston church because of his fiery socialist sermons, composed a pledge that expressed loyalty not only to a nation but to an idea: "Liberty and justice for all."

"I pledge Allegiance to my Flag, the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." (Bellamy added the word "to" before "the Republic" a few days after the Pledge's first publication in Youth's Companion in September 1892.)

According to John W. Baer, author of "The Pledge of Allegiance: A Centennial History, 1892-1992," Bellamy wanted to add the word "equality" to the Pledge but was "mindful of the social climate regarding women and minorities."

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison urged all schools to adopt the Pledge. Many did.

After World War I, millions of immigrants who had been unable to travel to the U.S. during the conflict again landed on our shores, sparking a xenophobic reaction that resulted in, for the first time, sharp limits on immigration. Organizations like the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution lobbied to change the phrase "my flag" to "the flag of the United States of America."

"They were afraid that some of these little kids with anarchist or Communist parents, when they said 'My flag' would be thinking of the black flag of anarchy or the red flag of communism," says Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester Massachusetts.

In 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that school boards could compel students to recite the pledge. "National unity is the basis of national security," wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter. "The flag is a symbol of our national unity."

Three years later, the Court reversed itself. Why? Perhaps the Court realized that at the height of a war against totalitarian regimes, a central feature of which was a slavish devotion to national symbols, compelling devotion to our flag was inappropriate. It contradicted the very spirit of the pledge, "With liberty and justice for all."

During that war the nation made other changes. The stiff-armed, arms-out flag salute fell out of favor because of its resemblance to the Nazi salute. In 1942, to prevent the cheapening of the flag, the American Flag Code prohibited its use in advertising or on any disposable item.

A decade later, the pledge was altered once more. The change was spurred by a sermon delivered on Feb. 7, 1954 by George M. Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. With President Eisenhower sitting in the front pew the Reverend declared, "Apart from the mention of the phrase 'the United States of America' it could be the pledge of any republic. I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow. Russia is also a republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship. Russia also claims to be indivisible."

Three days later a bill was introduced in Congress to add the words "under God." Baer recalls that "Congressmen said Communists would feel very uncomfortable saying the pledge, because they were atheists." Eisenhower signed the bill into law on Flag Day, June 14.

Bellamy's 22-word pledge had now grown to 31 words. Yet six of his original words still best express its central sentiment: "With liberty and justice for all."

David Morris is Co-founder and Vice President of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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