Revising the Pledge

03 Jul 2005
July 3, 2005

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

The Original Pledge of Allegiance
Francis Bellamy, 1892

As July 4th drew near, real estate agents began their annual advertising campaign by placing small American flags (along with their business cards) on every neighbor’s front lawn. Despite my conversation with the agent who initiated this trend on our street two years ago, a flag appeared by our driveway Friday afternoon. However, this year my “flag skirmishes” with industrious real estate agents seem less important than they did in the past.

In the post-9/11, post-Presidential election, and present Iraqi War era, Independence Day has become more than just a day for parades, fireworks, and patriotic ardor. In the last few years it’s a reminder of how divided a country we really are. Restating this as optimistically as I can, it’s become a day to remember the huge range of thought that defines our American psyche.

With Sandra Day O’Conner’s resignation from the Supreme Court, on this Independence Day this divide is overt and full of angst. Both sides of the political spectrum, liberal to conservative, and each with their resident subgroups, gather their forces, forge alliances, and devise strategies to maintain their vision of One Nation Indivisible.

On this July 4th I wanted to investigate the origin and meaning of one of the most ubiquitous of American patriotic emblems, The Pledge of Allegiance. And I wanted to see how germane its words were at this point in our history.


• • •

Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, wrote the original Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. Bellamy was a Christian Socialist and his Pledge was written to express the ideals put forth by his cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the American socialist utopian novels Looking Backward and Equality. In his The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History, Dr. John W. Baer writes: “Francis Bellamy in his sermons and lectures and Edward Bellamy in his novels and articles described in detail how the middle class could create a planned economy with political, social and economic equality for all. The government would run a peace time economy similar to our present military industrial complex.”

A radical notion then. But just as radical now, especially given our contemporary political climate.

To those of you outside the U.S., this pledge is often recited at the opening of official events and is repeated by every student every morning and in every public school throughout this country. But of course, no youngster really understands what these words mean. The Pledge is often open to ironic childhood interpretations as in “One Nation Invisible…” My 7 year old can almost repeat its words verbatim (Quicktime, 1.7 MB). But she has no idea why she repeats them every school morning.

Given the Pledge’s origins, it’s interesting to see how it has been embraced and rewritten over the years. From the start its words were controversial. Bellamy wanted to add the word “equality” but he knew this concept would be unacceptable to certain factions opposed to equality for women and African-Americans.

“Dr. Mortimer Adler, American philosopher and last living founder of the Great Books program at Saint John’s College, has analyzed these ideas in his book, The Six Great Ideas. He argues that the three great ideas of the American political tradition are equality, liberty and justice for all. Justice mediates between the often conflicting goals of liberty and equality.”

Dr. John W. Baer

In a 1981 interview with Bill Moyers Adler discusses these concepts. They “are the ideas that relate you and me, relate people in society. Their equality, their freedom to relate to one another, their just or unjust treatment of one another –they are the ideas that govern our actions. They are the ideas by which we evaluate governments and societies and laws.”

• • •

As I listened to my children recite the Pledge, I started thinking how ideas about our country are cultivated in our children (and ultimately passed down from one generation to the next): Every morning our teachers would ask all of us to stand and turn to the American flag, which hangs in every classroom. Then they would instruct us to place “right hand over heart, ready begin:”

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.

Pledging allegiance to anything seems so anachronistic these days, like a knight pledging fidelity to his king. Pledging allegiance to a flag has always seemed a bit abstract, even when I was a child. As an adult I understand the flag represents important ideals. But, given the overweighted importance the flag itself has been given these days (with the constant ferment over Congressional flag burning ammendments), shouldn’t we pledge our lives to the actual acts rather than to the symbols? Wouldn’t that make it more real and less prone to rhetorical misuse?

What if I was given the opportunity to rewrite the Pledge in a manner that better fit contemporary American life at the beginning of the 21st-century? What would I think are important ideas to convey? In today’s edition of the Washington Post various people were asked to revise our Pledge of Allegiance. Without looking at their rewrites I decided to try this exercise myself. Here goes:

I pledge to work diligently for the idea that all people are created equal.
And to this country, whatever one’s political inclination, one Nation but many spirits we believe in Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all.

I like the idea of working for something (and working hard). Restating one of the defining statements of our Declaration of Independence as something to work for connects me with the principles upon which this country was founded. But also recognizing that diversity of opinion is part of this definition reminds me that disagreements don’t have to divide a people.

Given my reticence to accept religion as part of our government, I like the idea of conveying the more spiritial nature of humankind within this statement. It’s a fitting replacement for One Nation Under God, which was added in 1954 at the height of the Cold War. Do you think the Religious Right might be able to embrace this? What about the Political Left?

I can’t forget Baer’s interpretation of Dr. Adler’s words: Justice mediates between the often conflicting goals of liberty and equality. So it is fitting that in my restatement of the Pledge I should include all three of these important ideas.

What if every child every day and in every classroom across this land recited these words (or something similar)? What if we could connect patriotism with this version of the Pledge? Would we be a better country? We certainly would be a different one. And the ideals upon which this country was founded would be more clearly stated.

This is how I want others to evaluate our society. If George Bush is going to continue to export our democratic ways overseas I’d feel much more inclined to convey them this way.

Related Article:Devoted to God, but not the Pledge” (Washington Post, July 4, 2005)

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3 replies
  1. Elenita says:

    Just a quick correction, Jeff: reciting the Pledge in public schools is, I think, a matter left up to local governments. I attended public schools in New York City (K-12), and I learned the Pledge but never actually recited it, not once. Meanwhile, friends in various suburbs had to recite it every day (though some were given the option of sitting it out).
    Happy Fourth, Jeff. I’ll keep your revised Pledge in mind while I go to celebrations tomorrow. The words contained in it are well worth remembering.

  2. Scott Butki says:

    Great piece, Jeff, and it fits nicely with a piece I just put up.
    Have a happy Fourth.

  3. Nina says:

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking.
    I display the flag precisely because of the divide going on now. Despite that divide, and despite the wreck George is making of our ideals I still believe that deep down we have something different and worthwhile here. I know that some of my friends and relatives will disapprove of displaying the flag. I do it because it may spark a conversation.
    I don’t think it matters much how the Pledge is worded since it drops off of those of us who have become “citizens of the world.” I don’t know if/how it affects the others.
    We have a difficult job in this nation inviting people from all over the world to join us here while still trying to stick to the ideals of liberté, egalité, and fraternité as passed down to us from the French.
    It has taken George to turn me away from national politics and put my energy towards a personal spiritual growth. I describe myself as going back to my hippy period, but attire aside, I really am trying to better myself, treat others with more compassion, and learn these things so well that they become my new habits. No more complaining about politics.
    I don’t know if I will ever vote again. I no longer feel “of this world” in a lot of ways.

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