What Are We Pledging Allegiance to?

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

I have pledged my allegiance to my country thousands of times as a child mostly in a mindless mumbling of memorized mumbo jumbo that was the mandatory exercise every morning in my governmentally funded school. The tradition was passed down to us over the past hundred thirty years or so where we were told to begin by placing our hands over our hearts. Then we were ready to intone those solemn words with this gesture of deep sincerity but at the time, in our youthful obliviousness, we were just making the sounds with our mouths because we were told to.

Education prior to college was all about creating little patriots after all. Although there were indications of some kind of heart of darkness throbbing beneath the whitewashed historical recounting of our nation’s past, it was impossible to clearly see the monstrosity when most of the evidence was surgically removed. College was where the scales were lifted from our eyes as we were introduced to the ghastlier underpinnings of our nationhood. It is understandable why this didn’t happen earlier. It’s not the stuff that children can bear.

Despite all those thousands of mornings saying the pledge over and over we were never told the story of who wrote it or why. It wasn’t written from the battlefield by a badly wounded soldier once he caught sight of the war torn American flag. (I picture him with a bandaged forehead leaning on his rifle with his hand over his heart). There was no blood involved. But it’s a story that illustrates that the past, much like the present, is never neat nor concise, and is usually chock full of human folly.

The writer of the pledge was originally attributed to a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy who swore by oath that he wrote it in August of 1892. The reason he had to swear he wrote it is because another person, a 13 year old boy amazingly named Frank E. Bellamy wrote a pledge with virtually the same verbiage two years ahead of Francis’s version. Frank had submitted the pledge to a contest run by a magazine that was created by none other than Francis Bellamy called Youth’s Companion. There was also a newspaper record of students using young Frank Bellamy’s pledge at a high school ceremony on April 30, 1892 which was three months before Francis Bellamy swore he wrote his own pledge.

So, maybe Francis saw Frank’s contest submission then forgot he saw it and subconsciously wrote something very similar. Here is what Francis wrote and published in his magazine on Sept. 8, 1892: “I pledge Allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

Youngster Frank wrote these words two years earlier and submitted them to the Youth’s Companion contest: “I pledge Allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation inseparable, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

Over time additions were made (in particular “under God’’ which wasn’t added until 1954) but the gist of it was written by Francis or Frank, take your pick, and these are the words all citizens of the United States say when they pledge themselves to this country.

Does it matter who wrote the words or why they wrote it? Or didn’t write it but instead maybe plagiarized it? For me, I find it endlessly interesting (and somewhat funny) that maybe what has been passed down to us was either written by a minister who stood by his claim all his life that he was its author or was written by some kid, with evidence to the contrary, who wanted to win a contest.

Our lives are shaped by such occurrences. The past doesn’t disappear because it’s in the past. It gradates itself across time and becomes the stage for the present. In the same way that my own actions in the lives of my children will inevitably infuse themselves into how my children parent, for better or worse. What comes down the pike rolls right on into the present. The pillars on which this nation stands are really only people doing what people do. We can immortalize them, elevate them in order to feel better about ourselves believing our footing is on their sturdy upright shoulders and by belonging to this group we are special in the world because we happened to be born here. In reality, as we try to balance ourselves on the shoulders of our imperfect forebears we will find it more wobbly than we care to admit.

The real truth is that we are only people. Our forefathers and foremothers were only people. For better or worse. And this is true across the board no matter what nation you call home. What was done before you is a legacy that elevates but also hobbles alongside you. There are ghosts all around us wondering if we know they had a moment before we did.

This helps me, believe it or not, to not despair. My youngest son recently threw himself on my bed and exclaimed, “We’re doomed.” He expressed his desire to move to another country. In light of recent events I do have to say I felt a gut punch, maybe not as wrenching as in 2016 but something landed in a way that was visceral.

Whatever people are capable of will happen. People can awaken as well as go to sleep. Sometimes people can recognize that the pendulum is swinging way too far to one side. The collective unconscious is saying, “Whoa, now.” Even for those who participated in swinging it in that direction. If there is an overarching arc of goodness holding us up, keeping us accountable, urging us toward our better angels then maybe what feels like utter darkness is just what comes before dawn. (Maybe not. Must be watchful).

Since the origin story of the pledge of allegiance isn’t clear, let’s just put it this way. In the most human way possible some words came down from (let’s say) Mount Rushmore and said something that you and I could get behind and pledge ourselves to unreservedly. Despite who wrote it or why, the words express a belief in who we can be, spoke of the ideals we are aiming for. When I pledge my loyalty it is to the nation we can become if we don’t take this grand experiment for granted but instead continually attempt to move us closer to our most cherished ideals.

So, hand over heart.

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.

With liberty and justice for all, y’all.

Imagine that.

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