Rituals and habits are important parts of our lives. They create a mindset before beginning worthwhile ventures and they provide closure for journey’s end. Graduation day has its gowns and speeches and diploma handing. Birthdays have their cakes and singing. Our school day has the Pledge of Allegiance.
When I first started teaching at my high school, there was no saying of the Pledge. There was a flag in nearly every room, but each day started with the morning announcements and no reference to the flag hanging quietly and dignified in the corner of the room. Then came September 11, 2001 and America was searching for its identity in a time of crisis and uncertainty. Many Americans were feeling patriotic. And in July of 2003, Governor George Ryan signed Senate Bill 1634, which amends the state school code so that “students in secondary schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis.”
Besides not liking being forced (by a corrupt governor no less) to do this, there were other reasons I did not stand up and support this pledge immediately. The United States had invaded a sovereign nation in March of 2003. This was an invasion and war that I never supported, but I was surrounded by a whirlwind of patriotism that demanded military action was a necessary course of action. Indeed most of our Congressmen felt compelled to authorize this slaughter for fear of being considered unpatriotic. In brief, it was blind patriotism and I felt that forcing teachers and students to stand for the pledge was one more blinder for the patriotic horse.
And then I was reminded of the history of the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1892, in accordance with the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge as a salute to the original ideals of the American republic.
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.'
His original Pledge read as follows: 'I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.' He considered placing the word, 'equality,' in his Pledge, but knew that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans.
In 1923 and 1924 the National Flag Conference, under the 'leadership of the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the Pledge's words, 'my Flag,' to 'the Flag of the United States of America.' Bellamy disliked this change, but his protest was ignored.
In 1954, Congress after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, added the words, 'under God,' to the Pledge. The Pledge was now both a patriotic oath and a public prayer.
Bellamy's granddaughter said he also would have resented this second change. He had been pressured into leaving his church in 1891 because of his socialist sermons. In his retirement in Florida, he stopped attending church because he disliked the racial bigotry he found there.
What follows is Bellamy's own account of some of the thoughts that went through his mind in August, 1892, as he picked the words of his Pledge:
It began as an intensive communing with salient points of our national history, from the Declaration of Independence onwards; with the makings of the Constitution...with the meaning of the Civil War; with the aspiration of the people...
The true reason for allegiance to the Flag is the 'republic for which it stands.' ...And what does that vast thing, the Republic mean? It is the concise political word for the Nation - the One Nation which the Civil War was fought to prove. To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible, as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches. And its future?
Just here arose the temptation of the historic slogan of the French Revolution which meant so much to Jefferson and his friends, 'Liberty, equality, fraternity.' No, that would be too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization. But we as a nation do stand square on the doctrine of liberty and justice for all...
If the Pledge's historical pattern repeats, its words will be modified during this decade. Below are two possible changes.
Some pro-life advocates recite the following slightly revised Pledge: '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, born and unborn.'
A few liberals recite a slightly revised version of Bellamy's original Pledge: 'I pledge allegiance to my Flag, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with equality, liberty and justice for all.'
So, although the words in the Pledge have changed and the meaning has sometimes been forgotten, the importance remains. We are fortunate to live in a country that allows a certain degree of freedom. We are fortunate to be, at the very least, citizens striving for equality, justice and freedom. These ideals must be achieved through education. And we are also fortunate for that. Our well-being as individuals depends upon our education. Our ability to achieve happiness depends upon it. So whether you recite Bellemy’s original Pledge or you add God or equality to it, what matters is the ritual of giving thanks that you are about to embark on self-discovery that is only possible in an unoppressive country with public education. Let the Pledge be a time to reflect on that and get into the proper mindset for you to fully take advantage of that. I am grateful to be here with you today. I am happy that you are able to be here and I want you to feel thankful that you may achieve happiness through the quest for equality, justice and freedom.