University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Story of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag

Volume VIII · Winter 1953 · Number 2
The Story of The Pledge of Allegiance to The Flag

It is a frequent if tragic jest that so few of our hundred millions and over of patriotic Americans can repeat all the words of even the first verse of the "Star Spangled Banner."

But there is one patriotic form of words which untold millions, who went through the public schools at any time since the early nineties, can say without hesitation over a word. It is the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag:

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

Since 1892 public-school children have daily or weekly stood on their feet, facing the flag, and said it in their treble unison. Allowing for the many exceptions, it may be said safely that at least in every primary- and grammar-school grade where the teacher feels it a duty to teach patriotism, or where the Board of Education has authorized patriotic training, this pledge has been part of the regular school ritual.

Once, during the Spanish-American War, at the evening guard mount as the flag was lowered, the writer heard a company of Pittsburgh volunteers, led by a top sergeant, repeat it as they stood stiffly at salute. When asked why, the sergeant remarked, "It was that kind of stuff a few years ago in school that made us fellows feel we had a country, and that's why we enlisted."

Twenty years later, at a community Fourth of July observance in 1918, at the time our young men were fighting in France, as the flag went up the halliards, the leader of the meeting said to the audience, "Let us unite in the old pledge of allegiance we learned in school," and the great crowd of adults voiced it back without hesitation.

More recently, at a meeting of Boy Scouts, presided over by the veteran founder of that organization, Colonel Dan Beard, the writer heard the thousand or more, standing at attention, shout "I pledge allegiance to my flag" and the rest of the words. In answer to his questions, Colonel Beard said: "Why, that's said by the Boy Scouts every time they have a roundup, big or little--and for that matter, by the Pioneer Girls and the Campfire Girls too. it's the A B C of training for citizenship. It was adopted from the public schools when the Scouts first started in 1905 -- they didn't have to learn it; it's their regular hurrah for flag and country. I've heard it for nearly twenty years, from the top of Michigan to the toe of Florida, and from Montana back to New York again. The youngsters of every race say it and it makes Americans of them."

What are the elements in it which have made it survive through generation after generation of school classes? What is the grip in it? Nobody can tell. In the survival and popularity of a national song the tune plays a major part. But the tuneless twenty-three words of this school pledge have no such reinforcement. When you analyze it you find a mouthful of orotund words; most of them abstract terms -- a bunch of ideas rather than concrete names. While it has a rather stately rhythm which may make it fairly easy to swing into, yet it is a plunge into historical doctrines and aspirations.

In that latter characteristic of national doctrine and aspiration, this pledge would seem far better adapted to educated adults than to children. Yet somehow it has taken hold of the imagination of the successive school generations before they can possibly understand its historical significance. They shout it with shrill enthusiasm: and they regard it kindly as they grow up.

Inasmuch as this pledge of allegiance is now a national institution, the story of its origin should be fully told. The reasons why this story has not hitherto been made public may be a bit difficult for many people to appreciate.

An ancient publishing company of Boston some two or more generations ago formulated for itself a rigid policy of impersonality. From its great editor-proprietor, down the line of its officials, no individual's name appeared in its print. The fine ideals of the publication were to be its only identification; any distinguishable thing done by any member of the staff was understood to be as submerged as the name and personality of the modest man at the head of it all.

That publication was The Youth's Companion, and the remarkable but self-retiring man who conceived its idealism and shaped its course for several decades was Daniel S. Ford, who was not only a master editor but a most farseeing philanthropist and patriot. If Mr. Ford's determination was to submerge his own name in what he brought to pass, some might regard it as rather a super-earthly rule, but none of his men failed to respect its quality and none ever dreamed of breaking loose on his own hook.

One of those men, a nephew of Mr. Ford, whose name was James B. Upham, conceived and carried out (with Mr. Ford's encouragement) a patriotic movement which was to prove of mighty significance. His name was never publicly attached to it, but he was big enough to find his reward in the results he saw before he died.

The time when Upham conceived his organized revival of patriotism was ripe, and also portentous. At the beginning of the nineties, single-heartedness in national feeling was at a low ebb. Too many countercurrents were mixing in public attention. It was the period when the "nimble dollar" had begun to be an obsession. Big business enterprises following the mental activity of the Civil War were bewildering people's thoughts. Railroads, steel, oil, and other monopolies, with new waterings of stock, filled the imagination.

On the other hand, the menace of the newly-formed trusts was seen. Labor was organizing with bitter reaction. Books predicting revolution, like Looking Backward and Caesar's Column, were being absorbed with avidity. The "single tax" idea had gathered a vast following. Then, on top of all this, the mugwump doctrines of independence of party, which had elected Cleveland over Blaine in 1884, were developing into a transcendental theory that the nation itself should take a back seat when compared with the interests of the world. Finally, the essential rightfulness of the compulsory support of the public school by universal taxation was debated; and President Harrison in 1890 made a swing-around-the-circle series of speeches in which he felt it necessary to recall public feeling to a reverence for the "little red schoolhouse" of earlier times.

In all this seething uncertainty, old-fashioned patriotism was having a bad time; it seemed to have lost its dominance. The scattered efforts of several patriotic organizations to stir up love for the flag as the sign of nationalism often were "damned by faint praise." The writer vividly recalls a typical editorial of that period in the mugwump Boston Herald entitled, "The Worship of a Textile Fabric." That editorial, however, had a far different effect than intended, for it roused the peaceful James B. Upham to a grim determination to make the school children of the country understand that their country was first of all, and that the flag was worthy of their highest love.

When the writer entered The Youth's Companion in 1891, he was assigned to Upham's department, which was promotion of circulation. Mr. Ford remarked, "James is very much interested in a patriotic propaganda to get the public school children to raise flags over their schools. It's a good thing. It would be contrary to our policy to push it very much in our editorials, but James sees how it can be done through his promotion work. Perhaps you would enjoy helping him in it."

When Upham began to explain his idea and method, his eyes had the gleam of a prophet. He pointed out that the old patriotism had fallen to a low ebb. The love of country which had been a passion when the Republic was new, and which had reached its climax at the Civil War, had gradually become enfeebled. Big business enterprises had absorbed the people's thought. The simple patriotic idealism of the former generations was being forgotten in the current materialism. That old spirit must be revived. The place for the revival to begin was in the public schools. The new generation must be taught an intense love of country.

"When I was a boy in the little red schoolhouse," he said, "every Friday some boy declaimed Webster's speeches about the Union and the forefathers. We were brought up in the very atmosphere of patriotism. Are the children getting that culture now? No. We must start it up again. The flag will do it. I want to see the flag over every schoolhouse. What is more, I want the children to put it there themselves. I want them to raise the money to buy their flag. If they do that, the Boards of Education will give the staff. When we get that well started we'll go further. We will get up a flag-raising exercise for the children to join in saying. What a great thing that will be.

"Think of it. A flag over every school to remind the children that they belong to the nation as well as the town. Then, the children every day uniting before the flag in patriotic exercises which will stir up their love of country."

That was the programmed work actually undertaken in 1891. It was never talked about in the newspapers. It was never advertised outside of the promotion notices of The Youth's Companion itself. It was a still hunt, one school after another. The usual method was to offer to any pupil in any school, free, a hundred cards on which were printed the words:

This Certificate, representing a 10 cent contribution, entitles the holder to One Share in the patriotic influence of the School Flag.

Those hundred cards at ten cents each covered the wholesale cost of the good-sized, substantial flag.

This frank little scheme worked amazingly. In a year's time it was estimated that thirty thousand flags had been raised in front of schoolhouses from Maine to California. By that time the educational papers were talking about the movement and teachers' conventions were helping it along. Various patriotic organizations recognized it.

But for some reason neither Upham nor his associate, the present writer, had evolved the right kind of a flag exercise. In default of this, most schools used a pretty but childish form of words invented by an ex-military officer, "I give my hand and heart to my country, one nation, one language, one flag."

Requests were received that a more significant and impressive formula be produced. This, however, was not worked out until the next stage of Upham's patriotic program was undertaken. As a practical dreamer he was an extraordinary type. All that he devised proved practical, but he dreamed it and kept dreaming it before he made it concrete. Almost daily he would come into this writer's office and rehearse his expanding dreams of promoting love of country. That is why it is possible to repeat here, virtually in his own words, what he said thirty years ago.

"Now, next year, 1892, you know," he would say, "is the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus discovering America. It will be celebrated everywhere on October 12. But you can fancy what most of those celebrations are likely to be; parades of the militia, the fire department, civic organizations, and the 'horribles,' then fireworks. What I propose is to center those celebrations in every locality in the public schools. Isn't the public school the most representative and truly American institution we have? Wouldn't it be a most tremendous lesson in patriotism if the school pupils should take over that celebration? Let them make it a Flag Day. Let them feel that that is their day, to show to the older folks that they are going to be patriots. I believe it can be done. If we can do it well, it will be one of the biggest services any small lot of men ever did for the next generation of Americans."

The project received the hearty support of Mr. Ford who put behind it the resources of his organization, (excepting any editorial urgency to which he did not wish to commit the paper). The development of the movement was put on the shoulders of the present writer, who was young enough to imagine that the obstacles of general inertia could be overcome by a plunge of enthusiasm. Here the story, accordingly, has to become more personal.

A "Columbus Day Flag Celebration" department, in charge of the present writer, was organized to make the wheels go. Those wheels had a long way to run. For the job was, with eight months for it, to take the idea out of Upham's brain and start it operating in every school district of the country, or as many as possible to make it really national. It meant active cooperation among state, county, and local superintendents of education, with enthusiasm among local teachers and pupils. It meant governmental endorsement and authorization from Congress and the President, down to legislatures and governors, and then down to the municipalities. It meant, quite as much, the stirring up of the people to say that this kind of a flag celebration of Columbus Day was the right thing for their towns. With present-day methods of publicity on vast scales it might have been easy. But in 1892 the modern press-agent processes were unknown, and there was no fund for space advertising. But somehow it was done.

The first step was to get authorization from the top educational officials. So, in February, 1892, Dr. Harris, the U.S. Commissioner of Education, presented our idea to the meeting of the state superintendents of education. They adopted it and named an executive committee of five, (of which the present writer as representing The Youth's Companion was made chairman), to set the movement going and to prepare an official program for the exercises which were to be identical everywhere.

Then the whirl began. Naturally, a campaign of letter writing to every big and little superintendent of education was kept up all the time. Next, the chief men of the Grand Army of the Republic, then in its active prime, were enlisted, and its Commander issued general orders to every post urging them to back the movement in their towns and to detail "escorts of honor" to every school to aid the pupils in raising the flag, thus "handing down the traditions of their patriotism to the young generation."

Interviews were got from leading statesmen, beginning with President Harrison and Grover Cleveland, (who were both to run for the presidency that year), and from the senators and a good many representatives, approving the idea; and these interviews were sent to the state and county papers-to the small papers in "boiler-plates." The political tension was so intense that year that when Grover Cleveland gave the writer a very hearty letter in which he approved making the public schools the backbone of the Columbus Day celebration, and the flag over them as the symbol of their national character, the Western Union Telegraph officials held it from the wires for a day until the Democratic Committee could gets its verification from Mr. Cleveland himself. When Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge, then a young congressman in the lower house, consented to introduce the writer to the President to solicit his endorsement, he remarked, "This may be a ticklish business owing to the coming presidential election. Of course the President has been making a lot of 'little red schoolhouse' speeches to the people, but if he writes a letter to you approving your scheme he will have to be sure that it is used judiciously."

Perhaps due to Mr. Lodge's presence, the President however, raised no questions and willingly added his endorsement to Mr. Cleveland's already published. In this talk with the President, however, the writer betrayed his own deplorable inexperience. After President Harrison had dictated his letter of personal approval, this youthful promoter expressed disappointment that it said nothing about making Columbus Day a national holiday. "Why, sir," said the President, "that can't be done without the authority of Congress."

As we went out Mr. Lodge remarked, "That was going too far."

"I'm sorry if I made a bull, but now we'll have to get Congress to authorize it as a holiday."

"That is absolutely impossible and impracticable," replied Mr. Lodge. "The Senate is Republican and the House is Democratic, and this election year they won't unite on anything that may give Mr. Harrison such a bid for popularity."

But after some weeks of effort in which the writer was getting interviews for publication from the leaders of both Houses, the joint resolution was proposed and passed, authorizing the President to proclaim October 12, Columbus Day, a national holiday with a special reference to its celebration by the public schools. But owing to some obstruction from other quarters, the proclamation hung fire. We had to have it speedily for the climax of the propaganda, as it was already August. At last, learning that the President had just instructed the State Department to prepare the proclamation, the present writer called on Secretary of State Foster to see if it could be hurried up. Mr. Foster properly pointed out the nerve of such a suggestion. The only answer was that in view of the coming election a tactful wording of that proclamation was very important, and that, as the whole thing had been due to his personal conferences with the President and the Congressional leaders, the present visitor might contribute some valuable points of view.

Then the Secretary gave the young man the jolt of his life. "If that is so," he said, "your call is opportune. I'll send you right up to the Third Assistant Secretary, Mr. Cridler, and you can write out the first draft of the proclamation yourself."

Mr. Cridler gave the usual formula, and the caller penned the substance. When he wrote into it the critical words, "On that day let the national flag float over every schoolhouse in the land," he knew his job was accomplished; and when, next day, the entire press carried those words, the big-minded originator of the movement, in Boston, and the friends of the movement everywhere, knew that the school flag observance of Columbus Day was bound to go.

The final step was the official program authorized by the state superintendents. That, also, was put on the same pair of shoulders. An ode, rich in feeling, was written by Edna Dean Proctor, and a declamation by the "silver-tongued" Breckinridge of Kentucky. .

"But the nub of this program," said Upham, "must be what all the school children say in unison when the flag is raised. It must be a sort of pledge of allegiance to the flag. It must be, in few words, a sentiment as big as the day itself. It must be so fundamental, and so stirring, that it will live if possible long after this one occasion. I've tried to do it myself, but I can't get my idea into words. Now you try it and see what you can do."

It was an August evening, and we were in our office in Boston. "All right, I'll try," replied the writer. "You go away and leave me in quiet for an hour or so, and I'll see what I can hatch out."

That hour or more is still a vivid memory. It began as an intensive communing with the salient points of our national history, from the Declaration of Independence onwards; with the makings of the Constitution; with the expoundings of Webster; with the meaning of the Civil War; with the aspirations of the people, both conscious and half-conscious, which might include the more advanced human ideas which even in those early nineties were beginning to be uttered.

Could words be found for all that? Words which the mature would understand and accept? Words which the children, if they couldn't fully appreciate, could at least feel, and might remember in afterlife? Could the words be incisive and condensed enough to lend themselves to a children's ringing shout?

At last it began to shape itself in words. Of course, start it with the main idea of the moment as the children stood at salute before the flag: "I pledge allegiance to my flag," (allegiance was the great word of the Civil War period). But why allegiance to the flag? Because the flag stands for the Republic. 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 clearer, 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 that 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. That's all any one nation can handle. So those words seemed the only roundup of past, present, and future.

Thus it was, on a midsummer evening, with a remembered sea breeze off Massachusetts Bay cooling the city, that the idea grew into shape and then into natural words. First, the attempt to get an exact vision. Then, the logical sequence of the separate thoughts, with elimination and balance. The words seemed to take care of themselves -- they were the old words of American history and evolution, with the ear instinctively helping in their choice. They had been condensed to twenty-three. When they were said aloud, they seemed to have a carrying resonance together with ease of speech.

The writer went to his door and called down the hall. "Hello, there, Mr. Upham, I've got something for you to hear."

He came in hurriedly and said with a grin, "Well, I've been walking about rooting for you. If you've got the right thing you've done the best job of your life. Say it to me."

As the words were read, his dark eyes snapped under his white hair. He took the bit of paper and said, "Now, up there is the flag, and I am a schoolboy standing at salute. As I say, 'I pledge allegiance to my flag,' I stretch out my right hand and keep it raised to the end."

He repeated the words over and over to get their effect. We said them in unison. He sat down and analyzed them for their meaning. Finally he said, "I'm not sure whether it should say 'my flag' or 'the flag.' But aside from that I think the thing is right as it stands."

Then with an emotion, which is still cherished in memory, he said something like this: "My boy, you've done a bigger thing tonight than you know. These twenty-three words express the dream I've had for a year. They sum up the long movement to educate the children to love of country by means of the school flag. When the people hear the children say that, they will justify all the effort. It will put those pale-blooded editors who have called the flag-raisings the 'worship of a textile fabric' where they belong. I can't help thinking that this flag pledge will live after you and I are dead."

If he didn't string all that into a single speech, he jerked those ideas out separately before we parted. It is fair to say, however, that the writer was unable that night to take in that prophecy. He was glad to have pleased the exacting idealist whose mastering enthusiasm had for months been a daily urge which left him tired o' nights.

It was not, indeed, until a few weeks later, on the first Columbus Day, when he heard about four thousand high-school pupils roar it out, that he had much of a glimmer of the possibilities of that formula he had composed. On the evening of that same first Columbus Day, at a mass meeting of citizens in Malden, Mass., (Mr. Upham's home town) he again heard it, this time from about fifteen hundred adult throats. He had been invited to deliver the stated "address" on that occasion. But how could he fancy that while his carefully prepared speech would promptly be forgotten, his twenty-three word "Pledge of Allegiance" would live for a generation and become a universal doxology?

In these later days, however, when he occasionally hears it in the schools, or by the Scout boys and girls, in the tones of the variegated races in this American melting pot, or when children have asked him to autograph it-or when older friends have told him to tell the story of its origin -- he has felt a tempered gladness that he happened to have the chance to contribute a short formula of Americanism. which enables the young to understand their country better.

But if the writer had the grateful opportunity to be its author, he repeats that the occasion for it was in the large soul of that rare and self-retiring patriot, James B. Upham, who was long ago gathered to his New England forefathers.