Under God

Frances Bellamy and the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance

America, we like to think, is different from the rest of the world. It is our nation's great conceit. We have patriotism; they have nationalism. Ours is a nation founded on and held together by a rational commitment to political ideas and principles, whereas other nations are held together by pre-rational blood ties and inherited customs. One is born German or Japanese, but one chooses to become an American.

As often as not, this national conceit is buoyed by a religious conviction that Americans are God's “chosen people.” God has set aside the United States as “a promised land” for those who strive for freedom. As President Ronald Reagan was fond of telling us, America is “a shining city on the hill,” a beacon of light for the pilgrims of the world. America's “divine mission,” moreover, is not only to serve as a haven of liberty but to extend light into the darkness, to redeem the world. Americans believe, in the famous words of Herman Melville, that “the political Messiah... has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America, but we give alms to the world.”

The Pledge of Allegiance mirrors these twin conceits. Our schoolchildren pledge themselves not to a particular race or ethnicity or culture but to universal ideals, to “liberty and justice for all.” America is a universal nation. We are, moreover, a nation “under God.” For some, perhaps, these two words are rote expressions lacking in meaning, and for others they may simply affirm that most Americans believe in God. But the phrase reflects something more than that. It is an expression of Americans' belief that we are a special nation, one on which God keeps a very close eye. The flood of emotions unleashed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling a year ago is a sign of how deeply rooted in the American psyche is this national conceit. In declaring that the words “under God” could not be recited in public schools, judge Alfred Goodwin off ended not only religious sensibilities but inadvertently challenged a central tenet of American exceptionalism.

Those who defend the ruling have been quick to point out that the “under God” provision was not part of the original Pledge of Allegiance. Noting that the two words were not inserted until 1954, at the height of McCarthyism and more than sixty years after the original pledge was penned, they contend that the clause is alien to the original spirit of the pledge. Here we are often also reminded that the original author of the pledge, Francis Bellamy, was a socialist, the assumption apparently being that a socialist could hardly have condoned including the words “under God” in the pledge, conveniently ignoring that Bellamy identified himself as a “Christian Socialist,” which, he explained, meant he was a “Christian first and Socialist afterwards.” Bellamy's socialism stemmed not from Karl Marx but from a devout religious belief that our economic life should be conducted according to the Christian precepts established by Jesus Christ. (Those same religious principles had previously drawn him into the crusade against the evils of alcohol, leading him to stump for the National Prohibition Party presidential candidate John Pierce in 1884.)

In an era when conservatives have often used the Pledge of Allegiance and the American flag to score political points against liberals, it is understandable that some on the left would want to call our attention to the irony that the author of the pledge was a socialist. The impulse is particularly strong since this uncomfortable fact is conveniently left out in so many of our narratives. Children's books on the Pledge of Allegiance make no mention of Bellamy's politics; he is just a nice young man writing for a “children's magazine” with the reassuringly safe title of the Youth's Companion.

The Boston-based Companion has long since been forgotten, but in its heyday it had the nation's largest circulation of any weekly magazine, reaching more than four hundred thousand households in 1888. Bellamy began work for the Companion in 1891 after resigning his post as the minister of Boston's Bethany Baptist Church—the church's leading benefactor was also the owner of the Companion and an admirer of Bellamy. Lacking any journalistic or business experience, Bellamy was assigned to work under James Upham, who was then in the midst of an ambitious effort to coordinate a nationwide celebration of public schools on the occasion of “the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Discovery of America by Columbus.” The centerpiece of the day's ceremonies was to be the raising of an American flag over every schoolhouse in the nation, no small feat since few schools possessed, let alone displayed, American flags. Since Upham already had a fulltime job running the premium department, Bellamy soon found himself thrust improbably into a leading role in planning and publicizing the day of celebration. He also was given the responsibility of pulling together an official program that was to be followed by every public school in the nation. The Pledge of Allegiance was written for that official program.

Bellamy did not include “under God” in his spare twenty-three-word pledge (the original pledge read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”), but it had nothing to do with a desire to keep religion out of the public schools or a commitment to the separation of church and state. Prayer in public schools, after all, was commonplace in late nineteenth-century schools. And God suffused the official program crafted by Bellamy and Upham. The program was to open with a reading of the presidential proclamation declaring October 21st a national day of celebration. The proclamation, drafted by Bellamy, closed with the following admonition: “In the churches and in the other places of assembly of the people let there be expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith of the discoverer and for the divine care and guidance which has directed our history and so abundantly blessed our people.” Immediately following the raising of the American flag (by Civil War veterans) and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (by the school's children), all were to sing “America—My Country 'Tis of Thee,” a song that at the time (at least in New England) had the status almost of a “national hymn.” Today most Americans know only the opening stanza, but the assembled sang through to the last stanza: “Our fathers' God, to thee, / author of liberty, / to thee we sing; / long may our land be bright / with freedom's holy light; / protect us by thy might, / great God, our King.” After completion of this verse, Bellamy's program called for an “Acknowledgment of God” either through “Prayer or Scripture.” The program also called for a reading of the Columbus Day address entitled “The Meaning of Four Centuries.” This address, attributed in the program to the Youth's Companion but in fact written by Bellamy, spoke of the nation's “faith in the underlying principles of Americanism and in God's destiny for the Republic.”

Moreover, in a speech delivered in Malden (Upham's hometown) on the evening of the day of celebration, Bellamy declared that America “lifts up the school system as under God her most trusted support for the future.” He reminded the citizens of Malden that “while we honor the man Columbus,” we are here to “celebrate America today.” And the America “to which the world is bowing,” Bellamy emphasized, “was built purely of Anglo-Saxon stuff. Those mighty men of the Lord that settled Massachusetts, the sturdy Dutchmen of New York, the clean Quakers of Pennsylvania, the cavalier stock that established itself on the James—these were the true makers of America.” He asked the audience to imagine what would have been “the fate of this continent if the old thirteen colonies had been Spanish colonies or Portugese [sic] colonies, instead of British colonies. Then all this continent would have wallowed on in the dirty ignorance and superstition and barbarism which have characterized all the colonies of Spain.” Such speculation, he acknowledged, was idle because the settlement of America was not a matter of chance but of design. “God,” he said, “had a will in the matter. A chosen people had been prepared to possess this land and to build a new commonwealth of liberty and justice. So when the times were ready, Spain's Armadas were swept from the seas, and the chosen of God passed under a mighty hand and outstretched arm.”

Bellamy's speech is notable not only for its unapologetic embrace of the myth of America as God's chosen people but also for its espousal of what the political scientist Rogers Smith terms “ascriptive Americanism.” America owed its greatness not only to God but also to the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. Bellamy took tremendous personal pride in being of “Anglo-Saxon stuff.” Like Upham, he could trace his genealogy back to the earliest colonial settlements. And among Bellamy's ancestors was his great-great-grandfather Joseph Bellamy (1719–1790), a celebrated Puritan divine of the eighteenth century whose imposing house still stands today in Bethlehem, Connecticut. According to Bellamy's only biographer, Margarette Miller, Bellamy's “will to record the Bellamy genealogy bordered on fanaticism.”

Bellamy's pride in his own and the nation's Anglo-Saxon heritage belies the notion that Americans are so very different from the people of other nations who define their national identity in terms of racial and cultural inheritances. Moreover, Bellamy's expressions of racial or ethnic pride quickly spill over into an outpouring of racial and ethnic anxieties and prejudices. Indeed, these anxieties arguably explain more about the origins and meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance than do Bellamy's liberal or egalitarian ideals.

As the chief spokesperson and publicist for the national school celebration of Columbus Day, Bellamy gave a number of speeches and interviews in which he articulated the rationale for the celebration and the meaning of Americanism. Among these was an address to the annual meeting of the National Education Association on July 15, 1892, less than a month before he wrote the Pledge. Bellamy could be inspiring on the subject of the meaning of “true Americanism.” It was, he said, “more than exultation over square miles and multitudes; it is a joyous sense that America must be another name for opportunity: opportunity for the realization of justice; opportunity for the free use of all native powers; opportunity for the rounded development of every individual.”

But Bellamy's eloquent articulation of American ideals coexists alongside a more anxious note, focused particularly on the threat posed by immigration. “Americanism,” Bellamy continued, “brings a duty,” for “it must be made a force strong enough to touch the immigrant population which is pouring over our country.” Only the public schools had the capacity to inculcate the rapidly growing population of immigrants with the spirit of true Americanism. One certainly could not count on the “corrupt party machines,” which were often, as in Bellamy's own Boston, controlled by immigrants. Teaching civics was essential to redeeming politics, but schools also needed to appeal to the emotions or “sentiments” of the student, and this is where the school flag movement was so important. Bellamy dismissed those who “depreciate the use of the flag, call it a fetich [sic], and claim that our generation has risen beyond the need of any symbol of textile fabric.” Particularly for “children of foreign patronage,” the practice of “raising and saluting [the flag]...is a daily object lesson in patriotism for the land of their adoption.” As evidence Bellamy pointed to the salutary effect that Colonel George Balch's innovative program of patriotic activities was having in New York City schools on “the children of Italy, and Germany, and Portugal, and Ireland.” Balch's flag salute, which was used for many years in New York City's elementary schools, read: “We give our heads and our hearts to God and our country: one country, one language, one Flag.” The “thrilling salutes” given to the flag by these immigrants were “evidence enough,” Bellamy asserted, that “the flag has as great a potency to Americanize the alien child as it has to lead regiments to death.” The chief objective of the flag salute, in short, was to Americanize the alien.

A few months later, Bellamy spoke to the Women's Literary Union in even more explicit terms of the dangers posed by immigrants. The United States, Bellamy acknowledged, had “always been a nation of immigrants.” Immigrants had “felled our forests and built up our institutions.” But these immigrants “came from the northern and western nations of Europe, from peoples who were really Americans in spirit before they came.” The problem America faced now with the “incoming waves of immigration” was that “a different class are coming now.” They are coming from countries whose institutions are entirely at variance with our own—from Russia, Poland, Armenia, Bohemia, Italy.” From Italy “we are receiving the vilest elements,” and from Poland and Russia we are getting “expelled Jews who will not labor with their hands, but choose rather to be parasites of tenement houses and worthless vendors.” America, Bellamy concluded ominously, “cannot live on what America cannot digest. We cannot be the dumping ground of Europe and bloom like a flower garden.” It was this threat to American ideas and institutions that made it so essential that the citizens nurture “a revival of [the] American spirit.”

Bellamy admitted that “it is hard to say what equality is,” but it is clear from his speech what equality is not. It did not mean that all people were created equal. As Bellamy put it, “there are immigrants and immigrants.” Bellamy made this point even more explicit in an editorial he wrote a few years later for the Illustrated American. “The hard, inescapable fact,” Bellamy wrote, “is that men are not born equal.”


Neither are they born free, but all in bonds to their ancestors and their environments.... The success of government by the people will depend upon the stuff that people are made of. The people must...guard, more jealously even than their liberties, the quality of their blood. A democracy like ours cannot afford to throw itself open to the world. Where every man is a lawmaker, every dull-witted or fanatical immigrant admitted to our citizenship is a bane to the commonwealth. Where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another every alien immigrant of inferior race may bring corruption to the stock. There are races, more or less akin to our own, whom we may admit freely, and get nothing but advantage from the infusion of their wholesome blood. But there are other races which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard, which should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.


Of course, Bellamy was hardly unique in his racial anxieties. They were widespread in the 1880s and 1890s among Anglo-Saxon Protestants like himself who struggled to adjust to the “incoming waves” of strange and different immigrants. More people (over five million) emigrated to the United States between 1881 and 1890 than had done so in the previous twenty years combined. In fact, more than one-third of the total number of U.S. immigrants between 1820 and 1890 arrived in the 1880s. But it was not the sheer numbers that most alarmed people like Bellamy; it was who was coming. In the 1860s and 1870s, immigrants overwhelmingly came from northern Europe. In 1882, still only about 10 percent of immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe, but by 1892, that number had jumped closer to 44 percent. For every Italian, Slav, or Jew entering the United States in 1882, there had been four immigrants from Germany or Scandinavia; by 1892, however, the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe easily outdistanced the number coming from northern Europe.

One cannot understand the timing of the schoolhouse flag movement and the creation of the Pledge of Allegiance without understanding the intense anxiety about immigrants that began to grip many native-born Americans in the late 1880s. The postwar confidence that assimilation would happen almost effortlessly was shaken. Increasingly, Americanization was seen as something that had to be consciously manufactured by the state. Left to themselves, these new immigrants would create “states within a state,” as Josiah Strong put it in Our Country, an influential alarmist tract published in 1885. The bomb thrown in Chicago's Haymarket Square in 1886 triggered nativist hysteria because it seemed to underscore the perils to the nation's existence posed by insular communities of lawless foreigners, the “scum and off al of Europe.” It might not be possible to Americanize foreign adults, but their young were more malleable. Public schools increasingly became seen as the front lines in the battle to Americanize the immigrant. It was not enough anymore for schools to “teach the 3 Rs”; the schoolhouse must now become, as President Harrison told Bellamy, “the place for education in intelligent patriotism and citizenship.” Raising and saluting the flag was a central part of this education in patriotism aimed at Americanizing alien children. Absent the anxiety over immigrants, there would likely have been no flag salute in public schools.

And therein, perhaps, lies the real source and character of this nation's distinctive, if not exceptional, character. It is not that we are a nation knitted together solely by a shared attachment to political ideals. Scriptive racial and ethnic understandings of American identity have thrived throughout this country's history, and not just among illiberal extremists or enemies of equality. And it is certainly not the patently silly—not to mention insufferably arrogant—idea that we are God's chosen people. That particular delusion is one that, sadly, afflicts many peoples of the world. But what does mark the United States as a remarkable though hardly unique social experiment is its effort to forge a nation out of the diverse people of the world. America's diversity explains much about this nation's anxieties and its peculiar rituals, like requiring its schoolchildren to begin their mornings by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

From the Summer 2003 Dreaming America issue


America, History, Identity, Religion


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