“Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.”
June 14th is Flag Day.
According to the National Flag Day Foundation,
On June 14th, 1885, Bernard J. Cigrand, a 19 year old teacher at Stony Hill School, placed a 10 inch, 38- star flag in a bottle on his desk then assigned essays on the flag and its significance. This observance, commemorated Congresses adoption of the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the United States on June 14, 1777.
[On] May 30, 1916, [President Wilson]issued a proclamation calling for a nation wide observance of Flag Day. Then in 1949, President Truman signed an Act Of Congress designating the 14th day of June every year as National Flag Day.
You can read this year’s presidential Flag Day proclamation here.
In part, you will see President Obama urges:
… all Americans to observe Flag Day and National Flag Week by displaying the flag…. and to publicly recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America.
When I was in grade school, I remember we started each day standing by our desks, placing our right hands over our hearts, and in one voice saying:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I think it was the first poem I memorized.
When I entered sixth grade in 1955, after summer vacation, we all had to learn a slightly different poem:
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.
I was eleven years old at the time. I was not troubled the state required me to start each school day saying I believed the nation was under God. It didn’t bother me because I had no idea what those words meant.
A month ago I attended a public meeting that began with the Pledge of Allegiance.
For reasons of my own, I left the “under God” part out. I thought back to sixth grade, and realized I had no idea why the words changed from 1954 to 1955.
In the depth of my historical ignorance, I suppose I figured the Pledge emerged whole from the ferment of the Continental Congress during or shortly after the Revolution.
According to several sources (here, here and here), the original pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy as an expression of patriotism. (Bellamy was a socialist or a christian socialist, depending on who you listen to.)
The first Pledge read:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
In 1923, concerned the new crop of American immigrants might interpret the phrase “to my Flag” to mean their previous country, a clarifying amendment was added:
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In the early days, the Pledge was accompanied by a military salute.
Here’s how that salute was described in an 1892 magazine article :
At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.
In case you have a difficult time visualizing what the words “the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation” look like in practice, here’s a picture:
In December 1942, the salute was changed. People were instructed to keep their right hand over their heart.
In 1954, President Eisenhower heard a minister called George M. Docherty give a sermon encouraging the US to add “under God” to the pledge.
The minister said,
“…I could hear little Muscovites repeat a [pledge similar to the US pledge] to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity, for Russia is also a republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship…. [What is missing in our pledge is the] one fundamental concept that completely and ultimately separates Communist Russia from the democratic institutions of this country. … Once [we add] ‘under God,’ then we can define what we mean by ‘liberty and justice for all.’ To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life.”
Congress eventually agreed with Docherty and Eisenhower and the Knights of Columbus and gave us the current version of the 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.
The bill changing the language was signed by Eisenhower in 1954, on Flag Day
There has been a lot of criticism over the years about the Pledge of Allegiance.
But in case anyone has problems with the “under God” logic, Congress in 2002 thoughtfully included 16 Findings — as a part of Public Law 107-293 — demonstrating why “under God” just acknowledged the historically obvious.
My favorite finding is Number 16: ignoring the nation’s history with God could “lead to the absurd result that the Constitution’s use of the express religious reference ‘Year of our Lord’ in Article VII violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that, therefore, a school district’s policy and practice of teacher-led voluntary recitations of the Constitution itself would be unconstitutional.”
Some people are still not convinced. They want the Pledge to be restored to the way it was said during World War Two. Others think the language should read, “…one Nation, Under the Constitution….”
Still others do not believe we need any pledge:
No truly peace-loving nation would ask its people to pledge allegiance to any flag. Flags are for battlefields: potent symbols of a nation’s military power and prowess. Currently, our nation’s government seems infinitely more committed to the well-being of a piece of colored cloth than it is to the welfare of its own people,
I am disturbed by the claim that we are a nation under God. I think the assertion is too small.
If we want to bring God into the national discussion, I have a difficult time understanding why we don’t hedge our bets and acknowledge our entire planet is under God — especially as we evolve from a nation state to a market state.
But if we are not ready to surrender the nation state — and I think I’m still in that group — then I much prefer “one Nation, under the Constitution.”
Our nation has a history of the occasional anti-Catholic, and anti-Mormom and anti-Jewish hysteria. The anti-sharia law movement in this country continues our unfortunate tradition of I-am-anti-your-version-of-god-because-it-is-not-the-same-as-my-version-of god rhetoric.
I do not think God approves of this.
I would like to see Congress remove “under God” from the Pledge and replace it with “under the Constitution.”
When the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 it was unconstitutional for public schools to allow prayer, President Kennedy suggested [see a brief clip here] people who disagree with the Court’s ruling have “a very easy remedy, and that is to pray ourselves and I would think that it would be a welcome reminder to every American family that we can pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of all of our children.”
While I am waiting for Congress to act on my suggestion, I will still fly the American flag on Flag Day. I will talk to my children about the history of Flag Day and the history of the Pledge. I will invite them — encourage them — to say their version of the Pledge with me.
Happy Flag Day