“We want young Americans to recite the Pledge of Allegiance,” Donald Trump said in a speech to the American Legion National Convention in Cincinnati last week.
Trump told the war veterans organization that he would work “to strengthen respect for our flag,” a not-too veiled swipe at San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem at a late-August preseason game. In a Trump administration, the GOP nominee said, “We will be united by our common culture, values and principles, becoming one American nation, one country under one constitution saluting one American flag—and always saluting it—the flag all of you helped to protect and preserve, that flag deserves respect.”
Four years ago, GOP candidate Mitt Romney also invoked the Pledge of Allegiance to portray himself as a patriot. During his presidential campaign, Romney reminisced about reciting the pledge in his fourth grade class, and used each line to make a point about President Obama’s alleged shortfalls. “We pledge allegiance to that flag, we believe in a nation under God, a nation indivisible, a nation united, a nation with justice and liberty for all,” Romney said, “and for that to happen we’re going to have to have a new president that will commit to getting America working again, that will commit to a strong military, that will commit to a nation under God that recognizes that we the American people were given our rights not by government but by God himself.”
Ironically, Trump or Romney probably had no idea that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist as a critique of the rampant greed, misguided materialism, and hyper-individualism of the Gilded Age.
Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist, wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 to express his outrage at the nation’s widening economic divide. And, in contrast to Romney’s recitation, Bellamy did not include the phrase “under God” as part of the original version.
Bellamy, who lived from 1855 to 1931, was a Baptist minister and a leading Christian socialist. He was ousted from his Boston church for his sermons depicting Jesus as a socialist, and for his work among the poor in the Boston slums.
It was the Gilded Age, an era marked by major political, economic, and social conflicts. Progressive reformers were outraged by the widening gap between rich and poor, and the behavior of corporate robber barons who were exploiting workers, gouging consumers, and corrupting politics with their money. Workers were organizing unions. Farmers were joining forces in the so-called Populist movement to rein in the power of banks, railroads and utility companies. Reformers fought for child labor laws, against slum housing and in favor of women’s suffrage. Socialists and other leftist radicals were gaining new converts.
In foreign affairs, Americans were battling over the nation’s role in the world. America was beginning to act like an imperial power, justifying its expansion with a combination of white supremacy, manifest destiny and the argument that it was spreading democracy. At the time, nativist groups across the country were pushing for restrictions on immigrants—Catholics, Jews, and Asians—who were cast as polluting Protestant America. In the South, the outcome of the Civil War still inflamed regional passions. Many Southerners, including Civil War veterans, swore allegiance not to the American but to the Confederate flag.
Bellamy, a cousin of Edward Bellamy, author of two bestselling radical books, Looking Backward and Equality, believed that unbridled capitalism, materialism, and individualism betrayed America’s promise. He hoped that the Pledge of Allegiance would promote a different moral vision to counter the rampant greed he argued was undermining the nation.
A year later, the same social conditions and political sympathies that had spawned the Pledge of Allegiance inspired poet Katherine Lee Bates to write the poem “America the Beautiful,” which was later set to music written by Samuel Ward, the organist at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. Like Bellamy, Bates was a Christian socialist. She belonged to progressive reform circles in the Boston area, was concerned about labor rights, urban slums, and women’s suffrage, and was an ardent foe of American imperialism. A professor of English at Wellesley College, Bates was also a lesbian who lived with and was devoted to her Wellesley colleague Katharine Coman, an economics professor.
When composing the pledge, Bellamy had initially intended to use the phrase “liberty, fraternity, and equality,” but concluded that the radical rhetoric of the French Revolution wouldn’t sit well with many Americans. So he coined the phrase, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” as a means to express his more egalitarian vision of America, and a secular patriotism aimed at helping unite a divided nation.
Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth’s Companion, a magazine for young people published in Boston with a circulation of about 500,000. A few years earlier, the magazine had sponsored a largely successful campaign to sell American flags to public schools. In 1891, the magazine hired Bellamy to organize a public relations campaign to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America by promoting use of the flag in public schools.
Bellamy gained the support of the National Education Association, along with President Benjamin Harrison and Congress, for a national ritual observance in the schools, and he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the program’s flag salute ceremony.
Bellamy thought such an event would be a powerful expression on behalf of free public education. Moreover, he wanted all the schoolchildren of America to recite the pledge at the same moment. He hoped the pledge would promote a moral vision to counter the individualism embodied in capitalism and expressed in the climate of the Gilded Age.
In 1923, over the objections of the aging Bellamy, the National Flag Conference, led by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the opening, “I pledge allegiance to my flag” to: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” Ostensibly, it was revised to make sure that immigrant children—who might have thought that “my flag” referred to their native countries—knew that they were pledging allegiance to the American flag.
In 1954, at the height of the Cold War, when many political leaders believed that the nation was threatened by godless communism—the Knights of Columbus led a successful campaign to lobby Congress to add the words “under God.”
America now confronts a new version of the Gilded Age, brought upon by Wall Street greed and corporate malfeasance. The gap between rich and poor is once again dramatically widening. Americans are feeling more economically insecure than at any time since the Depression. They are upset by the unbridled selfishness and political influence-peddling demonstrated by banks, oil companies, drug companies, insurance companies, and other large corporations. They are angry at the growing power of American-based global firms that display disloyalty to their country by outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries, avoiding taxes, and polluting the environment.
Indeed, most of the ties, suits, shirts, and other clothing items sold as part of the Donald J. Trump Collection are made in overseas sweatshops. When it comes to hypocrisy over trade issues, however, Trump is in good company. Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, America’s largest corporation, promoted the motto “Buy American.” But today the world’s largest retailer, now owned by Walton’s heirs, imports most of its merchandise from Asia, much of it made under dangerous sweatshop conditions. (Ironically, many American flags are made in China.)
These trends have galvanized a growing grassroots movement that brings together a diverse coalition of community groups, immigrant rights organizations, unions, consumer advocates, and human rights activists that is demanding change. The new progressive agenda includes stronger regulations to protect consumers, workers, and the environment from abusive corporations, and wage increases, fairer trade, and higher taxes on the very rich to pay for better schools, safer roads, and student loans.
As when Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, Americans are once again battling over immigration and who belongs here. Trump and right-wing activists and talk-show pundits, calling themselves patriots, have even challenged the citizenship of our president. Trump’s nativism, xenophobia, racism, selfishness, materialism, and faux patriotism would no doubt have appalled Bellamy. Trump may want to require American schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but his vision of America is a far cry from the original intent behind Bellamy’s call for “liberty and justice for all.”