If you ask anyone who’s attended public school in America to say the Pledge of Allegiance, they’ll likely be able to rattle it off from memory. But while it feels like an elemental part of the American educational system, the Pledge is not only unique in a democratic nation that prides itself on liberty and free will, but it’s also evolved through history to reflect the country’s of-the-moment political and cultural anxieties.
'I pledge allegiance'
In 1892, less than 30 years after the Civil War, the United States was gearing up to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World. At the same time, millions of immigrants from Europe were arriving on U.S shores. While some resident Americans wanted to keep these immigrants out, others thought it best to help them assimilate and become “good” citizens—not only with basic skills like reading and writing, but also through patriotic sentiment and pageantry, says Charles Dorn, a professor of education at Bowdoin College.
Against this backdrop, a young Baptist minster named Francis Bellamy sat down and wrote the first iteration: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands—one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” At the time, Bellamy was working in the marketing department of a popular family magazine called Youth’s Companion. The magazine published his verse and, on October 21, 1892—the nation’s first official Columbus Day—schoolchildren across the country recited it for the first time.
Under other circumstances, that likely would’ve been the end of the pledge. But a few factors gave it staying power. Thanks to an earlier initiative spearheaded by the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans of the Civil War, nearly every public-school classroom had an American flag. In addition, the lead-up to the Spanish-American war led to a surge of nationalism. “The flags were already there, there was already this desire to do something to make immigrant kids more American, so lots of communities wind up holding onto this ritual,” says Dorn.
New York, in 1898, became the first to legislate that children salute the flag at the beginning of each school day. From there, other states followed suit.
Challenges to the pledge
Over the next few decades, the pledge became fully embedded in American public schools, fueled especially by the nationalist, “almost xenophobic” sentiment that developed around World War I, says Dorn. It became even more firmly entrenched as fears of communism in the United States began to percolate in the 1920s and 30s.
Then, in 1935, two Pennsylvania students named Lillian and William “Billy” Gobitas refused to say the pledge, arguing that it clashed with their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. “I do not salute the flag because I have promised to do the will of God,” Billy Gobitas wrote in a letter to his school’s directors. “This means that I must not worship anything out of harmony with God’s law.”
After their public school expelled them, the Gobitases filed suit against the school district. Though lower courts initially sided with the children, the school board appealed and, eventually, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. By then, it was 1940 and Nazis were threatening democracy all over Europe. In an 8-1 vote, the justices ruled that the school district could indeed require students to salute the flag and say the pledge on the grounds that “national unity is the basis of national security,” as Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the majority.
Three years later, the court reversed its stance while deciding another case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” wrote Justice Robert Jackson in 1943. “If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
Around that same time, in 1942, Congress passed a law that dictated how Americans should deliver the pledge—which at that time, was with one arm extended toward the flag—reminiscent of a Nazi salute. Later that same year, lawmakers amended the rule so that pledge-sayers stood with their right hand over their heart.
‘Burned into our brains’
The exact phrasing of the pledge has shifted throughout history. For instance, pledging allegiance to a flag specifically “of the United States of America” was added in the early 1920s. Tackling the perceived post-war threat of communism, president Dwight Eisenhower ensured Americans made that pledge “under God” in June 1954.
This phrase would prove particularly controversial, with detractors arguing it discriminates against atheist children. State judges have ruled “under God” is not discriminatory, in part because reciting the pledge is voluntary, but also because the pledge is a “fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one,” as Massachusetts Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote in 2014 for the majority in Jane Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District.
Despite the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the majority of states have laws on the books mandating the recitation of the pledge—though many include exemptions for opting out and others have recently added them. In 2021, Montana, for example, updated its law to say that the school district shall inform students and teachers of their right not to participate and that anyone who objects to the pledge “must be excused.” In Texas, students must present a written request from a parent or guardian in order to be excused.
Several other countries—including South Korea, the Bahamas, and Singapore—have their own national pledges or statements. But among America’s various patriotic symbols, the pledge is unique, says Dorn. For one, it’s primarily something that kids say—though adults also sometimes recite it, such as at city council meetings.
Beyond that, it’s so widely known. Sure, most Americans can sing some or all of The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem, but people often forget the words. The Pledge of Allegiance, in contrast, is “literally burned into our brains,” says Dorn. “People know it in a way that they really don’t know other things.”
Will the pledge face future challenges? Maybe, because the nation is grappling with broader questions around the role of schools and education, as evidenced by curriculum controversies and book bans. “The history of public education in the U.S. is literally a history of these debates,” Dorn adds. “It has never been the case that, in some golden era of the past, we had this all sorted out and Americans agreed on the purpose of schools. We’re still trying to figure out: What do we want schools to be?”