During the flush years of an exuberant dot.com economy, being an American meant little more than the freedom to consume or visit Disneyland. But since the September 11th attacks, a resurgent patriotism is omnipresent and nowhere is it more on display than in our schools.
From the White House the Bush administration launched a series of initiatives aimed at prescribing patriotism among the nation's 52 million schoolchildren. Government officials urged students to take part in a mass recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and called upon veterans to teach "Lessons for Liberty." The House of Representatives voted 444-0 for the display of signs proclaiming "God Bless America" in the public schools.
On the local level, the New York City Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution requiring all public schools to lead a daily pledge in the morning and at all school assemblies. "It's a small way to thank the heroes of 9/11," explained the Board's president. In Madison, Wisconsin, the School Board reversed its previous position and voted to allow schools to recite a daily Pledge of Allegiance and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Nebraska dusted off a 1949 state law requiring schools to devise curricula aimed at instilling a "love of liberty, justice, democracy and America…in the hearts and minds of the youth." And after years of futile attempts, a conservative, fringe organization in Orange County - Celebration USA Inc. - succeeded in synchronizing a nationwide recitation of the pledge at 2:00 p.m. eastern time on October 12th.
In the aftermath of September 11th, people are hungry for social rituals and eager to communicate a deeper sense of national belonging. But this new rash of prescribing and orchestrating patriotism is not the answer.
Rituals of patriotism were first institutionalized between the Civil War and World War I. At the end of the bloodiest civil war of the nineteenth century the combatants left the battlefields for political, economic, and cultural arenas, where the struggle to make a nation continued with renewed intensity. In fact, many of the patriotic symbols and rituals that we now take for granted or think of as timeless were created during this period and emerged not from a harmonious, national consensus, but out of fiercely contested debates, even over the wording of the Pledge. Confronted by the dilemma that Americans are made, not born, educators and organizations, such as the Grand Army of the Republic, Women's Relief Corps and Daughters of the American Republic, campaigned to transform schools, in George Balch's words, into a "mighty engine for the inculcation of patriotism."
Balch, a New York City teacher and Civil War veteran, wrote what is thought to be the first pledge to the flag in which students promised to "give our heads and our hearts to God and our Country! One nation! One language! One flag!" Balch intended the pledge to teach discipline and loyalty to the "human scum, cast on our shores by the tidal wave of a vast migration." In 1890, Balch published a primer for educators on Methods for Teaching Patriotism in the Public Schools, which called for the use of devotional rites of patriotism modeled along the lines of a catechism. "There is nothing which more impresses the youthful mind and excites its emotions," noted the West Point graduate, than the "observance of form."
To commemorate the first celebration of Columbus Day in 1892 and in preparation for the grand opening of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Youth's Companion magazine charged Francis Bellamy with writing a new pledge. Bellamy, a Christian socialist with a commitment to social reform, dismissed Balch's formula as a "pretty childish form of words, invented by an ex-military officer." He wanted a pledge that would resonate with American history and make students into active participants in a "social citizenry." For Bellamy the notion of "allegiance" evoked the great call to union during the Civil War and "one nation indivisible" recalled a phrase used by Lincoln. Bellamy was tempted to add the historic slogan of the French Revolution - "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" - to the language of his pledge, but in the end he decided that this would be too much for people to accept. Instead, he settled for the final phrase, "with liberty and justice for all." This way, he reasoned, the pledge could be ideologically "applicable to either an individualistic or a socialistic state," a matter for future generations to decide.
Bellamy's words -- "I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" - were gradually adopted throughout the country. But the pledge, once imagined as a living principle of justice and liberty, perhaps even equality, quickly became suffused with militarism and obedience to authority. On Columbus Day, 1892, according to newspaper reports, children marched with "drilled precision" as "one army under the sacred flag." In the wake of the Spanish-American War, state-sanctioned rituals of patriotism became more common. In New York, the day after war was declared on April 29, 1898, the legislature instructed the state superintendent of public instruction to prepare "a program providing for a salute to the flag at the opening of each day of school." Daily rituals aimed at reaching children's hearts were backed up with new civics curriculums to secure their minds with heroic images of virile soldiers and the honor of dying for one's country. A typical children's primer published in 1903 taught that "B stood for battles" and Z for the "zeal that has carried us through/When fighting for justice/With the Red, White and Blue."
During World War I, Americanizers worried about dual allegiances and feared that Bellamy's pledge allowed cunning fifth columnist immigrants to swear a secret loyalty to another country. To close this loophole, the words "my flag" were extended into "the flag of the United States." Many states now required students to salute the flag every day. In Chicago in 1916, an eleven-year old African American student was arrested because he refused to respect a symbol that represented Jim Crow and lynching. "I am willing to salute the flag," Hubert Eaves explained, "as the flag salutes me."
Meanwhile, Boy Scout troops across the country staged massive operettas in celebration of "America First," while vigilantes forced German Americans suspected of insufficient loyalty to kiss the flag. A judge, unable to reverse a lower court's decision to sentence a man to twenty years of hard labor for abusive language toward the flag, believed that the man was "more sinned against than sinning." The mob, he wrote in his opinion, had descended into the kind of "fanaticism" that fueled the "tortures of the Inquisition."
Between the World Wars, campaigns for "100 percent Americanism" led to the persecution of thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses and the expulsion of their children from school when they refused to salute the flag. What began as a movement to encourage loyalty to a nation "with liberty and justice for all" had deviated into the suppression of dissent and unquestioning homage to the flag. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that an obligatory loyalty oath was unconstitutional, thus putting law on the side of any student who refuses to participate in patriotic or religious rituals. But even after the ruling, refusal to say the pledge took both courage and conviction.
The pledge remained unchanged until Flag Day, 1954, when President Eisenhower approved the addition of the constitutionally questionable phrase "under God" to differentiate this country from its godless Cold War antagonist. In the wake of public opposition to the Vietnam War, educators were not inclined to impose rote patriotic drills on their students or to resurrect the slogan of "One country, one language, one flag," which guided the teaching of civics earlier in the century. Since the 1980s, many schools have slowly begun to adopt textbooks and develop curriculums that speak to the needs of a multiethnic, polyglot population living in an increasingly interrelated world. This is not the time to reverse this trend by reverting to form over substance and rote memorization over democratic participation.
"What of our purpose as a Nation?" pondered Francis Bellamy more than a century ago when he crafted his pledge. Our students today can better use their time debating this question than marching in lockstep loyalty. "At times of crisis," writes historian Eric Foner, "the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil liberties, the right to dissent and equality before the law for all Americans."
Cecilia O'Leary, Associate Professor of History, California State
University, Monterey Bay, is author of To Die For: The Paradox of
American Patriotism (Princeton University Press).
Tony Platt, Professor of Social Work, California State
University, Sacramento, is author of The Child Savers: The Invention of
Delinquency (University of Chicago Press). Both authors are members of
the editorial board of the interdisciplinary journal Social Justice. This
piece first appeared on the History News Network on December 3, 2001. On
June 26, 2002, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision
that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional.