Taking the pledge

As with most patriotic Americans who grew up in the first half of the Twentieth Century, I was taught in public school to say the “Pledge of Allegiance.” We did it because it was expected of us and because we were told it was patriotic—a simply affirmation of our loyalty to the United States. Of course, young children don’t know the meaning of all that.

The original 1892 version read: I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all. In 1954 Congress added “under God” to reaffirm national faith at the time when we were in a “cold war” with “godless” Communists. Atheists are still fighting over that added phrase.

In recent years I’ve begun to question the origin of this oath and wonder how it applies to us now in a nation deeply divided by culture and history; and the words liberty and justice defined variously according to what conflicting factions want them to mean. I see hypocrisy between these words and efforts by many to tear down the Republic.

I’ve become uncomfortable repeating this commitment to a flag that represents a national government I find increasingly difficult to support—specifically the political class that controls it; those who have violated the words and intentions of our founding Fathers as codified in the U. S. Constitution—a document I strongly defend.

Of course the U. S. flag is only a symbol, although a powerful one. It once represented unity of purpose, tradition and honor. But to millions of Americans the Confederate Flag, now being vilified and purged from public display, also represented those virtues. I believe that internal factions alien to American heritage will next target their hatred toward the U. S. flag. We can’t reliably predict the future, but history has many lessons for us to learn.

Recently, I discovered in the Smithsonian magazine (September 2015, Smithsonian.com) that the Pledge of Allegiance was created as a public relations “gimmick” in 1892.

Writer Amy Crawford reports that Francis Bellamy working at the Youth’s Companion magazine wrote the Pledge as a marketing ploy to sell subscriptions. The big scheme was to raise the U. S. flag over every public school in the country and have children salute it with the oath—coinciding with Columbus sailing to the New World 400 years earlier.

Before working as a writer and publicist at the Companion, “the country’s largest circulation magazine” at that time, Mr. Bellamy was a Baptist preacher in Boston—and a socialist.

According to Ms. Crawford Bellamy’s editorials and speeches were “equal parts marketing, political theory and racism” (everyone was a ‘racist’ in those days). He railed against capitalism and immigrants. But he favored “traditional values” and free public education.

Government officials bought into this marketing scheme. All but four States require public schools to make time for the vow. Both houses of Congress daily take the pledge. All naturalized citizens are required to say the oath. But the Pledge has its critics.

For example, it’s ironic that children should be expected to “swear fealty to a nation that prizes freedom of thought and speech,” notes Crawford. She cites one historian who believes that this oath is “paradoxical and puzzling.”

More than that, is it appropriate for children in a free society to be taught to swear fidelity to a flag representing a government-master?

I’m reminded of related comments made by the late Milton Friedman in the Introduction to his book, “Capitalism and Freedom.” In an inaugural address President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Dr. Friedman noted a controversy about the origin of this statement, but was appalled at the content of it.

“Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or votary.”

History gives us some horribly evil cases of governments indoctrinating masses of citizens with propaganda that led to loss of their lives, liberty and property—often it starts with campaigns to disarm us and stifle our speech.

Dr. Friedman reminds us that free people are a collection of individuals. They don’t recognize “something over and above them.” They regard government as “a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served.” Free people recognize no national goal or purpose except as it is the consensus of all.

Friedman writes that although government can help protect our freedom, concentrated power is a threat to it. Lincoln’s war against the Southern States demonstrated how that can happen and the terrible result.

Our universal American pledge should be to protect and defend our Constitution that was designed to limit the government threat. Unfortunately, although the people that control our national government made that pledge they haven’t honored it.

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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