What Are the Words of the Pledge of Allegiance?

By Ethan BrightbillLast Updated Jul 11, 2020 3:12:57 AM ET
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The Pledge of Allegiance today reads, “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.” However, the Pledge of Allegiance has undergone significant changes since it was first published. Those revisions — and the original text — have generated much controversy over the years, and they continue to do so today.

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Origins

While you might expect such an iconic display of patriotism to have originated with the Founding Fathers, the Pledge of Allegiance was only written in 1892, long after they had all died. What’s more, it was written in two hours by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian socialist. 

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After rubbing many churchgoers the wrong way due to his political beliefs, Bellamy left the pulpit to work for Youth’s Companion, a widely distributed family magazine. The publication already had a history of rewarding readers who sold subscriptions with American flags, and it tasked Bellamy with creating the pledge as part of a nationwide celebration to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. “I pledge allegiance,” went Bellamy’s original version, “to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The pledge was a widespread success, with Americans across the country reading Bellamy’s words and sales of Youth’s Companion surging. 

The speed with which the pledge caught on can be partly attributed to where the country was at the time. Swearing oaths to the federal government had become popular during and shortly after the Civil War, a conflict that had only ended thirty years earlier. Fears about the loyalty of immigrants also played a factor. Bellamy himself once said that “Americanism ... must be made a force strong enough to touch the immigrant population which is pouring over our country.”

Revisions

The Spanish-American War and World War I saw the Pledge of Allegiance grow further in popularity, with some schools beginning to require its recital. However, it remained only one of many ways to pledge allegiance to the country. That began to change in 1923, the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution lobbied for Bellamy’s pledge to be made official. They also pushed for “my flag” to be turned into “the flag of the United States” and later “the flag of the United States of America” to make it clear beyond doubt that it was the American flag that children should swear to. Additionally, a gesture — placing one’s right hand over the heart before raising the right arm forward at the words “the flag” — was made to accompany it. 

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During World War II, Congress passed the U.S. Flag Code, which made Bellamy’s pledge the official Pledge of Allegiance. However, the forward arm movement was replaced with simply placing one’s right hand over the heart, as the arm motion resembled a Nazi salute.

The addition of “Under God” was the last change made to the pledge. It was signed into law by  President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 after heavy lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, a catholic religious organization. At the time, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the first decade of the Cold War, and Senator Joseph McCarthy was stoking fears of communist infiltration of the U.S. government. Supporters of the change argued that the words “Under God” demonstrated one of the key differences between the United States and Russia.

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Controversy

The Pledge of Allegiance has generated controversy over the years for a number of reasons, with one of the biggest being whether people can be required to say it. In 1943, the case of West Virginia vs. Barnette was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court after some Jehovah’s Witnesses objected to laws requiring the pledge’s recital on religious grounds. The court ruled such laws to be unconstitutional. Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “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. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

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Opponents have also argued that the pledge is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the separation of church and state. They note that atheists, Buddhists, Hindus and other groups worship either no gods or many gods, and that as a result, the words “Under God” show favoritism toward Christianity and other monotheistic religions. While there have been several Supreme Court Cases involving the question, including in 1978, 2004 and 2013, the language has not been ruled unconstitutional.

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Finally, the Pledge of Allegiance continues to draw criticism for the line, “with liberty and justice and all.” Bellamy himself was a vocal supporter of segregation and an opponent of immigration, and he wrote the pledge in a time when women couldn’t vote, lynchings of Black Americans were common, homosexuality was illegal and more. While some of the problems of Bellamy’s era have been resolved or lessened, many inequalities continue to exist in the United States, making it debatable at best whether liberty and justice truly are available to all.