Archive for May, 2012
Think back to fifth or sixth grade. What were the first words you mumbled every morning in class as you shook the sleep out of your eyes? You probably repeated a bunch of words that you didn’t think much about as you were saying them. They probably sounded something like “I led to pigeons to the flag ….”
Everyone grows up saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but many of us never really learn what it actually says. Being half-asleep doesn’t help. But there are other reasons why people have trouble remembering our country’s most famous patriotic saying.
One rason so many people misunderstand the Pledge, says children’s writer Ralph Keyes, is that “children who are taught unfamiliar words and phrases often convert them into ones that make more sense.” Another reason, says Keyes, is that we’ve said the Pledge so quickly and so many times that we have lost touch with its meaning.
Jon Willson, a social-studies teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School, remembers thinking that it began, “‘I pledge a lesson to the frog.’ I imagined that somewhewre in Washington, a giant frog–may be a cousin of the spelling bee–sat on a throne nodding its head in approval as I recited my multiplication tables.”
THE ACTUAL WORDS
By now, you probably know the actual words to the Pledge. But have you ever really thought about what these words mean or where they came from?
In 1892, James B. Upham, the head of Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine, became furious about a newspaper editorial that criticized flag-raising ceremonies. It said they were no more than “worship of a textile fabric.”
“What’s happened to good old-fashioned patriotism?” Upham asked himself. “We must instill in the younger generation a love and respect for the flag.”
Upham thought the pledge students were saying at the time–”I give my hand and heart to my country, one nation, one language, one flag-”–wasn’t strong, or memorable, enough. So he and his assistant. Francis Bellamy, set out to write a new pledge “so fundamental and so stirring that it [would] live long after [the] one occasion.” They succeeded, giving us what we now call the Pledge of Allegiance.
WHAT THE WORDS MEAN
Upham and Bellamy chose the words of the Pledge carefully. Here’s what the words they wrote really mean:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ….
Pledging our allegiance means vowing our loyalty to our country, and the symbol of our country, our flag.
… and to the Republic for which it stands.
Linking the flag with the republic (a political order based on a constitution) reminds us that the flag is not merely a “textile fabric,” but a symbol of our democratic system.
One nation, under God, indivisible…
The words “under God” were added as an Act of Congress in 1954, to remind us that we worship God in different ways.
Indivisible, a tricky term, means incapable of being divided any further. It had especially potent meaning when it was written because nearly 30 years before, the nation had almost been permanently divided by the Civil War.
. . . with liberty and justice for all.
The Pledge’s final clause reminds us that our political system guarantees each American: liberty (freedom from excessive restriction or control) and justice (fairness enforced by law.)