Pledge of Allegiance

Written in 1892 by Baptist minister and Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy and first published  in the popular children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus Day, and then adopted in public schools as part of the year’s Columbus Day observance, the original pledge, recited while standing at salute with arm extended toward the flag, was thus . . .

“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Words ( for example, “. . . of America” . . . . “under God” . . .) have subsequently been added, and the so-called “Bellamy salute” was dropped in 1942 after we entered to war against the Germans, as the symbolism was too close for comfort . . .

When students from Edgerton High School’s Spanish class recited the Pledge of Allegiance over the school’s intercom, at least one parent, recently retired from the National Guard,  was angry enough to complain to school officials, arguing “I believe the troops based this country off the old American values and not the Spanish values” (, Thursday, March 13, 2008).  The editors at the Janesville Gazette have dedicated this week’s opinion poll to discovering community opinion on the issue: “Is it disrespectful to say the Pledge of Allegiance in a language other than English?”  As I am writing this essay, 67% of the readers responding agree that the pledge should only be done in English.

This topic strikes a chord for a variety of reasons, ranging from the debate over illegal immigrants, to job and salary protection, to the maintenance of a strong national identity. One cleavage issue concerns whether or not we believe that our country’s diversity is a positive or negative thing.  For those people wary of diversity, a popular argument is that as an American we should do things the way the majority does.  What we have in common is what unites us, and where we differ, we can look to the majority for the broadest sense of common ground.  At the level of policy, it follows that since the majority of this country speaks English, we should express our oaths of allegiance in this language.

As a linguist, I can understand this argument: language is a lot more than an instrument of communication; it is primarily the means through which we express our identity. So there is an interesting tension that results from Latino identity (expressed by using Spanish) laying claim to national allegiance.  At the same time I am very uncomfortable with a line of argument that seems universally objectionable as we consider its further applications, for if “we should do things the way the majority does,” does that mean that, since a majority of Americans identify themselves as Protestant Christians, it is un-American to be Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish, or Catholic? Does it mean that it is un-American to be Republican, given that there are more registered Democrats? Or does it mean that we should be suspicious of men, since women are in the (slight) numerical majority because of their relative longevity in relation to men? Does it mean that as we move away from the average IQ of 100, whether in a negative or positive direction, we are moving into enemy territory?  Traitors if we are too stupid or too smart?

I think that you will agree that the argument for majority rule can look pretty silly.  Many people think that America is relatively stable because of its relative linguistic homogeneity.  On the other hand, you have to look some before you find countries which have more ethnic, racial, religious, class, and economic diversity than the United States.  It is quite a big coincidence if our various successes have occurred entirely in spite of this diversity.

Photo at top: barracks at Auschwitz, where the “different people” were gathered before the ovens.