I pledge allegiance . . .
I learned the Pledge at the age of five from Mrs. Eleanor Hartson, when I started attending Town of Western School # 2, the one-room school half a mile up the rutted gravel track that branched off Sly Hill Road just past the Litwins' farm. First thing each school day I proudly and enthusiastically placed my hand over my heart, faced the flag at the front of the classroom and recited the ritual phrases, even though at first I didn't have a clear understanding of all the words -- "republic" and "indivisible" were particularly opaque as I recall, not to mention "allegiance".
The word "allegiance" is about seven hundred years old. Its first definition in Webster is "the obligation of a fuedal vassal to his liege lord", the original meaning. The second definition, "the fidelity owed by a subject or citizen to his sovereign or government", is a generalization from the earlier, more specific sense that became obsolete with the end of the Middle Ages, but its root meaning is clear from its etymology -- Middle English allegeaunce, modification of Middle French ligeance, from Old French lige liege -- a strange concept, perhaps, to be associated with citizenship in a democratic republic.
The words of his original pledge, written in 1892 for publication in The Youth's Companion, at the time the most widely read young people's magazine in the country, are inscribed on his grave marker:
"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all."
. . . to the flag of the United States of America . . .
Those of us who were raised in and around Rome had another reason for feeling a particular sense of pride in ownership when it came to the American flag. Rome was built on the site of Fort Stanwix, an important colonial outpost during the French and Indian Wars where one of the crucial battles of the American Revolution was fought, and where tradition has it that our flag first flew in the face of an enemy.
The British strategy in 1777 was to invade New York from north, south and west with three armies that would meet at Albany, dividing New England from the rest of the rebellious colonies. The army of General St. Leger, advancing from Lake Ontario down the Mohawk Valley, was stopped at Fort Stanwix in early August. The fort withstood a 21-day siege before the approach of a relief column under General Benedict Arnold forced the redcoats to retreat. Yeah, that Benedict Arnold. In 1777 he was still on our side.
The utter collapse of the British strategy was completed a few weeks later with the surrender of Burgoyne's army at Saratoga, considered by most historians to be the turning point of the war, as Britain's European enemies, notably France, formally allied themselves with the newly credible revolt of the colonies.
Every August for over a century starting with the 1877 centennial of this famous victory, the good folk of Rome observed Fort Stanwix Days with parades, pageants, concerts and more until recent years when the local festival was shifted into July and renamed "Honor America Days", a development I view with a dismay similar to that felt over the collapse of the holidays honoring the birthdays of two great presidents into the generic "Presidents' Day" excuse for an annual shopocalypse. But when I was a young man, we still celebrated Fort Stanwix Days, and among the most popular events were the Mohawk River canoe races from the Lake Delta dam to the center of town, a chance to shine not just for families that paddle together and mixed-double teams, but also for alcohol-soaked lads doing foolish things in small freshwater craft.
. . . and to the republic for which it stands . . .
What matters, after all, is the republic for which it stands. A flag is nothing but a logo, every petty tyranny and soul-crushing oligarchy has one, there's nothing noble about pledging allegiance to a yard of fabric.
When I received a commission in the US Army in 1967, I swore the same oath required of anyone who accepts a military, civilian or judicial office in the federal government, that is, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The Constitution -- not the government, not the president, and certainly not the flag.
One could say there's a semantic difference between "pledge" and "oath" -- that a pledge is no more than a promise made, while to swear an oath is to invoke a higher power, a god or a law, as guarantor of the words, the oath-taker agreeing to be formally bound under pain of retribution. One could argue that "allegiance" is essentially passive, not as strong as a commitment to actively "protect and defend" and that the flag is just a symbol while the constitution is a complex and subtle translation of ideas and ideals into a blueprint for self-governance.
Still, I think the Pledge of Allegiance and the oath of office are essentially the same promise. Implicit in Bellamy's simple and elegant phrase is the understanding that the Flag represents the Republic, the true object of the promised allegiance. And the Republic is defined and given form by the Constitution, as a living thing is given form by its genetic code.
Charlatans and demagogues can wrap themselves in the stars and stripes, but that doesn't mean we owe them anything. The Republic could be represented by any colored pattern or scrap of cloth, and that banner's association with the Republic and its founding principles is what would justify our allegiance to it.
. . . one nation indivisible . . .
No, I didn't forget those other two words.
When I learned the Pledge those other two words weren't in it, and it's never sounded right to me with them added. I came back from summer vacation to start fourth grade and found that I had to start saying "under God", and even at that age the change made me uncomfortable. For one thing, my family didn't believe in God, so it felt like a lie to me. The solution I found was just to hold my breath while everyone else said those two words and pick up the Pledge again with "indivisible" as if it hadn't been divided. That's still the way I say the Pledge and the only way I'll say it to my dying breath.
The addition of the two words was the first and only change to the Pledge made by an act of Congress. In the 1920s, Bellamy's "my flag" had been informally replaced with "the flag of the United States of America" to clear up any ambiguity about the loyalties of new immigrants, and that was the version recognized by Congress as the official national pledge in 1942. During the late '40s and early '50s, several religious organizations had pushed unsuccessfully to have Congress amend the Pledge to include the two words after"one nation". In a 1954 Lincoln Day sermon in DC, Presbyterian minister George M Docherty identified "under God", used by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, as the defining words that distinguished the US from all other nations, an arrogant and anti-historical claim that nevertheless convinced President Eisenhower, who was in attendance. The next day, the bill was introduced in Congress at the administration's request, and Eisenhower signed it into law that Flag Day.
My own objection to the two words isn't just that I'm offended that the official expression of our love for flag and country is bound up with subservience to someone else's idea of deity, or that the words added to the Pledge violate the rights guaranteed by our republic's founding document, but also because of the violence done to the syntax and meaning of Francis Bellamy's eloquent declaration of patriotic sentiment.
This Baptist minister made no reference to God in his pledge, but the simple and graceful phrase "one nation indivisible" recalls the motto E pluribus unum and must have had particular resonance to a nation closer in memory to the Civil War than our generation is to Vietnam and the violent domestic disruptions that accompanied our entanglement there. The two added words turn the essential meaning of that phrase into an afterthought, replace unity with religiosity, and as the history of legal battles over their inclusion makes clear, create awkward and unnecessary division not only in the Pledge but in the Republic as well.
. . . with liberty and justice for all
These last half dozen words comprise the promise that vindicates the pledge. Liberty and justice -- the values that give the Flag and the Republic a just claim on allegiance. They are the highest goods that a society can offer, and neither can exist without the other. Liberty without justice is a recipe for anarchy, which is just another word for rule by the guys with the biggest clubs, while justice without liberty is an oxymoron.
The history of the American republic is one of gradual and fitful progress toward the redemption of this promise. The revolution itself, the development by trail, error and compromise of a system of government dedicated to Enlightenment ideals, the abolitionists and the terrible sacrifices of the war that ended slavery, the suffragists, the labor movement, the New Deal, civil rights marchers, feminists, gay rights activists, two centuries and counting of struggle, advance, retreat, and advance again to deliver the goods "for all".
The struggle to redeem the promise doesn't end, each generation is called to protect and extend the gains hard-won by their foremothers and forefathers. Nor is it the only current in the stream of our history -- we have to acknowledge and answer for aggressive imperial wars against the natives of this continent, against Mexico and the Phillipines, the abuse and exploitation of immigrants, the injustices of our homegrown class system, the subrogation of human rights to corporate and property rights.
But there was, in fact, brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, and our flag stands for that ideal, the pledge written 118 years ago by a Baptist minister from my hometown is as concise and elegant an expression of that ideal as any before or since.
The war-mongers, torturers, race-baiters, red-baiters, gay-baiters, the religious and political fundamentalists, the self-styled "real" Americans, may wrap themselves in this Flag and claim that it's theirs alone, even as they repudiate some of the most sacred ideals of the Republic. But I for one will never concede it to them. The Republic and the Flag have been ours long before theirs, and I salute them proudly and enthusiastically and pledge my allegiance to the ideals for which they stand.
Wishing you a Glorious Flag Day!