From “Sailing the Ocean Blue” to “I Pledge Allegiance”

This is a bit of shameless self-promotion, but what the heck — it’s a teachable moment.

I was gratified to see the new book on the Pledge of Allegiance that I co-authored with Jeffrey Owen Jones reviewed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday morning.  Not many people know that the Pledge was written, in 1892, for a public school celebration of the quadricentennial of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the new world.

Unfortunately, I never met Jones whose book this was — and is.  A  gifted television and film producer who stumbled onto  the Pledge tale while teaching at the University of Rochester, where the patriotic jingle’s author had gone to school in the 1870s,  Jones unfortunately died before he could finish the project.  Tom Dunne, a longtime friend and publisher with St. Martin’s Press, asked me if I could help. He  showed me a couple chapters that Jones had written and I was hooked.  This was how Jones began:

On a sultry summer evening in Boston in the year 1892, a thirty-seven-year-old former clergyman named Francis Bellamy sat down at his desk in the offices of a popular family magazine where he worked and began to write:

I pledge allegiance to my flag…

Neither Bellamy nor anyone else could have imagined that the single twenty-three-word sentence that emerged would evolve into one of the most familiar of patriotic texts and, based on student recitations alone, perhaps the most often repeated piece of writing in the history of the English language.

That Jones could write was a blessing.  But he also knew a good story when he saw it. And in the history of the Pledge, as I was to learn, we have the story of a young country seeking unity in the wake of Civil War, a nation just beginning to be embattled by the contradictions of great great wealth and poverty, waves of immigrants, and, finally, a public school system that was then beginning to be seen as a national responsibility. Not an era unlike our own.  (We also have a fight over authorship that took a Library of Congress commission to resolve.)

Thus the Pledge was born of a very conscious and serious desire – not without some merchandising interests on the part of the magazine where Bellamy worked, The Youth’s Companion, that was promoting it — to inspire a sense of nationhood in our children.

One of my favorite parts of the story began with a memo Bellamy, also responsible for drumming up enthusiasm for the October 12 event, wrote to his bosses asking for permission to travel to Washington, DC. to lobby Capitol Hill and the White House to get behind the Columbus Day project.  “It would cost about $75.00,” he wrote. “But that amount might otherwise quickly be spent in printing and postage which would not achieve anywhere near the same result.”  (A memo for the Lobbying  Hall of Fame?) His boss said Yes.  The rest is history.

The notes of Bellamy’s sessions with members of Congress and President Benjamin Harrison, all neatly typed (and housed in the Special Collections section of the Rush Rhees Library at the U. of Rochester), are a wonderful record, not just of a tireless lobbyist at work, but of political sentiment about nationhood and public schools by several dozen members of Congress and President Harrison – and I would recommend the collection to any serious education historian.  Here is what Theodore Roosevelt, then the head of the Civil Service Commission and still six years from Rough Rider days, told the ex-preacher (trust me: it is worth reading in its entirety):

Yes, I believe in the Celebration of Columbus Day, by the Public Schools of America, from the word “go”.  The public School is the keystone of the arch of our civilization. It stands for the American principle of equality. It is a great thing to give to the average man the principles of progress and enlightenment. Other nations have given these privileges to a few; we have given them to all. And so the Public School, perhaps more truly than any other institution in America, represents the essential moral spirit.

This 400th anniversary ought to be made more of than any other Centennial in history. The Discovery of America was the first step in the revolution of the whole world. It has already brought two Americas and Australia into the civilized world. It set in motion the chain of energies which has opened up Asia and Africa to civilization.  The Old World civilization clustered around the Mediterranean Sea; in the Middle Ages civilization centered in Europe; but now civilization is world-wide. No other one thing has been so important in the history of our race, as we know it, as the Discovery of America. It has made possible this world-wide civilization.

The part the Flag is to play, in this Celebration of the 12th of October, appeals to me tremendously.  We are all the descendants from emigrants, but we want to hasten the day, by every possible means, when we shall be fused together in an entire and new race, or rather the new races of a new world. Consequently, by all means in our power we ought to inculcate, among the children of this country, the most fervent loyalty to the Flag.

The Common School and the Flag stand together as arch-typical of American civilization. The Common School is the leading form in which the principles of equality and fraternity take shape; while the Flag represents not only these principles of equality, fraternity and liberty, but also the great pulsing nation with all its hopes, and all itsw past, and all its moral power.

So it is eminently fitting that the Common School and the Flag should stand out together on Columbus Day.

I am particularly pleased with this Celebration by the Public Schools when I look at it from the national standpoint. It will mean that we are all one people. The South, as well as the North, will join heartily in it. It will signalize as no local observance could do, and as no general observance based on any other institution could do, the fact that we are a solid nation.

And that was before he had the bully pulpit.

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