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Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I don’t mean to disappoint you, but Betsy Ross did not create the American flag. The creator was the lawyer, songwriter and author Frances Hopkinson, who, a year earlier, had signed the Declaration of Independence for New Jersey. We know it was Hopkinson because he actually submitted two bills for his design work – the first one for about $18. But the stingy Continental Congress balked at paying that. So he lowered his price to “A quarter cask of Public Wine”; meaning, the cheap stuff. I think he was trying to make a point but even then he didn’t get paid. The bureaucrats argued that Frances was already on salary, which meant they had already paid him for the design. He was unable to pursue his case because he died in early May of 1791, of an epileptic seizure. But then, I don’t want to write a treatise on the vexillology of the American flag. I want to talk about the pledge of allegiance to it.
You see, the pledge was written as a sales gimmick to sell flags. This is pretty big business today, considering about 100 million American flags are currently sold every year. That’s enough to justify the formation of the “Flag Makers Association of America”, a lobbyist group required because American made American flags are 30% more expensive than Chinese made American flags. But I digress again; my point is that capitalism requires a certain amount of rationalization, and profiting from the symbol of our nation is just another one. And it was a rationalization that another Frances was certainly willing to make.
In 1892 Frances Bellamy (above), who was a fired Baptist minister, was working as the publicity director for a Boston magazine called “The Youth’s Companion” and was also responsible for the planning the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America, for the National Education Association. And since the magazine had a nice little side business going selling American flags to schools (their goal was to have one in every classroom) Frances thought that a pledge for this special occasion would be an inexpensive way to increase the sale of flags. After all, you can’t pledge allegiance to the flag unless you have a flag.
His pledge, published in the September 8th, 1892 issue of the magazine (above), was just 23 words long and could be recited in less than 15 seconds - about the attention span of the average eight year old; “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” On October 29th that pledge was first recited in classrooms across America, and at the opening of the Chicago Columbia Exposition. Like the Gettysburg address, Bellamy’s pledge was eloquent in its simplicity. But even Frances could not resist tampering with perfection. He added a salute.
Well, it was called the Bellamy Salute, but he didn’t invent it. It was the brainstorm of  James Upham, junior editor of The Youth’s Companion. But it was Frances who laid out instructions for what I would call "a salute too far. They read. “…At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation.” Forty years later the extended arm salute would be premtpted by Musoillini and Adolf Hitler, and tactfully dropped from the American pledge.
Not that people ever stopped trying to improve upon perfection. In 1923 the America Legion, then made up mostly of veterens of World War One, the Spanish American War, and the Phillipines Insurection, decided that the phrase “my flag” was too open to interpitation. So they added an entire phrase, so there would be no chance of confusion about what country we were talking about. "I pledge allegence to the flag of the United States of America.” I guess the red, white and blue on the wall was not evidence enough.  In 1940, with World War once again looming, the Supreme Court ruled that even Jehova’s Witnesses could be required to stand at attention and recite the pledge in school, which the Witnesses had argued violated their faith. On June 22nd, 1943 Congress made the pledge the offical pledge of allegence to America - by law. That same year the Supreme Court reversed itself, and "offical" pledge was no longer compulsury for Jehova Wittnesses.
Then in 1951 the Knights of Columbus decided the words “Under God” were needed in the pledge, and on “Flag Day”, June 14th, 1954, Congress made that addition offical, as well. The oath now officially 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, indivisable, with liberty and justice for all”. The pledge was now 31 words long. And to be honest with you, I don’t think the longer version is any clearer about its meaning. It has become the ebodiment of the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee.
Consider the oath, just as a piece of language. If the oath were to stop after the word “stands” we would have a simple sentence (“I pledge allegiance to the flag) with two modifying phrases (“of the United States of America”, and, “and to the Republic for which it stands”.) In this case the Republic is the modifier of the flag, which makes sense because the original intent was to sell flags; remember?
But that was not good enough for all those who honestly wanted to improve on the oath, to make it clearer, and avoid confusion and misunderstandings. And that kind of thinking produced four modifying prepositional phrases on top of the two we already had – making six in all.
Is love of country really that complicated a concept that it has to be explained in such great detail? Does the detail actually make things clearer? Isn’t it enough if your lover says “I love you”? I ask you, does the involvement of a longer contract make a divorce less likely or more likely?
I guess the basic question is, are you looking for an affirmation of love, or absolute protection against having your heart broken? Because, you can’t have both, particularly when you are talking about love of a democracy.
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