Our Stories

Richard Ellis: Exploring the American Psyche

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America..."

Many of us grew up as youngsters automatically reciting those words every day at school. For Richard Ellis, Willamette's Mark O. Hatfield Professor of Politics, the fact that the most individualistic nation on earth would insist that its school children pledge allegiance to the state was a paradox he couldn't resist investigating. The result is To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance (University of Kansas Press, 2005), the first book to examine the historical and social significance of the country's Pledge of Allegiance.

"In a democracy that sees itself as the freest country in the world, it's odd to have a daily or weekly pledge of allegiance," says Ellis, who recently discussed to the flag with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air," one of National Public Radio's most popular programs. [ listen to the story at NPR ] "Until 1943, the state could require school children to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Into the 1960's and 1970's, even after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1943 giving children the right not to say the Pledge, teachers were fired and kids were expelled for refusing to say or stand for the Pledge. Even today, you read about teachers who require children to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, even though they have a legal right not to stand."

Working with student research assistants, most notably politics major Alexis Walker '06, Ellis combed libraries and studied old documents and newspaper articles for clues about the Pledge's origins and its cultural implications. Written in 1892 to coincide with the opening of the World's Fair in Chicago and to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, the Pledge was born of an ambitious effort to celebrate public schools across America. The celebration was the brain child of James Upham, who ran the promotion and sales department at the Youth's Companion, one of the largest national family magazines of the time.

"The World's Fair and the celebration of Columbus' discovery of America were focused on the nation's technological wonders and material progress," explains Ellis. "Upham wanted to remind Americans of the ideals and patriotism that had made America great. Upham's idea was to teach the nation a patriotic lesson by having every school in the nation raise the flag over the schoolhouse in an elaborate program that would include a salute to the flag."

This was no small feat since at the time most schools didn't display the flag, or even possess a flag. Since Upham already had a full-time job promoting the Youth's Companion, he handed the task of coordinating this celebration to Francis Bellamy, who had recently resigned his post as pastor of Boston's Bethany Baptist Church. Bellamy was given the responsibility of pulling together the patriotic program that was to be followed by every public school. Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance to accompany the flag raising.

To understand the significance of the Pledge of Allegiance, says Ellis, you have to understand the social and cultural anxieties and concerns of the early 1890s. "The Pledge speaks to the American values of liberty and justice for all, which resonates with people to this day. But it also speaks to American anxieties about inadequate patriotism and newcomers."

Upham and Bellamy were worried that Americans were no longer as patriotic as the Civil War generation had been. "They were concerned that people were too preoccupied with industrialization and making money. They wanted to revive the idea of sacrifice and altruism."

The other anxiety that led to the Pledge had decidedly racist undertones. Immigrants at this time were increasingly coming not from western and northern Europe but from eastern and southern Europe. They were no longer Protestants; they were Catholics and Jews. "Native born Protestants like Upham and Bellamy were afraid these new immigrants would undermine the Republic."

The Pledge is still an accurate barometer of our national anxieties. A paradox of the Pledge is that those who are most anxious about American identity are often those who are most insistent that we need to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. "The more anxious we're feeling about our national identity, the more attention we pay to the Pledge. When there's a national crisis, there's a flurry of interest in having people say the Pledge."

Ellis points to the rise in pro-Pledge legislation following the 9/11 attack. "States that didn't have a Pledge law decided they needed one; states that had a weekly Pledge requirement decided they needed a daily one. Many cities and states also added a Pledge requirement for legislatures and city councils, including Salem's own city council."

Ellis suggests that the Pledge also expresses a belief that America is God's chosen nation, particularly after "under God" was added in 1954 to distinguish Americans from atheistic communists. "The idea that Americans are a chosen people; that we have a special place and mission in the world, goes back to the Puritans. Ronald Reagan called America the 'shining city on the hill.'"

This concept shapes not only our view of ourselves, but also how we view the rest of the world. "It carries with it the sense that the rest of the world is dark and darkness always threatens to envelop the light. If the [American] light goes out, the world goes dark. So the stakes are extremely high for those who believe, like our current president, that America is the beacon of freedom for the world. If we fail, the world fails."

While some would simply see this as national pride, Ellis says it also represents our anxiety as a nation. "There's tremendous anxiety because the stakes of losing, of failing the world are so high. I think that's what drives the Pledge of Allegiance today - pride in the country, but also anxiety that the weight of the world is on us and we might not be able to fulfill our mission."

To the Flag: the Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Oregon Council for the Humanities. It is available at major bookstores, online at Amazon.com and at The Willamette Store.