The Pledge versus the Oath
By Jim Peron
When George W Bush became president last January, he struck a familiar pose. Raising his right hand before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he swore to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." The oath serves to remind us that the United States is a constitutional republic with a federal system. The oath also reminds us that the Constitution is the cornerstone of the American system. The government is supposed to be bound by the Constitution. As such, government is not omnipotent but strictly limited to the functions and purposes enumerated in the Constitution. Legislation, regardless of how popular, is supposed to be consistent with it, and any laws that conflict with it are invalid.
Behind the Constitution are specific principles that America's Founders consciously held and promoted. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is, for all practical purposes, the birth certificate of the United States. In it Jefferson outlined the principles of the Founders. These principles have a long and honorable history. (See my article "The Declaration of Independence: It's Greek to Me" Ideas on Liberty, August 2000.) But the Founders realized that it was impractical, and unnecessary, to expect the American people to understand that history and philosophy. The Declaration and the Constitution were all that Americans needed to understand. If the people were loyal to the Constitution, then the Republic was safe.
Of course there have been individuals who were opposed to the Founders' philosophy and opposed to a constitutional republic with limited powers. Almost from the beginning there were individuals who promoted a government of unlimited powers. They wanted the people to express their loyalty, not to the Constitution, but to the state.
The differences between the two ideologies is striking. If one swears an oath to the Constitution it implies limited government by definition. It also implies that individual rights are paramount in the American system of governance. But when one swears to support the government instead of the Constitution, those principles disappear.
Imagine if our elected officials, instead of swearing to uphold the Constitution, simply swore to support the government! At this point nothing the government does could be consistently challenged. There would be no limitations on the state or on its functions. Individual rights would be nonexistent. The entire philosophy of the Founders would be turned inside out. If one supports the Constitution, then individual rights are the foundation on which the enumerated powers of the government are based. If one, instead, swears allegiance to the government, then it is the foundation on which specific enumerated rights are granted. The first system supports a concept of natural rights that reside in the individual. The second is one of legal positivism, which says that rights are whatever the state grants.
The Founders wanted a government where the rights of the people come first. The function of government is simply to protect those pre-existing rights. Statism argues just the opposite. For the statist the government comes first and rights are privileges granted at the whim of the state. These two philosophies could not be further apart.
If we were to place in order the structure of the American system it would be:
- The people and their natural rights. Individuals are endowed with certain rights that are theirs by nature. These include the rights to life, liberty, and justly acquired property.
- The Declaration of Independence. This manifesto set out the basic beliefs of America's Founders regarding rights and the nature of government.
- The Constitution of the United States. This document, based on the principles clearly enunciated in the Declaration, established the method of proper government. It was not intended to explain the philosophy of government but only outline how it should operate. Powers were strictly enumerated while rights were not.
- The Republic. The end result of all of this would be the American Republic itself.
The president-elect and our elected officials do not swear an oath to the Republic but to the Constitution. The Constitution is the cause, the Republic the effect. If the Constitution is ignored, then the Republic is lost. Support for the Republic that does not include fidelity to the Constitution leads to a loss of both the process and the outcome.
Pledge of Allegiance
Why is it, then, that so many American schoolchildren are required to swear allegiance to the flag and the Republic "for which it stands" rather than the Constitution? Millions of children start each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Wouldn't we be much safer as a Republic if the children learned to respect the Constitution? If we were to place the flag in the hierarchy above, it would follow the Republic. The flag is a symbol of the Republic. It seems odd to pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic while ignoring both the Declaration and the Constitution.
To understand why this reversal took place we need to look at the history of the Pledge of Allegiance itself. Most of us grew up with the Pledge, and we probably assumed that it was always part of the American culture. But that is not true. Even the current version is relatively new. The phrase "under God" was not in the original version; it was added only in 1954. The Pledge itself doesn't go back farther than the 1890s. It's a child of the socialist Progressive movement.
It was during the late 1800s that, for the first time, widespread advocacy of socialism and statism became popular in the United States. Numerous authors wrote novels promoting these doctrines. Among those novels were Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. Bellamy wrote of a futuristic America where socialism reigned. In its first year of publication, 1888, the book sold 100,000 copies and eventually topped a million in print; it was translated into 20 languages. As a work of American fiction it was surpassed in the nineteenth century only by Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben Hur.
John Dewey, the great advocate of government schooling and a socialist, called Bellamy his "Great American Prophet" and said: "What Uncle Tom's Cabin was to the antislavery movement Bellamy's book may well be to the shaping of popular opinion for a new social order." In fact Dewey took many of his socialist ideas for education and indoctrination from Bellamy. Historian John Baer said that Dewey "was ready to advocate Edward Bellamy's type of education and to reform American society through 'progressive education."' Dewey was keenly interested in the Soviet Union and wrote articles praising the educational system imposed by the communists. (The material from Baer comes from his book The Pledge of Allegiance: A Centennial History, 1892-1992. See www. vineyard.net/vineyard/history/pdgech0.htm.)
In Looking Backward the main character, Julian West, falls asleep in 1887 only to awaken in the year 2000. He finds an America where the means of production are owned by the state and everyone earns equal income. Jobs are assigned by the government to citizen conscripts, who must work for the state from the age of 21 until retirement at 45.
Edward Bellamy, along with his cousin Francis Bellamy, were the two major spokesmen for what they called "Nationalism," by which they meant the nationalization of all industry under state control. Across America some 167 Nationalist Clubs were formed. In 1889 one of the Boston Nationalist Clubs formed an auxiliary called the Society for Christian Socialists. According to Baer, "The principles [of the Society] stated that economic rights and powers were gifts of God, not for the receiver's use only, but for the benefit of all. All social, political and industrial relations should be based on the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, in the spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Capitalism was not based on Christian love but on selfish individualism." Francis Bellamy became the vice president in charge of education for the Society. Other prominent members included Francis Willard, the leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and W.D.R Bliss, a well known minister.
The Bellamy cousins came from a long line of Baptist clergymen. Their grandfather had been a top aide to "The Great Awakening" evangelist Jonathan Edwards. Francis Bellamy was a seminary graduate and an ordained Baptist minister who openly preached socialism from the pulpit. But this led to conflicts with his congregation. One member, however, was enthusiastic about Bellamy's socialist principles: Daniel Ford, editor of the religious publication The Youth's Companion. Ford also was founder of Boston's famed Ford Hall Forum.
Loyalty to the State
After Bellamy was relieved of his ministry, Ford offered him a position with his magazine. Together they continued to work with various advocates of socialism and decided that a program was needed to teach American youth loyalty to the state. They realized that the individualist tradition in America did not lend itself easily to the "patriotism" needed for the socialist state of Looking Backward.
Ford and Bellamy contacted the National Education Association (NEA), which was then headed by William Torrey Harris. Harris, according to Baer, "believed in a state controlled public education system. As the leading Hegelian philosopher in the United States he believed that the State had a central role in society. He believed youth should be trained in loyalty to the State and the public school was the institution to plant fervent loyalty and patriotism. Like many other American educators of his time, he admired and copied the Prussian educational system."
A staunch opponent of private education, Harris wanted public education centralized in every way possible and used his influence to work toward that goal. He was unhappy that local education made it difficult to exploit the schools to indoctrinate children into accepting their proper role in society. His goal was shared by the Nationalist Clubs. The Lynn, Massachusetts, club persuaded the state legislature to require attendance at school until 15 years of age and to increase the school year from 20 to 35 weeks. John Taylor Gatto, an outspoken critic of government education, notes that Harris was one of the main proponents of using government schooling to indoctrinate and not educate. Gatto, in a speech on education, "Confederacy of Dunces: The Tyranny of Compulsory Education," quotes Harris: "Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom." Gatto continues: "This is not an accident, Harris explains, but the 'result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual."'
It is obvious why Harris was happy to join Bellamy's crusade. In 1892 Harris got the NEA to support a National Public School Celebration, which would promote loyalty to both the state and its schools. It was decided that they would promote an agenda written by The Youth's Companion. The NEA asked Bellamy to be the chairman of the celebration. At the main event he gave a speech that showed the importance of public education in the task of political indoctrination. He told the audience, "the training of citizens in the common knowledge and the common duties of citizenship belongs irrevocably to the State." Bellamy, like his cousin, wanted to use government schools to help promote a socialist agenda. He felt that one way of encouraging this agenda would be the teaching of state loyalty. To this end he wrote a pledge, which students across the country were asked to take. With a few minor changes this pledge is what is now called the Pledge of Allegiance. (According to Black's Law Dictionary, "allegiance" is an "Obligation of fidelity and obedience to government in consideration for protection that government gives.")
Bellamy attempted to accomplish several goals with his Pledge of Allegiance. He saw it as a means of inculcating support for a centralized national government over the federalist system of the Founding Fathers. He was particularly troubled by the idea that the individual states formed the federal government, fearing that secession from the union might be seen as legitimate after all. He kept in mind the "Oath of Allegiance," which was forced on the South after the Civil War. Baer quotes Bellamy as saying: "The true reason for allegiance to the Flag is the 'republic for which it stands.'... And what does that vast thing, the Republic, mean? It is the concise political word for the Nation-the One Nation which the Civil War was fought to prove. To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible, as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches."
Ford's Youth's Companion first published Bellamy's Pledge on September 8, 1892, in its original format: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Bellamy's widow said he lamented that he couldn't use the motto of the French Revolution, "liberty, fraternity, and equality," instead. He was tempted to use the phrase, but thought that it was "too fanciful" and that its use was "thousands of years off in realization."
The Youth's Companion actively promoted the Pledge and loyalty to the government. At the time it was uncommon for a school to fly a flag outside its premises; that practice was almost exclusively associated with military bases. But during its campaign The Youth's Companion sold thousands of flags for use at public schools.
Baer says Francis Bellamy acknowledged that his Pledge put forth the ideas of cousin Edward. Francis originally toyed with the idea of making the Pledge more openly socialistic, but decided that if he did so it would never be accepted.
The reason that elected officials swear an oath to the Constitution is clear. And the reason that Francis Bellamy wrote his pledge is also clear. Bellamy's goal was not to inculcate the values of Jefferson and Adams. Instead, his desire was to promote the socialist utopianism of his cousin Edward.
The U.S. Constitution is anathema to socialists of all types. It is a roadblock to be circumvented. That Edward Bellamy understood this can be seen in his comparison of the written U.S. Constitution and the unwritten English one: "England's Constitution readily admits of constant though gradual modification. Our American Constitution does not readily admit of such change. England can thus move into Socialism almost imperceptibly. Our Constitution being largely individualistic must be changed to admit of Socialism, and each change necessitates a political crisis" (quoted in Rose L. Martin, Fabian Freeway, p. 136).
The British Fabian socialist Ramsay MacDonald came to the same conclusion after a visit to the United States. In a speech printed in the February 1898 Fabian News he said: "The great bar to progress [in the United States] is the written constitutions, Federal and State."
When an oath for schoolchildren was being contemplated the socialists knew exactly what they were doing.
Jim Peron is the author of Exploding Population Myths (Heartland Institute). He is executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values in Johannesburg, South Africa, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in Ideas on Liberty, May 2001. The Foundation is a non-profit, charitable organization, dedicated to advancing the principles of a free society: constitutional government, individual responsibility, private property, free enterprise, and the rule of law. Donations in any amount are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.