Pledging allegiance

An essay by Steve Satullo, in time for the 4th of July, 2014

When you really look into a familiar word, dig deep into its meaning and history, you are liable to find some strange associations.  Take “allegiance,” for example, which generations of American school children have pledged “to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands.”  When you ask what such a pledge may mean, it’s good to know where it came from in the first place.

Turns out the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 and credited to Francis Bellamy.  He was a Baptist minister who was working for the popular children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion, but he in turn credited his employer James P. Upham as the driving force behind the project.  They both wanted to revive a fervor of patriotism, which had waned since the Civil War.  Upham was — no doubt about it — a canny promoter, and in true American fashion, embarked on a marketing campaign to sell magazine subscriptions and flags for schools, tied to the initial celebration of Columbus Day, on the 400th anniversary of his supposed discovery of America.

Working together, Upham and Bellamy leveraged educational support into official endorsement, all the way up to President Benjamin Harrison, and a resolution of Congress.  The actual writing of the schoolroom pledge to the flag was left to Bellamy.  The appeal to “allegiance” recalled Civil War ideals and “one nation indivisible” echoed Lincoln.  “Liberty and justice for all” judiciously left out “equality” and “fraternity,” which Bellamy as a Christian socialist might have added if left to his own devices.

Not coincidentally, 1892 was also when Ellis Island first opened.  How were we going to turn those “poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” into true Americans?  The next great wave of immigration, after the First World War, elicited changes in the original pledge from “my flag” to specify the one and only, good old U. S. of A.  Then after the Second World War, persistent religious agitation led President Eisenhower to add “under God” and finally turn the promotional message into a sacred text.

So what is this “allegiance” we are supposed to pledge?  What does it mean, and how did such a feudal concept become a byword of a supposedly democratic society?  The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word thus:  “1. Loyalty or the obligation of loyalty, as to a nation, sovereign, or cause.  2. The obligations of a vassal to a lord.”  Do we really wish our schoolchildren and others to emulate the fealty pledged by a vassal to a liege lord?  Is it really just obedience we’re after?  To what are we binding ourselves?  What fidelity is being demanded of us?

The Columbia Encyclopedia defines “allegiance” as “in political terms, the tie that binds an individual to another individual or institution.  The term usually refers to a person’s legal obligation of obedience to a government in return for the protection of that government, although it may have reference to any institution that one is bound to support.  In ordinary speech, the term may include supplemental emotional ties that make it loosely synonymous with loyalty.”

I would much prefer to talk in terms of “affiliation,” an altogether cleaner word, with less submission to authority or duty, and more helpful etymology, deriving from “adoption” and ultimately from “son.”  I am happy to adopt affiliations and consider myself a son of whatever entity or cause I pledge myself to.  But to paraphrase the gnomic sage Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to explication with the word you have, and not the word you would wish to have.”   So “allegiance” it is.

Bob Dylan reminds us “you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” so who’s it gonna be?  To whom should we pledge our allegiance, plight our troth, affirm our loyalty.  Well, right off, some bits of colored fabric seem an odd place to ground one’s allegiance.  Even more unsettling, the gesture meant to accompany the original pledge, hand outstretched toward the flag, was indistinguishable from the Nazi salute.

Granted, the pledge is not just to the flag, but “to the republic for which it stands.”  But what a slippery concept “republic” is!  The formula made famous by Lincoln probably states the American view best, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  The narrowest meaning might be taken as a state without a monarch, but that puts the American government in with a lot of odd anti-democratic bedfellows, from Plato’s Republic to Soviet Socialist and People’s Republics, from Islamic Republics to all the dictatorial “Democratic Republics” around the world.  Too bad this appeal to national loyalty is not pledged to specific American ideals of government.

What makes a country one’s own — a place, a people, an idea, a compact?  It’s all a matter of history.  Where does our allegiance truly lie, when pledged to such an abstraction?  As E.M. Forster memorably put it, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Allegiance seems to have a military cast, somehow connected to national defense, as if going into battle under the standard of your feudal lord, like the “bannermen” of Game of Thrones following the “sigil”of their ruling family.  As a near-pacifist baby boomer, I have never known a “good war” and doubt that such a thing could exist.

And yet I do have my allegiances, a pool of loyalty that ripples outward in concentric circles.  First of course, is family, a tight circle of people I could number on the fingers of my two hands.  Then friends, for whom I might have to add a few toes, people whose call to serve I might answer.

I’m certainly more attached to my region than to the country as a whole, whether construed as the Berkshires, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, New England, or even the Northeast.  From the Civil War to now, I’m rather in favor of voluntary secession – “Let the erring sisters go.”  I even advocated New England’s secession from Bush’s American imperial adventures, and was surprised to find that I was not original with that idea, the Hartford Convention of 1815 having been the first serious secession movement among the United States.

As a typical, albeit dissenting, American male, I maintain profound yet utterly factitious allegiances to two sports teams, the Cleveland Indians baseball club, and the Williams College Ephs basketball team.  Their fates matter to me, I fill my time and my mind with thoughts of them.

In politics, I pledge deep but distant — and sadly chastened — allegiance to the Democratic Party.  In religion, I profess no attachment to the Catholic Church of my upbringing or any other ritual practice, but I do feel a free-floating fidelity to the spiritual quest.

In art and intellect, I could probably number more, but milder, allegiances than with family or friends.  To mention but a various few – Emerson and Thoreau, T.S. Eliot, John Updike, Francois Truffaut, Jesse Winchester.  I consider myself a devoted follower of these and more.

Aside from closest family, I guess my most devout allegiance, my staunchest bond, my most constant commitment would be to my work, either the craft of writing, or the community service of bookselling and film appreciation.

So there are many things I would pledge allegiance to before “the flag of the United States of America and the republic for which it stands.”  The essence of pledging allegiance may be to transmute something of insignificance into imputed significance, to turn the transitory and accidental into the profound and enduring.  So it’s a meaningful act, a life-affirming act, but one had best be conscious of its actual meaning.  You are whom you serve.

Nonetheless, I am willing to put hand over heart, in neither military nor fascistic salute, and affirm my allegiance to an American national ideal of “liberty and justice for all,” though I miss the “equality” and “fraternity,” and wish that we were, instead of an imperial plutocratic republic, a “democratic commonwealth.”