Sometimes I get inspiration for my blogs from Facebook memes. Sometimes I get it from books that I am reading, or research that I am in the middle of. Sometimes- it is 5:00 am, and I have been killing time on Google since 3:30 am looking up fun trivia in world history for that day. For example, do you know that December 22, 1891, is the birthday of perforated toilet paper (toilet paper that you can rip off)?
Or that today in 1882, is the first time that we saw a Christmas tree with electric lights?
How did electric Christmas lights come before perforated toilet paper?
Today is the 125th anniversary of the x-ray, where Wilhelm Roentgen x-rayed his wife’s hand, and she proclaimed, ‘I have seen my death!’.
Today is also the anniversary of the first ‘official death’ during the Vietnam War- James Thomas Davis. While he is not the first service member to die in Vietnam (there had been deaths in Vietnam since 1945), he was the first to die after President Johnson officially declared war on December 11, 1961.
But it wasn’t any of this that made me stop and do some research. Please take a moment and look at the photo I have included.
Those are American students in school saying the Pledge of Allegiance in 1941.
Got your attention? Let us start at the beginning of the story.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Francis Bellamy from upstate New York. Originally an ordained Baptist minister, Francis one day turned from the life of religion to the life of journalism. He didn’t stray too far- he got a job from one of his Boston Congregants, Daniel S. Ford, who owned and was editor of Youth’s Companion– a family magazine with over 500,000 subscribers.
Francis was assigned to the promotions department and worked on a project with the schools on a patriotic program to coincide with the Columbian Exposition’s opening ceremonies in October 1892. Francis was a Baptist minister, a prominent member of the Christian Socialist movement, a Free Mason, and a committee chairman of the National Education Association.
It was the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the New World, and Francis thought it was something to be celebrated. He even petitioned Congress and helped convince President Benjamin Harrison to declare a ‘Columbus Day,’ a day of observance to honor not only Columbus but the “four completed centuries of American Life.” The Knights of Columbus lobbied state legislatures to declare October 12 a legal holiday. On April 1, 1907, Colorado was the first state to do so, followed by New York in 1909. President Franklin Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the second Monday in October as Columbus Day, now a federal holiday.
But why all the fuss about a person that never set foot on United States soil? Well, we need to realize that this is only 27 years after the Civil War, and the country needed something to bind it together. Washington Irving had published a book in 1828 entitled A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. The book was highly glorified and the stuff of myth’s- but it was a significant publication for the war-torn country when they needed a ‘hero.’ And Christopher Columbus was going to be that hero.
Side note: This book was also responsible for the incorrect belief that people thought the world was flat until after Christopher Columbus’s travels.
We can all agree that the Spanish/Florentine explorers who first came to the New World was Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Florida in 1513. Alonso Alvarez de Pineda docking at Corpus Christi Bay in 1519, and the famous Giovanni da Verrazzano reached the New York Harbor in 1524.
The first noted Italian American settler was Pietro (Peter) Cesare Alberti, who settled in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now known as New York State) on June 2, 1635. He had married a Walloon woman named Judith Manje and in 1646 was awarded a land grant from the Dutch of 100 acres in Brooklyn. Petro and Judith were killed in an Indian raid in 1655. Still, his memory lives on with a small stone in New York City’s Battery Park near the bronze statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano which celebrates his arrival date, and June 2 is still known to be ‘Alberti Day”.
Side note: we will all agree that Lead Erikson did arrive in North America about 500 years before Columbus’s arrival- but he landed in Newfoundland, Canada- not in the United States. There is a national day of observance for Leif Erikson on October 9, declared by President Obama in 2013.
The proclamation celebrating Christopher Columbus also came right after the largest mass lynching’s in the United States in New Orleans (1891), when 11 Sicilian immigrants were unfairly and illegally lynched after the city’s police commissioner was killed. The media blamed the local Italian community. Italians had been portrayed by local media as ‘short of stature, dark in complexion, cruel and shifty,’ and the community quickly passed off blame on them. Sadly the 11 Sicilians were found not guilty by the court of law, but that did not sway public opinion, and the local community took matters into their own hands. As the New York Times wrote:
Yet while every good citizen will readily assent to the proposition that this affair is to be deplored, it would be difficult to find any one individual who would confess that privately he deplores it very much.
So we have a Washington Irving writing a tall-tale on Columbus’s adventures, a country that was recovering from the Civil War, a devastating lynching in New Orleans, and an ordained priest turned journalist. What does this have to do with the Pledge of Allegiance and the salute?
As I mentioned, Francis was a prominent member of the Christian Socialist movement, serving as the Vice-President of the Boston’s Society of Christian Socialists and a member of the social gospel movement, a late 19th-century crusade against social, political, and economic injustices. Francis witnessed the increase of immigration in America and the violence that came with the ‘outsiders.’ He believed that a ‘well-organized and patriotic public education system’ would install immigrants with the American ideals and values along with the movement’s supporters. The country did not have an official pledge at that time, so he penned the words:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Initially, the Pledge would begin with a military salute, when the words “to my flag” was spoken- the arm was extended towards the flag.
At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” 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; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.The Youth’s Companion, 1982
Shortly after that, officials decided that the Pledge would begin with the right hand over the heart. After reciting “to the Flag,” the speaker would extend their arm toward the flag, palm-down.
On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain following the Battleship Maine’s sinking in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. One day later, New York becomes the first state to legislate the Pledge of Allegiance requirement. Good time to amp up that patriotic spirit! (The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898.)
This was all fine and dandy until World War II. That is when things get messy. As we all know, Hitler had a VERY similar salute. Richard J. Ellis wrote in his book that:
the similarities in the salute had begun to attract comment as early as the mid-1930s…the embarrassing resemblance between the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute and the salute that accompanied the Pledge of Allegiance,” stirred fears among many Americans that the Bellamy Salute could be used overseas for pro-fascist propaganda purposes.To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance
Enter in the American Legion and the VWF! They are not very happy about this turn of events. European newspapers and films had started using pictures of Americans giving the Bellamy Salute and was cropping out the American Flags, giving the impression that we as a country supported Hitler and Mussolini. So, the two organizations petition Congress to change the procedures. Of course, it is Congress, so it did not turn out so well. They create a law stating that the Pledge was to:
be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart; extending the right hand, palm upward, toward the flag at the words ‘to the flag’ and holding this position until the end, when the hand drops to the side.U.S.C Title 36- Patriotic Societies and Observance
Well, now that doesn’t work either!
On December 22, 1942- Congress finally realizes the issues with the Bellamy Salute and eliminates it when they passed a law stating that the Pledge should be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart!
There we have it- 5 hours of research, two pots of coffee, endless black holes into the dark web on the Bellamy salute to the American flag. It is time for a shower and to get to work before my boss realizes that I have been MIA for the last 51 minutes.
As always my friends, I invite you to continue researching this subject on your own, I have included some links that I used below. And remember be Great at what your Good at!
How Columbus Sailed Into U.S. History, Thanks To Italians : Code Switch : NPRFrancis J. Bellamy (bcy.ca)The Pledge of Allegiance (ushistory.org)Why Americans Once Gave the ‘Bellamy Salute’ (thoughtco.com)The Pledge of Allegiance and How It Has Changed – America Comes AlivePledge of Allegiance: How a Socialist Ended Up Writing It | Fortune