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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

September 13, 2017: Pledge Posts: The Bellamy Boys

[September 8th marked the 125th anniversary of the first publication of the Pledge of Allegiance, in the popular magazine The Youth’s Companion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy this complex shared text, starting with a repeat of one of my oldest posts and then moving into four new ones. Leading up to a weekend post on the very salient question of the worst and best versions of allegiance!]
On the biographical and familial contexts that challenge and change our perspective on the Pledge.
As I highlighted in Monday’s post, even the most basic biographical knowledge about Pledge author Francis Bellamy significantly shifts our sense of this American text and tradition. Bellamy was an ordained Baptist minister who identified as a Christian Socialist, meaning that he wedded his personal and professional spirituality to a radical vision of social and human equality. In 1891, just a year before he wrote the Pledge, he was forced out of his Boston ministry for “preaching against the evils of capitalism”; when he and his family subsequently moved to Florida, he ended up leaving his church there because it practiced racial discrimination against local residents of color. Interestingly and importantly, as I also wrote on Monday, Bellamy’s Pledge did not include the phrase “under God” or any references to religion (and when that phrase was added in the 1950s his granddaughter protested, claiming he would have been horrified). Yet there’s no doubt that its concluding phrase “with liberty and justice for all” was deeply intertwined with Bellamy’s Christian Socialism.
While the Pledge certainly took off quickly after that 1892 publication, Francis Bellamy was far from the most famous late 19th century member of his extended family. Bellamy’s cousin was the novelist Edward Bellamy, among whose five books and many other published works was the 19th century’s third-highest-selling novel, Looking Backward, from 2000 to 1887 (1888). Looking Backward is a utopian science fiction story, in which its 19th century protagonist finds himself transported to the year 2000, where he discovers that a series of socialist reforms have turned the United States into a paradise quite unlike the Gilded Age moment of the book’s publication. I can’t entirely recommend Looking Backward as an engrossing read (it often feels more like a political pamphlet or dry sociological study than a novel), and I definitely won’t ever teach the whole thing again (as I did in my first course on the Gilded Age, a 2007 English Senior Seminar). But it’s a pretty fascinating window into late 19th century America, and its striking sales numbers indicate that many of Bellamy’s fellow Gilded Age Americans found something of interest in this utopian alternative.
Edward and Francis are their own people, and I don’t know for sure that Francis had any direct engagement with Edward’s novel (although I’m willing to bet he did, given the two men’s shared socialist philosophies). But nonetheless, I think it’d be really interesting and important to consider the Pledge of Allegiance alongside Looking Backward—to consider, that is, whether we might see the Pledge as a utopian vision of the United States in its own right. I’m thinking in particular about the central phrase “to the Republic for which it stands,” the moment when the Pledge shifts overtly from a tribute to a flag to a testimony to a national community. After all, I can’t imagine that Francis Bellamy, or any engaged and thinking person, could truly look at the United States in 1892 and see a nation currently dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.” But what if Bellamy saw the Pledge as a utopian text akin to his cousin’s, as imagining a potential future nation and community that could live up to and embody those ideals? What if we saw it that way today? Among other effects, that would require the Pledge to be a call to action, to the activism that can help move us closer to that more perfect union. Now that’d be worth dedicating ourselves to.
Next Pledge post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the Pledge you’d share?

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