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Thursday, September 14, 2017

September 14, 2017: Pledge Posts: 1890s America

[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!]
How three 1890s contexts help us think about the Pledge.
Francis Bellamy’s Pledge was published in The Youth’s Companion as part of a September 8th, 1892 National School Celebration of Columbus Day. 1892 marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s initial arrival in the Caribbean, and that quadricentennial thus became a moment for significant national celebrations. But not necessarily national commemorations—that is, as I analyzed at length in the Conclusion to my first book, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that exemplified this national occasion (although it did so in 1893, as it took longer to plan than expected) focused far more on celebrating America’s achievements and glories in the present than on remembering its histories or figures from the past. Although, as I argued in yesterday’s post, Francis Bellamy’s personal and familial contexts make it unlikely that he intended the Pledge to be solely or simplistically celebratory, there’s no doubt that it could and did serve such purposes. Take the word “indivisible,” for example—defining the United States as indivisible required, in 1892 in particular (although the point sadly holds true today as well), a thoroughgoing amnesia about both recent and ongoing histories.
That celebratory side to the Exposition did not go unchallenged, however. One of the most compelling challenges was offered by the pamphlet The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition: The Afro-American’s Contribution to Columbian Literature (1893). Edited by the great Ida B. Wells, featuring contributions from Frederick Douglass, Wells’ future husband Ferdinand Lee Barnett, and Irvine Garland Penn, and distributed just outside the Exposition grounds, The Reason Why used this celebratory occasion to raise hard questions about race in American society and history, and to offer alternative visions of a national community than those presented at the Exposition. In so doing, it modeled a kind of critical utopianism that could be productively compared to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and to the utopian understanding of the Pledge of Allegiance for which I argued at the close of yesterday’s post. Like both Edward and Francis, the pamphlet’s authors understood all too clearly the realities of Gilded Age American society—but they all used their words and voices to argue as well for a more ideal version of the nation.
Those harsh Gilded Age realities concerned class and work just as much as they did race and culture, of course—and in May 1894, just six months after the Columbian Exposition closed, another Chicago-area event illustrated and amplified those issues. That event was the Pullman Strike, which began with a May 11th wildcat strike at the company’s Illinois factory but subsequently spread to Pullman workers and lines around the country. The strike itself, and even more so the state and federal governments’ use of soldiers to brutally break it in a series of July 1894 events, provided another clear example of just how divided this supposedly “indivisible” republic of ours was. Yet at the same time, the strike could be paralleled to The Reason Why, as another example of an oppressed American community using their voices and activisms to highlight and challenge such realities and inequalities. The strikers and labor leaders were agitating for nothing less than “liberty and justice for all,” and I can’t help but think that the Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy was in full solidarity with that activist push to produce a United States closer to the Pledge’s ideal definition.
Last Pledge post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the Pledge you’d share?

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