Bill Long 7/5/05
To The Flag; An Almost Great Book
All who study history with any passion realize that the past is riddled with ironies and contradictions. For example, you cannot understand the history of the modern controversy over teaching evolution in the public schools without realizing that the Progressives inadvertently provoked the controversy. They believed in education; compulsory education. In the 1910s they pushed for legislation compelling American young people to attend high school. When many children, whose parents had never gone beyond elementary school, reported to their parents that they were learning something called evolution, all hell broke loose. The issue still has not died away 80 years later.
A similar kind of irony is illumined by Richard Ellis, the Mark O. Hatfield Professor of Politics at Willamette University in Salem, OR, in his recently-released study, To the Flag, on the history of the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge was written and promoted by a Christian Socialist (Francis Bellamy) in the late 19th century, but now it is the darling of the religious and political Right. The Pledge was originally intended to provide a means by which immigrants could be more easily assimilated into American values to form a more united or perfect nation; in the last decade the Pledge has been used as an instrument of the "culture wars" to divide people and gain political advantage of one party (the Republicans) against the other.
The Virtues of Ellis' Book
Ellis has given us a well-written, engaging narrative of what one might call several distinct "episodes" in the history of the Pledge. (1) He shows its origin in the context of the Schoolhouse Flag Movement of the late 19th century (to place an American flag over every public school), and details the fascinating story of how a private entity (the popular magazine, the Youth's Companion) and an ambitious duo (Upham and Bellamy) secured the support of the most prominent Veterans group in America (the GAR) and Congress in promoting the first Pledge. (2) He details the way that this symbol was originally meant to help assimilate the largest number of immigrants that American culture had ever experienced as well as to provide an antitode to the focus on rampant materialism in the Gilded Age. (3) He skillfully presents the way that religious groups, especially the Jehovah's Witnesses, provided the context for America to clarify what really was required in the flag salute. (4) He tells the story of the addition of "under God" to the Pledge in the 1950s, the objections to the Pledge in the "consciousness-movement" times of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the way that the Pledge has been used recently, especially since 9/11 as an instrument of the so-called cultural wars in America. He doesn't make the point, but he could have done so: the Pledge may be potentially as divisive an issue now in America as gay rights or the legality of abortion. This is quite an irony, especially since the Pledge semingly celebrates the indivisibility of the United States of America.
Though I knew much of the history he narrated, I was utterly fascinated by many of his points. His presentation of the way that the actual salute emerged and changed, from a military salute to a hand over the heart, with concerns about the similarilty of the "Heil, Hitler!" salute, was captivating. His treatment of Michael Dukakis' implosion as Democratic Candidate for the Presidency in 1987 as an issue centering on the Pledge of Allegiance gives much more subtlety to why his campaign foundered--it was not simply the "Willy Horton" ads. His concluding ruminations about how the notion of the pledge as loyalty oath fits into the context of a liberal democracy prizing freedom of expression are worth the price of the book. In short, Ellis has given us a history that is well-informed, carefully-presented, and richly nuanced. Though I can't go as far as Martha Nussbaum, who wants to make the book "required reading" for all Americans (a sort of irony in itself), I think that Ellis' brand of careful historical work on issues probing deep American values is exactly what our culture needs at this time.
The book is marred a few editorial lapses and, in my mind, the lack of pursuit of one important thread that is mentioned over and over but not explored. There is the lack of care in terminology in the Acknowledgements section and chapter 1. You often lose people in the first pages of a book, and my sense is that it took Ellis too long to get to a comfortable narrative pace in these sections. For example, he talks about a seminar on "countersubversion" that he took at Berkeley in 1983 (p. xiv). Within a paragraph he is talking about the class on "political demonology," which is no doubt the same class but without any explanation of how you get from countersubversion to demonology. It created a hitch in my mind: does this person speak precisely or only in generalities?
Or, in ch. 1, he talks about the National Columbian Public School Celebration, but he has only spoken previously about the World's Columbian Exposition (he later calls it a "Fair," without explanation). I think if you read closely you can see how the public schools got connected with the Exposition, but there are just too many loose ends (i.e., where does the World's Congress Auxiliary on p. 14 come from, with so much apparent authority?). Thus, I think the first chapter needs to be rewritten, with some of the "voice" that Ellis so skillfully displays throughout the narrative.
There is one topic that begs consideration, which Ellis mentions at least a dozen times--that he then tantalizingly ignores--and that is the way that the South reacted to the Pledge both at its inception and then in the century or more since 1892. He mentions that the South was hostile to the pledge early, with one state even replacing the "United States of America" language in the Pledge with its own state. But then, in 1988, the South was miraculously mobilized to help defeat Dukakis because of his perceived "weakness" with respect to the Pledge. What are the dyamics of the South's original rejection of and ultimately embrace of the Pledge?
Finally, I would have appreciated had Eliis, when citing historical statutes, consistently cited the page in the Session Records of the state legislatures that passed Pledge-related statutes. It is a great exercise for a researcher, or his assistant, to work through old collections of statutes. By so doing you find not only some interesting things about the subject you are studying, but you almost invariably get two or three ideas for the next several books you want to write.
In sum, then. A good book. A very good book. A most instructive book on a hot topic today. We are in Professor Ellis' debt, and will be ready now to follow with interest the future steps of Michael Newdow and others as they continue to question the pledge. But the question that neither Ellis nor anyone whom I know who deals with this topic deals with is treated in my next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long