A review of:
by Edward Bellemy, 1888
The Pledge of Allegiance
by Francis Bellamy,
Sept. 8, 1892
The Youth Companion
by Edward Bellamy 1898
Every school day millions of students stand up, place their hands on their hearts, and recite the following words:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The literal meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance is that everyone who resides in the United States experiences liberty and justice at all times. There aren’t too many people who would defend this point of view and conscious workers understand that this argument is absurd.
One reason why many people feel that liberty and justice is not experienced by everyone in this country stems from the fact that residents of United States have a better chance of going to prison than residents living in any other nation in the world. One out of every four prisoners in the world resides in U.S. jails.
The original Pledge
So, a question might be asked: Why was the Pledge of Allegiance written? Francis Bellamy, who was a Baptist minister and a Christian socialist wrote The Pledge in the year 1892. Bellamy’s original idea for his Pledge contained the following words:
“I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty, justice, and equality for all.”
Bellamy wanted to use the word equality because of the phrase “Liberty, equality, and fraternity” that was used in the French Revolution. He decided not to use equality in his Pledge because the discrimination against women and African Americans made this word too controversial. In 1892 women did not have the right to vote, and African Americans were legally discriminated against because of the Jim Crow laws.
The reason why Bellamy decided to use the phrase I pledge allegiance to my flag is a bit more involved. Francis Bellamy’s first cousin was Edward Bellamy who wrote the novel Looking Backward in the year 1888. Looking Backward is the story of someone from the year 1887 who was transported into a world of the future. In this future world poverty did not exist, women experienced full equality, corporations were nationalized by the government, and society was organized on the basis of genuine solidarity.
When Francis Bellamy wrote the words I pledge allegiance to my flag he imagined that he was pledging allegiance to a socialist world of the future that was envisioned by his cousin Edward Bellamy in the novel Looking Backward. In this future world Francis Bellamy imagined that there would be liberty, justice, and equality for all.
When we understand why the Pledge was written, we can also understand why Francis Bellamy objected in 1924 when his pledge was changed from “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America.” Francis Bellamy’s granddaughter also objected in 1954 when the words “under God” were added. The reasoning for this objection stemmed from the fact that Francis Bellamy was pressured to leave the Church because of his socialist sermons.
Apparently Edward Bellamy was intrigued by the fact that the word equality was not included in the Pledge because the title of his final novel written in 1898 is Equality. In Equality, Edward Bellamy continued the story of Looking Backward but refined many of his views. The following passage illustrates what Edward Bellamy’s feelings were about the main obstacle humanity faced in the year 1898. When Bellamy uses the term “our political system” he is writing from the point of view of his main character, Julian West, who was transported into the future and is identifying with the past.
“Undoubtedly the confusion of terms in our political system is rather calculated to puzzle one at first, but if you only grasp firmly the vital point that the rule of the rich, the supremacy of capital and its interests, as against those of the people at large, was the central principle of our system, to which every other interest was made subservient, you will have the key that clears up every mystery.” P. 13
While Bellamy understood that the abolition of slavery was an advance in human history, he also showed how there were numerous similarities between the system of slavery and the system of wage labor. He even went so far as to say that in a sense a slave had one advantage over a worker. Slaves were compelled to work while workers need to ask, or apply for employment. For this reason, Bellamy argued that the slave was, in a sense, more honorable than the worker because slaves didn’t ask to be exploited.
Bellamy also explained how the capitalist system works in his Parable of the Water Tank. He imagined a water tank which was owned by a small percentage of the people. In order to drink water the people needed to pay for the water in the water tank. In order to obtain the money to purchase the water, the people needed to bring buckets of water to fill the tank. However, the people were paid less for a bucket of water than they needed to pay for that same amount of water. Eventually the inevitable happened and the water tank overflowed. At this point the owners said they didn’t need any more water and the people had no way to satisfy their thirst. The owners hired all kinds of people to convince the populace to accept this arrangement, but eventually the people saw the light and confiscated the water tank from those who owned it.
Bellamy also questioned what was the difference between war and peace in the capitalist economic system. He argued that when thousands of people die as a result of job related accidents, that this is not an example of living in peace. He also showed that in the later half of the 19th century tens of thousands of troops were mobilized to crush strikes of workers. Bellamy argued that the number of soldiers mobilized in these armies exceeded the number of soldiers headed by George Washington in the American Revolution. Yet the government argued that the nation was not at war.
Bellamy also made a number of arguments that today we would find reprehensible. He believed that human achievement was congenital. In other words, he felt that people were born with a certain potential that they could not surpass in their lives. He argued that the initial immigrants who came to the US came from the best Europeans, while those who came to this country during his generation came from the worst. He felt that in his future world there would be a separation of the races. Less objectionable was his opinion that he didn’t view himself as a socialist, but a nationalist because he wanted all major enterprises to be confiscated by the government. However, all these ideas were made in the context that humanity had the potential to make profound improvements in the world.
While these opinions are clearly reprehensible, we also need to look at the times when Bellamy wrote his novels. The birth of the Niagara Movement which culminated in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) occurred in the year 1905 several years after Edward Bellamy passed away. In other words, Bellamy did not have the knowledge of the civil rights movement, or the Russian Revolution, or the Cuban Revolution, or all the other movements that erupted in the twentieth century. This is not an attempt to excuse Bellamy’s unfortunate remarks, but to place them in a historical context.
Finally, Edward Bellamy gives his own version of the kind of pledge to a new flag that the citizens of a future socialist world might recite. “The American, as he lifts his eyes to the ensign of the nation, is not reminded of its military prowess compared with other nations, of its past triumphs in battle and possible future victories. To him the waving of the folds convey no such suggestions. They recall rather the compact of brotherhood in which he stands pledged with all his countrymen mutually to safeguard the equal dignity and welfare of each by the might of all.” I believe that this kind of pledge is the kind that people all over the world might support.
Steve Halpern is the author of Looking Back From 2101. This novel uses a similar format as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.