The Last Page

The Last Page

Much post-9/11 advertising confuses patriotism with consumerism. But using the flag to sell things is an American tradition.

While researching the life of my great-grandfather Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward, I came across a noteworthy conflation of patriotic symbolism with greed. It concerned the Pledge of Allegiance. Edward’s first cousin, Francis Bellamy, briefly became a socialist after reading Edward’s celebrated political novel. Francis also wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. Francis’s stint as a Christian socialist was enthusiastic, if brief. So too was his tenure as a Baptist minister. It may well be that his turn from socialism to reactionary politics was a response to his congregation’s resistance to his left-wing ideas. He preached to them relentlessly about Christian obligations to the poor. And they grew weary and fired him. He then quit the ministry altogether.

Frances wrote the Pledge the next year, in 1892. It was the byproduct of a scheme to sell flags to public schools hatched by his employer, the Youth’s Companion, the best-selling American magazine of the time. Management’s idea was to have simultaneous flag-raisings over the nation’s schoolhouses on that quadricentennial Columbus Day. The celebrations were to coincide with the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair. For the occasion, the magazine published an elaborate ceremony, written mostly by Bellamy, which included the Pledge.

More than twenty-six thousand flags were sold at cost—or so said the Youth’s Companion. The surrounding campaign certainly enhanced the magazine’s considerable prestige. Bellamy, as project manager, orchestrated a variety of pseudo-events, including a Presidential Proclamation and interviews with congressmen. He sent boiler-plate editorials to newspapers across the nation. The Pledge attained its canonical status through this media blitz. Nothing of its scope had occurred before.

Since it first appeared, the Pledge has been surrounded by quarrels over ownership. Years after he wrote it, Francis discovered—after hearing a quiz show on the radio—that the Companion attributed authorship to his deceased boss at the magazine. Years of depositions, recriminations, and character assassinations ensued. Congress itself finally vindicated Francis, although this didn’t prevent the later publication of a book-length polemic challenging his authorship.

In the meantime, Francis’s politics kept drifting rightward, much like the uses to which the Pledge has since been put. In the xenophobic 1920s, he devised “A Plan for a Counterattack on the Nation’s Internal Foes: How to Mobilize the Masses to Support Primary American Doctrines.” This proposal aimed to harness the Pledge to a campaign against “traitors.” For Francis, “traitors” included immigrants, Wobblies, and union members. The proposal was never published (though the desire to use the Pledge to purge has endured).