For well over a century, the Pledge of Allegiance has been a pillar of America’s national identity. New evidence has emerged, though, to indicate that perhaps the man who pledged that he originated it did not.
Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian socialist from upstate New York, went so far as to swear in at least two affidavits that he had formulated the oath one blistering August night in 1892 in the Boston headquarters of a magazine for young people that he was promoting.
Bellamy’s authorship was reaffirmed during the 20th century by, among others, the American Flag Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the Legislative Research Service (now the Congressional Research Service) and the Library of Congress. He was credited again as recently as last year in a resolution by the United States Senate and a citation by the “New Yale Book of Quotations.”
In February, however, simmering doubts about the oath’s origin resurfaced. A New York history buff discovered a newspaper account that appears to contradict Bellamy’s.
The discovery may also vindicate a longstanding but disputed claim that the oath actually originated in 1890 when a 13-year-old Kansas schoolboy — remarkably named Frank E. Bellamy — said he submitted it to a contest that was organized by Francis Bellamy’s own magazine to promote American values such as patriotism.
In February, Barry Popik, a historian and lexicographer who had been researching the pledge’s origin, was stunned to find a clipping on newspapers.com from the Ellis County News Republican of Hays, Kan., dated May 21, 1892.
The article described a school ceremony several weeks earlier, on April 30, 1892 — more than three months before Francis Bellamy swore he wrote the pledge -— in which high school students in Victoria, Kan., swore allegiance to the American flag using virtually the same words.
Mr. Popik collaborated with Fred R. Shapiro, the associate library director for collections and special projects at Yale Law School, who immediately noticed the inconsistency in the timeline: How could Francis Bellamy have created the pledge in August 1892, as he claimed, when a nearly identical pledge had already been recited and published the previous May?
Mr. Shapiro is also the editor of “The New Yale Book of Quotations,” which attributed the pledge to Francis Bellamy in its latest edition, published last August. He said that in subsequent editions, he would credit the oath to Frank Bellamy instead.
The May 1892 newspaper clipping does not prove that Frank Bellamy wrote the pledge, but it seems to suggest that perhaps Francis Bellamy did not.
“It’s very hard to explain what you see in that newspaper,” said Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, curator of the division of cultural and community life of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“I think you can’t rule out that Frank may have been the author and that Francis came across it and consciously or subconsciously used the words,” she added in an email this month.
Elizabeth L. Brown, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, agreed that “if Francis Bellamy wrote the pledge in August of 1892, how did it come to be published in a Kansas newspaper in May 1892?”
In 1957, the Library of Congress certified Francis Bellamy as the author of the pledge on the basis of a 148-page investigative summary submitted by the Legislative Research Service. It was requested by Representative Kenneth B. Keating, a New York Republican, whose upstate district included Bellamy’s birthplace.
But that report focused almost entirely on determining whether the pledge had been written by Bellamy or by his boss, the magazine’s editor, James B. Upham, as the deadline loomed for the Sept. 8 edition of Youth’s Companion, which was to feature the oath in a printed program that schools could follow for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage of discovery the following month.
Their goals were patriotic and promotional: To enlist students in the anniversary celebration; to help Americanize the flood of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe; to heal still-festering sectional divisions widened by the Civil War; and to sell off the overstock of United States flags that Bellamy had ordered as marketing director of Youth’s Companion, which had sponsored a campaign to “float a flag over every schoolhouse” in the nation.
By the 1920s, when Francis Bellamy swore in his affidavits that he had written the pledge in August 1892, it was possible, of course, that he misremembered and meant April or earlier — except that he and his colleagues said they recollected his eureka moment so vividly.
“My memory serves me with almost photographic clearness of detail as to the circumstances under which you wrote this classic gem of patriotic expression,” Harold Roberts, the magazine’s publicity director, vouched in his own affidavit. “It was a blistering August day in 1892 and I was in our general office on the third floor of the Youth’s Companion Building, Boston.”
Bellamy himself recounted his “distinct memory” of straining for two hours in his office that August until the muse finally landed and inspired the 22 words that would be published in the magazine on Sept. 8: “I pledge Allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”
The 1892 Kansas newspaper said the pledge recited by schoolchildren that April 30 was precisely the same, except it extolled an “inseparable” nation rather than an “indivisible” one and specified “to” the Republic.
Francis Bellamy later said that he had originally written “to the republic” and restored it in later versions. (It was unclear who originally wrote “inseparable.”)
The official wording of the pledge has been changed since then: specifying “the United States of America” for “my country” in the 1920s to remove any ambiguity among immigrants, and inserting “under God” during the Cold War to distinguish the republic from irreligious international Communism. The traditional stiff-arm salute was dropped in the 1940s in favor of the hand over the heart to avoid analogies to the Nazi salute.
So far, no written record has directly demonstrated that young Frank Bellamy originated that oath. But scholars are now asking: How else to account for the newspaper report that Kansas students had already been reciting the pledge as early as April 1892? No other Kansan has claimed authorship, and Frank said he had submitted the pledge to Youth’s Companion before the 1890 contest deadline.
“Our teacher suggested we enter the contest,” Frank was later quoted as saying in The Emporia (Kansas) Gazette. “We did so, each writing what they thought would express best their opinion of what each boy and girl had in mind, when they were saluting the U.S. Flag.”
When the pledge appeared almost word-for-word in the September 1892 edition without attribution, he said he wrote to Youth’s Companion and was told only that all submissions became the property of the magazine.
Just to add to the confusion, the local Woman’s Relief Corps, a group formed to serve Civil War veterans, submitted a version of the pledge Frank wrote as part of a high school assignment in 1896 — this time to an “indivisible” nation — as an entry in the corps’s 1899 national contest to honor the flag. Frank, who enlisted in the 20th Kansas Infantry shortly after the start of the Spanish-American War, was serving in the Philippines when his entry won.
In a letter to the corps in 1918, Frank’s sister Laura said, “We all remember of having heard him often say that he remembered writing the pledge” in 1896, but she made no mention of his having written one earlier for Youth’s Companion in 1890 or 1892.
The corps’s award prompted allegations that he had plagiarized Francis Bellamy’s pledge, as well as plaudits in his home state, including a 2014 resolution by State Senator Jeff King, citing Frank Bellamy as the original author.
Still, Mr. Shapiro of Yale said that the May 1892 newspaper clipping makes it look “very strongly that Francis could not have written it, and less strongly but compellingly that points to Frank E. Bellamy.”
Even the Legislative Research Service, while stating that Francis Bellamy “told the absolute, literal truth as he saw it,” added: “We recognize that there are still certain gaps.”
Both Bellamys implied at one point or another that they might have been able to help fill those gaps.
Francis later said he had become resigned to the pledge being published anonymously in the magazine in 1892, and his subsequent career as an advertising executive “only strengthened the habit of personal submergence.” But when he died in 1931, his claim to authorship of the oath was largely intact.
Frank Bellamy contracted tuberculosis during his war service. He was mustered out the Army and relocated to Denver, where he made leather goods. He died in 1915 and was buried in Cherryvale, Kan. Asked how he felt about winning the Relief Corps contest, he replied: “It didn’t express half of what I tried to write.”