Hail the flag of America on land or on sea, Hail the Revolutionary war which made us free. The British proceeded into the hills of Danbury, But soon their army was as small as a cranberry. Remember the brave soldiers who toiled and fought; Bravery is a lesson to be taught. —Martha Louise Craven 


In 1892, a World’s Fair, called the “Columbian Exposition,” was scheduled to take place in Chicago. Clearly it was gearing up to be a celebration of unfettered greed and egoism. Industry and innovation were to be its central foci, as America planned to welcome the world with displays of technological prowess and material enrichment. Gross inequalities of opportunity in the nation and in the city were to be masked by the glowing exterior of the pure white Beaux-Arts style buildings, right next door to the University of Chicago, that came to be called “the White City.” The architectural choices of the exhibition’s designers, Daniel Burnham and Daniel Chester French, expressed the idea that America rivals Europe in grandeur and nobility. Everything funny, chaotic, and noisy was relegated to the Midway, outside the precincts of the exhibition: the first Ferris Wheel, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, children, racial and ethnic differences, bright colors, poor people. Instead of real human bodies, disturbing in their heterogeneity and their frailty, the exhibit put forward the gilded “Statue of the Republic,” a sixty-five-foot-tall gilded statue of a woman holding a scepter and orb, a smaller replica of which, only twenty-four feet high, created in 1918 to commemorate the Exposition, now stands at Hayes Drive and Cornell. The Chicago Tribune wrote, “It impresses by its grand presence, its serene and noble face, and its perfect harmony with its magnificent surroundings, by its wonderful fitness.” 

Advocates for the poor, increasingly upset by the plan, got together to think how the celebration might incorporate ideas of equal opportunity and sacrifice. A group of Christian socialists finally went to President Benjamin Harrison with an idea: at the Exposition the President would introduce a new public ritual of patriotism, a pledge of allegiance to the flag that would place the accent squarely on the nation’s core moral values, include all Americans as equals, and rededicate the nation to something more than individual greed. The words that were concocted to express this sentiment were: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” At the same time, Youth’s Companion, a magazine run by two leading advocates for a Pledge of Allegiance, began an aggressive campaign to promote the use of the Pledge, along with the flag salute, in the nation’s schools.

As so often happens with patriotic sentiment, however, the Pledge soon proved a formula of both inclusion and exclusion. Francis Bellamy, the Pledge’s author, was himself both a socialist and a xenophobe, who feared that our national values were being undermined by the flood of new immigrants from southern Europe. By the 1940s, required by law as a daily recitation in schools in many states, the Pledge became a litmus test for the “good American,” and those who flunked the test faced both exclusion and violence. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to recite the Pledge for religious reasons, seeing it as a form of idolatry, soon found their children expelled from school for noncompliance. Then, in a wonderful catch-22, the parents were fined or jailed for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” because their children were not in school! The idea grew in the public mind that Jehovah’s Witnesses were a danger: a “fifth column” subverting Americans’ values in the lead-up to the war against Germany and Japan. Accused of German sympathies (despite the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses were being persecuted under the Third Reich for similar reasons and had to wear a purple triangle in the camps), Witnesses faced widespread public violence, including numerous lynchings—particularly after the US Supreme Court had upheld the compulsory flag salute as a legitimate expression of devotion to the national security. 

Patriotism is Janus-faced. It faces outward, calling the self, at times, to duties toward others, to the need to sacrifice for a common good. And yet, just as clearly, it also faces inward, inviting those who consider themselves “good” or “true” Americans to distinguish themselves from outsiders and subversives, and then excluding those outsiders. Just as dangerous, it serves to define the nation against its foreign rivals and foes, whipping up warlike sentiments against them. (It was for precisely this reason that Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that a good nation needed a patriotic “civil religion” in place of the dogmas of Christianity, which he found too meek and pacifistic.)9 The story of the Pledge, to which I shall return, shows us that quite a few different things can go wrong when a nation sets out to inspire strong emotions with itself as the object, all of which are pertinent to the project of teaching patriotism in the schools.