For more than a century, the oath of allegiance has been a pillar of American national identity. New evidence has emerged, however, to indicate that perhaps the man who promised he created 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 took the oath one night in August 1892 at the Boston headquarters of a magazine for the young people 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 last year in a United States Senate resolution and a citation from the “New Yale Book of Quotations.”
In February, however, latent doubts about the origin of the oath resurfaced. A New York history buff discovered a newspaper article that appears to contradict Bellamy’s.
The discovery may also substantiate a long-standing 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 an organized contest. by Francis Bellamy’s own magazine to promote American values such as patriotism.
In February, Barry Popik, a historian and lexicographer who had researched the origin of the promise, was stunned to find a news clipping on journals.com from the Ellis County News Republican of Hays, Kan., dated 21 May 1892.
The article described a school ceremony several weeks earlier, on April 30, 1892 – more than three months before Francis Bellamy swore he had written the pledge – in which high school students in Victoria, Kansas, have sworn allegiance to the American flag using virtually the same words.
Mr. Popik worked 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 did Francis Bellamy get create the promise in August 1892, as he claimed, when an almost identical promise 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 promise to Francis Bellamy in its latest edition, published last August. He said that in subsequent editions he would instead credit the oath to Frank Bellamy.
The May 1892 newspaper clipping does not prove that Frank Bellamy wrote the promise, but it does seem to suggest that perhaps Francis Bellamy did not.
“It’s very difficult to explain what you see in this journal,” said Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s cultural and community life division.
“I think you can’t rule out that Frank was the author and that Francis stumbled upon it and consciously or unconsciously used the words,” she added in an email this month.
Elizabeth L. Brown, reference librarian at the Library of Congress, agreed that “if Francis Bellamy wrote the promise in August 1892, how could it have been published in a Kansas newspaper in May 1892?”
In 1957, the Library of Congress certified Francis Bellamy as the author of the pledge based on a 148-page investigative summary submitted by the Legislative Research Service. It was requested by Rep. Kenneth B. Keating, a Republican from New York, whose upstate district included Bellamy’s birthplace.
But that report was almost entirely about whether the pledge was written by Bellamy or his boss, the magazine’s editor James B. Upham, as the deadline approached for the Sept. 8 edition of Youth’s Companion. , who was to take the oath. in a printed curriculum that schools could follow for the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery the following month.
Their goals were patriotic and promotional: To enlist the students in the anniversary celebration; to help Americanize the flood of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe; to heal the still festering sectional divisions widened by the civil war; and to sell surplus United States flags that Bellamy had ordered as marketing director of Youth’s Companion, which had sponsored a campaign to “fly a flag over every school” in the country.
In 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 had misremembered and meant April or earlier – except which he and his colleagues said they remembered his eureka moment then vividly.
“My memory serves me with a clarity of almost photographic detail as to the circumstances in which you wrote this classic gem of patriotic expression,” said Harold Roberts, the magazine’s advertising director, in his own affidavit. “It was a scorching day in August, 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 struggling for two hours in his office in August until the muse finally landed and inspired the 22 words that will be published in the magazine on September 8: “I promise allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it represents, an indivisible Nation, with Freedom and Justice for all.
The Kansas newspaper of 1892 said that the promise recited by school children that April 30 was exactly the same, except it touted an “inseparable” nation rather than an “indivisible” nation and specified “to” the Republic.
Francis Bellamy later said he originally wrote “to the republic” and restored it in later versions. (It is unclear who originally wrote “inseparable”.)
The official wording of the promise has since been changed: specifying “the United States of America” for “my country” in the 1920s to disambiguate immigrants, and inserting “under God” during the Cold War to distinguish the republic from irreligious international communism. The traditional stiff arm salute was abandoned in the 1940s in favor of the hand over the heart to avoid analogies with the Nazi salute.
So far, no written record has directly demonstrated that young Frank Bellamy was the originator of this oath. But scholars are now asking: How else to explain the newspaper report that Kansas students had already recited the promise as early as April 1892? No other Kansan claimed authorship, and Frank said he submitted the pledge to Youth’s Companion before the 1890 contest deadline.
“Our teacher suggested we enter the contest,” Frank later told The Emporia (Kansas) Gazette. “We did it, each writing what they felt best expressed their opinion of what each boy and girl had in mind when they saluted the American flag.”
When the pledge appeared almost verbatim in the September 1892 edition without attribution, he said he had written to Youth’s Companion and was only told that all submissions became the magazine’s property.
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 to the 1899 national corps competition 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 body in 1918, Frank’s sister Laura said, “We all remember hearing him often say that he remembered writing the pledge” in 1896, but she didn’t made no mention of the fact that he had written an earlier one for Youth’s Companion in 1890. or 1892.
The body price prompted allegations that he plagiarized Francis Bellamy’s pledge, as well as applause in his home state, including a 2014 resolution by State Senator Jeff King, citing Frank Bellamy as the original author.
Yet Mr. Shapiro of Yale said the May 1892 newspaper clipping gives the impression “very strongly that Francis could not have written it, and less strongly but convincingly that points to Frank E. Bellamy” .
Even the Legislative Research Service, while asserting that Francis Bellamy “spoke the absolute and literal truth as he saw it”, added: “We recognize that there are still some shortcomings”.
Both Bellamys have hinted at one point or another that they could have helped fill those gaps.
Francis later said he had resigned himself to having the engagement 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 the authorship of the oath was largely intact.
Frank Bellamy contracted tuberculosis during his war service. He was drafted into the Army and transferred to Denver, where he made leather goods. He died in 1915 and was buried in Cherryvale, Kansas. When asked how he felt about winning the Relief Corps competition, he replied, “That didn’t say half of what I was trying to write.