New Life in Old Symbols


This Fourth of July is likely to be the most fervent in many years. Since Sept. 11, the nation has seen a dramatic increase in public expressions of patriotism, including displays of the flag, songs, parades and red, white and blue everything. Most pundits interpret this as a sign that the nation is in a conservative mood, but the reality is more complicated. Loyalty to country is neither conservative nor liberal. How one expresses one’s patriotism depends on the core values one associates with the United States.

A case in point is the current controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the words “under God” in the pledge violate the 1st Amendment was an incredible act of bad political timing. Thanks to the uproar, however, Americans learned a valuable history lesson. The original version of the pledge did not include that phrase or any reference to religion. “Under God” was added by Congress in 1954 when many politicians thought the nation was threatened by godless communism.

Lost in the public dispute is any understanding of what its author, Francis Bellamy, was trying to accomplish--or its relevance for today. Bellamy, a Baptist minister, wrote the pledge in 1892 during the Gilded Age, when reformers were outraged by the behavior of corporate robber barons who were exploiting workers, gouging consumers and corrupting politics with their money. Bellamy was a leading Christian socialist who hoped that the pledge, and especially the line “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” would promote a more egalitarian vision. Bellamy penned the pledge for Youth’s Companion, a magazine for young people. A few years earlier, the magazine had sponsored a largely successful campaign to sell American flags to public schools. In 1891, the magazine hired Bellamy to organize a campaign to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery. Bellamy gained the support of the National Education Assn., President Benjamin Harrison and Congress for a national ritual observance in the schools, and he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the program’s flag salute ceremony.


Bellamy’s view that unbridled capitalism, materialism and individualism betrayed America’s promise was widely shared in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many American radicals and progressive reformers proudly asserted their patriotism. To them, the U.S. stood for basic democratic values: economic and social equality, mass participation in politics, free speech and civil liberties, elimination of the second-class citizenship of women and racial minorities, a welcome mat for the world’s oppressed people.

Most Americans are unaware that much of our patriotic culture--including many of the symbols and songs that have become increasingly popular since Sept. 11--were created by writers of decidedly left-wing sympathies.

Consider Emma Lazarus’ words, written in 1883 and inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” She was a well-respected poet, a strong supporter of Henry George’s “socialistic” single-tax program and a friend of William Morris, a leading British socialist. Her welcome to the “wretched refuse” of the Earth was meant to project an inclusive and egalitarian definition of the American dream.

The words to “America the Beautiful” were written in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College. Bates was a poet and a lesbian whose book “America the Beautiful and Other Poems” expressed outrage over U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. She was part of progressive reform circles in the Boston area concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women’s suffrage. The poem’s final line--”and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea”--is an appeal for social justice.

Many Americans consider Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land,” penned in 1940, to be our unofficial national anthem. Guthrie was inspired to write it as an answer to Irving Berlin’s popular “God Bless America,” which he thought failed to recognize that America belonged to “the people.” The lyrics reflect Guthrie’s fusion of patriotism and support for the underdog. He celebrates the nation’s natural beauty and bounty but criticizes the country for its failure to share its riches, reflected in the song’s last and least-known verse: “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple / By the relief office I saw my people. / As they stood hungry I stood there wondering / If this land was made for you and me?”

In recent decades, Bruce Springsteen has most closely followed in the Guthrie tradition. From “Born in the USA” to his songs about Tom Joad (the militant protagonist in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”) to “Land of Hope and Dreams” to his “My City of Ruins,” which he recently dedicated to the victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy, Springsteen has championed the downtrodden while challenging the nation to live up to its ideals. Every day, millions of Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance, sing “American the Beautiful” or “This Land Is Your Land” and memorize the words on the Statue of Liberty without knowing the names of their authors or the political context in which they were written. The progressive authors of much of the nation’s patriotic iconography rejected blind nationalism, militaristic drumbeating and sheep-like conformism. They believed that America’s core claims--fairness, equality, freedom, justice--were their own.


The war on terrorism has diverted attention from the reality that the U.S. now confronts a new Gilded Age. The gap between rich and poor is widening. The unbridled greed and political influence-peddling demonstrated by many executives of large corporations has triggered another wave of public outrage. The behavior of large HMOs and pharmaceutical companies angers Americans who can’t afford the cost of basic health care. The growing power of American-based global firms that show no loyalty to this country in terms of where they move their jobs, the taxes they pay or the environment they pollute has led to a grass-roots movement for fairer trade.

The recent controversy over the pledge has focused on the words “under God.” But if Francis Bellamy were alive today, he’d be more concerned that the actions of big business and many politicians were undermining his vision of a nation that promises “liberty and justice for all.”