My Alexandria, Minn., grade school began each day with students standing, facing the American flag and reciting in unison what I then called “the pledge of a legions.” Didn’t make much sense; neither did the word “thiberty.”

Writer William Safire recalls the opening as: “I led the pigeons to the flag … .” He said it took a while to learn the actual words and what it all meant.

Written in 1892, “The Pledge of Allegiance” has been recited billions of times, mostly in schools, and its words seared into the memory of every American. A granddaughter, whose school has students saying the pledge each Monday, shrugged the other day when asked if she knew its meaning.

Repeating anything too often can dull meaning. We heard George Washington’s mythical boyhood stories so many times it seemed a requisite to becoming president was chopping down a cherry tree and throwing money across a river. We knew when Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” and names of his ships, but little more about the marauding lout.

Which is too bad, because like America itself the pledge and back stories of its revisions are fascinating history, like:

• The main purpose of the pledge was to sell magazines.

• For its first 62 years, “under God” wasn’t in the pledge, written by a Baptist minister.

• The ending was altered by the author to respect inequality of the day.

• While proclaiming an “indivisible” nation, the pledge has been used in divisive ways, including political campaigns.

• One early revision specified the American flag to ensure that immigrants were affirming loyalty to America and not their homeland. This was an especial problem on Minnesota’s Iron Range, which attracted hordes of immigrants at century’s turn.

The pledge rose out of late-19th-century turmoil. A young America was reeling from a brutal civil war that, along with Emancipation, exposed a cavernous political divide that persists to this day.

Industrialization brought rapid workplace change and altered how Americans lived. It also created a wealth of jobs that, along with free land and promised opportunity, attracted millions of immigrants. Nearly all Iron Range residents were foreign-born; Central Minnesota was dominated by German émigrés and the Red River Valley by Scandinavians.

But it was the Civil War’s North-South split that inspired a group of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, to mount a campaign for an American flag in every school — itself divisive since the Stars and Stripes were flown by the Union North.

The effort was joined by a popular and self-promoting magazine, Youth’s Companion, that offered an American flag to new subscribers. The magazine built on its flag success with an unabashed patriotic pitch to sell to its best market, schoolkids.

Francis Bellamy, 37, was hired to head the campaign. A brilliant writer, Bellamy was recently released as a Baptist minister for his outspoken promotion of a budding movement that saw Jesus Christ as a socialist whose earthly mission was to comfort the poor.

At the magazine, Bellamy redirected his passion to a grand plan for a national flag celebration.

Bellamy lobbied aggressively for a congressional resolution to commemorate the day — a bit of a challenge since Southerners were wary of a flag that flew over Fort Sumter when Confederates bombarded it and ignited the Civil War.

Bellamy’s plan was for every U.S. classroom to partake in a program that would start with the resolution read while standing students faced the flag with a straight-armed, flat-handed salute (later abandoned because it resembled one used in Nazi Germany).

But the program needed a part for students to show “loyalty to the flag” and what it stood for, wrote Richard Ellis in “To The Flag.” In just two hours, Bellamy penned a 23-word pledge:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

An early draft had “Equality” in the close, but Bellamy nixed it to avoid controversy. That’s because only white males and newly emancipated black males had voting rights, and an aggressive women’s suffrage campaign was mounting (some states, including North Dakota and South Dakota, already had voting rights for women).

“The Youth’s Companion Flag Pledge,” as it was first known, was included in a kit sent to every school, and was first recited on Oct. 10, 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ legendary voyage.

Between then and now, the pledge has been revised to align with national mood. But all through its existence the pledge’s hallmark phrase, “one Nation indivisible,” has been defied by American reality.

Despite his Christian grounding, Bellamy was among those untrusting of immigrants — “strangers” from distant lands with unfamiliar languages, habits and even food preferences. He saw the pledge as one way to Americanize new arrivals.

That would be a daunting task on Minnesota’s remote Iron Range. In 1900, wrote Marvin Lamppa in “Minnesota’s Iron Country,” the Range was inhabited by immigrants from 25 countries; by 1910, the foreign-born population north of Duluth was 88 percent from Finland (mostly), Eastern Europe, the U.K., Scandinavia and the Balkans.

While Minnesota’s bounty of iron helped establish America as an industrial power, those who mined the ore were almost exclusively from elsewhere. They grouped by ethnicity, often raising their own flag while practicing their cultural traditions. Most refused to speak English (a huge challenge for crew bosses in the mines).

Worry that immigrants may be vowing loyalty to their homeland while mouthing the pledge led to the first major amendment in 1924 when “my Flag” was changed to “the Flag of the United States of America.”

Congress officially added “The Pledge of Allegiance” to the National Flag Code in 1942. But a decade later when Congress again took up the pledge, it sparked a controversy that still simmers.

It was 1954. The Soviet Union and U.S. taunted each other with nukes as schools practiced ways to mitigate effects of a nuclear strike while cities built fallout shelters. Demagogue Sen. Joe McCarthy was ranting that communists had infiltrated American government.

The Knights of Columbus wanted “God” in the pledge to distinguish America from “the godless” communists. With President Dwight Eisenhower’s eventual support, Congress added “under God” by voice vote.

Not everyone agreed. Bellamy’s descendants said he’d oppose the change because the words interrupted the pledge’s rhythmic cadence and, worse, they were divisive at the very point the pledge proclaimed an “indivisible” nation.

An ensuing debate came to a head in 2002 when a federal court panel ruled that “God” in the pledge was unconstitutional, but the case was later tossed by the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that plaintiffs lacked standing. The constitutionality of “under God” remains unsettled.

Every so often the pledge shows up on the political stage.

President Ronald Reagan once recited the pledge in a nationwide broadcast on the Capitol steps, and he later argued at a religious conference that unlike rights granted by government, those “granted by God cannot be taken away.”

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura caused a row when he vetoed a bill requiring schoolkids to recite the pledge, and when Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis did the same, it touched off nasty acrimony in his 1988 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush.

Now then, it can be personally uplifting to recite the pledge and wave Old Glory, especially on national holidays. If you object to “under God,” it’s OK to skip the words.

But has the pledge promoted a “one-nation” ideal? After all, the pledge was written to help calm political turbulence — and, of course, to Americanize immigrants.

Sound familiar?

As then, today’s body politic is mired in a deep, unsettling divide, giving pause to a corollary: “United we stand, divided we fall.” Too, the pledge’s “one nation under God” is seeing a slide in Christianity, especially among young adults, and spreading of religions that know another deity — or none at all.

And, oh yes, about those “aliens,” more respectfully known as immigrants …

 

Ron Way lives in Edina.