controversy over the words “under God” in the Pledge of
Allegiance overshadows an old, long-forgotten issue regarding the
When it was first published in 1892, the Pledge did not contain
the words “under God.” Congress added these words in 1954
as a Cold War response to atheistic communism. Nevertheless, many
Americans originally viewed the Pledge with suspicion. Why? Because
of the then-foreign concept of pledging allegiance to one nation.
To Americans of the late 19th century, “allegiance” was
a feudal concept denoting subservience to a master. Americans considered
themselves sovereigns, not subjects. They feared that the natural
supremacy of the individual over his government, as reflected by
the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed in the constitutions
of the United States and of the several states, might eventually
be overturned by the ideas expressed in the Pledge. They, unlike
so many Americans today, understood that those who exercise the
instruments of government – public servants – feel more
comfortable ruling than serving.
The Pledge’s words also smacked of nationalism, which Americans
of that period considered, well, un-American. Their objection to
nationalism seems strange today, but to Americans of 1892 it was
a dangerous concept.
Although they saw themselves as separate and distinct from foreign
peoples and powers, internally they considered themselves a collection
of independent states united by a compact called the Constitution
of the United States. “One nation” implied that the states
were merely subdivisions of a national government, which Americans
of that era knew was not the case. Pledging allegiance to one nation,
they knew, would undermine the concept of federalism and threaten
Their suspicions were justified, for the intent of the Pledge’s
author, a socialist named Francis Bellamy, was to support the secular
education of the public-school system and efforts by the National
Education Association (NEA) to counter the growing influence –
especially among immigrants – of the Catholic Church’s
parochial schools. Bellamy and the NEA felt that inculcating a sense
of nationalism into America’s children would serve their purposes.
The Mexican-American War of 1846–48 had given the idea of nationalism
a boost. The Civil War (1861–65) gave the concept additional impetus.
But the more accurate description of that latter conflict –
the War Between the States – contains within its wording the
concept of state citizenship rather than national citizenship. The
vast majority of the military units on both sides carried state
designations – the 54th Massachusetts, the 4th Alabama, et
cetera. When Robert E. Lee refused command of the Union army and
resigned his commission in 1861, he told the commanding general
of the Army, Winfield Scott, he did so because he could not raise
a sword against his country. The country he referred to was the
commonwealth of Virginia. Scott, a fellow Virginian, understood.
Prior to the Civil War, Americans commonly referred to the Union
as “These United States.” After the war, the term “The
United States” came into more common usage.
Law Dictionary (Eighth Edition, 1914, p. 2297), distinguishes
between a national and a federal government:
National Government. A government of a single state or nation
united as a community by what is termed the social compact, and
possessing complete and perfect supremacy over persons and things
so far as they can be made the lawful objects of civil government.
A federal government is distinguished from a national government
by its being the government of a community of independent and
sovereign states united by compact.
(Although earlier editions of Black’s
Law Dictionary agree with Bouvier’s definitions, the
fifth edition published in 1979 blurs the distinction.)
Early court decisions reflected this difference. The U.S. Supreme
Court ruled in Chisholm. v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419, 1 L.Ed.
The question to be determined is, whether this State …is amenable
to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States?
This question, important in itself, will depend on others, more
important still; and may, perhaps, be ultimately resolved into
one, no less radical than this – “do the People
of the United States form a Nation?”
… From the law of nations, little or no illustration of this
subject can be expected. By that law the several States and Governments
spread over our globe, are considered as forming a society, not
In McIlvaine v. Coxe’s Lessee, (1804), the Supreme Court
refers to New Jersey as a country:
[It] is a recognized principle that a man may owe allegiance to
two countries at the same time, and therefore may lawfully have
the intention of owing allegiance to both Great-Britain and New-Jersey.
Not long after the Pledge’s publication, the popular Spanish-American
War of 1898 influenced upcoming generations of Americans to see
themselves as one people under a national government. By 1905, the
state militias were reorganized into the National Guard and put
under federal control.
During World War I, some state units even lost their state designations.
For example, the 69th New York became the 165th U.S. Infantry; the
4th Ohio became the 166th U.S. Infantry; the 4th Alabama became
the 167th U.S. Infantry; and the 3rd Iowa became the 168th U.S.
The march of nationalism has hardly been impeded ever since. True
to the fears of earlier Americans, it has inflicted a serious blow
to federalism and the Constitution which gave it birth.
LaRosa [send him mail]
is a historian and writer with undergraduate and graduate degrees
in history from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Duke University,