One has fewer opportunities these days than when I was a boy to pledge allegiance to the U. S. flag. But it still does happen, and it would be embarrassing - justly, I would say - if one were not able to behave appropriately, remembering the words correctly, on such occasions. But that doesn't mean anyone has thought very much about just what the pledge says or means.
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Let's look at it, piece by piece:
"I" : well, yes. This is a personal statement. We never actually say the Pledge (Do we?) except in a group, but we don't say it as a group. We don't say "We." No, it is a personal commitment each of us makes individually. Good. As it should be.
By the way, we don't make this pledge alone, by ourselves either. We make the pledge individually in front of a group, a group of "witnesses," we might say. Our allegiance is pledged to the flag, but the pledge is to those witnessing our making the commitment to it.
"pledge": It isn't common to pledge something, is it? But it's not uncommon enough to think of using the word as unusual.
In one context I'm familiar with - fundraising - the word is in fact quite common. "A pledge" is an amount of money a person promises to pay (with a mailed-in check, for instance) by June 30 or December 31 to a particular charity. Maybe a current student at your alma mater calls as part of the annual fund drive, and you don't want to charge your credit card over the phone, but you "pledge" you will send in $25.00, as you did last year, if they'll just hang up and leave you be.
Come to think of it, another common use - also collegiate - is that "a pledge" is a new recruit to a fraternity or sorority.
So, to pledge something might not be common, but it is doing something we all would understand. We are making a promise, a commitment.
"allegiance": Now, this is different. This word allegiance is not a part of one's daily vocabulary. What other use does it have? You "owe allegiance" to something: most often your country, but maybe your state or hometown, your school or team... But that's it; there are no other variants of the word - "I'm feeling a little allegiant today" - "Let's go alleege ourselves to something worthwhile" - "Go over and pay off that allegiance you owe from last week"...
No. You "owe" or "pledge" allegiance to something, and that's it.
So, it does not come as a surprise to realize that the root word of allegiance is an obsolete term from the Middle Ages: a person's leige is the person's superior in a feudal social order. A peasant owes allegiance to the nobleman who owns the land he works. He would properly address the nobleman as "my lord" or "my liege." This kind of contractual arrangement goes right on up the social hierarchy too. A relatively small landowner may be a Baron, who swears allegiance to his leige lord, a Count or an Earl, both of whom would be superior to a Baron. The leige of a Count or Earl might be a Duke, whose leige lord would be a king. This kind of loyalty and commitment was sworn or pledged, as in an oath - might we say a pledge - of allegiance.
In other words, the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag is like the medieval oath of fealty (loyalty) that a subordinate swore to his ruling lord.
"to the flag": Well, yes, the flag is just a symbol, of course. We are not pledging our loyalty to a piece of cloth...
"of the United States of America": That's the important part, naturally...
"and to the republic": That is, the nation. The USA of course happens to be a republic, where rulers are elected representatives of the people of the nation they rule for a fixed period. We are glad and proud to be democratic, to have a republican form of government, so we don't just say "the nation" for which the flag stands but remind everyone that our particular nation is a republic. Fine.
The original 1892 version of the Pledge, by the way, was written for use in any country, so it did not say "the flag of the USA," but "my flag." That form was changed to the version specifically for the USA by the time it was adopted by the US Congress in 1942.
"for which it stands": Yes. Allegiance is pledged to the nation called The United States of America.
"one nation": Despite having 50 states inside it, the USA is only one single nation.
Skip, for now, to... "indivisible": You can see it was necessary to emphasize this point while the illegal secession of southern states from the union was a lively memory. It still seems worth recalling these days too, when the authority of the national government is sometimes questioned by those who also seem to feel considerable "allegiance" to their particular state.
"with": The USA, for which this flag stands, has three key features: one - the unity of all states in the one nation - has already been discussed. The remaining two are spoken of now...
"with liberty and justice": In common conversation, "liberty" has more or less been replaced by "freedom" - the ability to do as one wishes. Of course, one's individual freedom is limited by the rights of others. "Justice" means what it means in ordinary discourse, fairness or fair treatment. That, ideally, should not been limited.
"for all": Citizens of the USA regularly agree that it is not one group of people, not a few people, not a portion of the whole population to whom freedom and justice is guaranteed. It is to everyone. How great is that?!
We skipped the phrase added 60 years after the originally published version, "under God." These two words were not included by the Baptist minister who wrote the original Pledge. His intention was apparently to emphasize patriotism, the commitment to one's home country, and the unity of our nation despite the fairly recent Civil War. The Godliness of the Republic was not the point at that early time.
In 1954, however, being loyal to the U. S. A. seemed to many to mean, in essence, being opposed to Godless Communism. One way to emphasize our national anti-Communism was to add "...nation, under God" to the Pledge to the flag.
Some Americans have begun to argue that it's time to eliminate that phrase "under God" again.
I'd say eliminating it is worth discussing - although maybe it's worth reminding the Jihadi extremists of the world that our country has been built by people of a variety of religious backgrounds, with 75% of Americans saying still today that religion plays an important role in their daily lives. But since it does not play a significant role in my own, this does not seem a big deal to me.
What is a big deal, though - for sure - is to make certain that our one, indivisible Republic provides freedom and justice for all, not just for some, and not - especially not - only for the Super-Rich Few.
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