July 4, 2007 Essay: To What Should We Pledge Our Allegiance?

by John Tennison, M.D., (essay copyright July 4, 2007)

As we celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, I find it valuable to review the contents of the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence defended freedoms and unalienable rights, not nationalism.  The “independence” that was “declared” in the Declaration of Independence did not derive from being a citizen of a particular nationality or from a particular national affiliation.  Yet, somehow, over the years, the 4th of July has become a celebration primarily of nationalism, rather than of the underlying values and principles that lead to the founding of the United States.  This historical distortion is further exemplified by the erroneous belief held by many that July 4th, 1776, was the “birthday” of a sovereign nation state known as the United States of America.  However, if “nation” is defined as “a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006), then July 4th, 1776, can rightly be considered the birth of a nation.

Although the phrase, “united States of America,” was used in the signed copy of the Declaration of Independence, the phrase was used in a generic sense to refer to the colonies that were united in their Declaration, rather than to refer to a sovereign nation statethat existed at the time.  Since the phrase was not the formal name of a country or confederacy, the word “united” was uncapitalized on the copy that was officially signed on July 4th, 1776.  However, drafts of the Declaration of Independence that existed prior to July 4th, 1776 used the word “United” in its capitalized form, suggesting that Jefferson regarded “United States of America” as a formal title for the grouping of the thirteen states, even though the group did not constitute a sovereign nation state.  Moreover, in subsequent copies of the Declaration of Independence written by Jefferson after July 4th, 1776, he continued to capitalize “United,” suggesting that he wanted to include “United” as part of the proper name for the group of the thirteen states.

When ratified by Maryland on March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation established a confederacy formally known as “The United States of America.”  However, even then, this confederacy did not constitute a singular sovereign nation state, as the second Article of Confederation stated:

“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

            Thus, rather than being a national government, the government of “The United States of America” created by the Articles of Confederation was more analogous to that of today’s United Nations.

The country known as “The United States of America” formally began at the point the Constitution was ratified by the ninth state of New Hampshire on June 21, 1788.

            The values and principles enumerated in the Declaration of Independence justified the rebellion against the British government.  Even today, it is these original values and principles that deserve our unwavering allegiance, and not necessarily the government of a particular country.  The authors of the Declaration of Independence were very clear on this point when they wrote:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Thus, to the extent that a government of a particular nation no longer honors the rights and freedoms recognized by the Declaration of Independence, such a government no longer deserves the allegiance of its citizens.  Consequently, on this July 4th, 2007, I ask the question, “To what should we pledge our allegiance?”

In 1892, Francis Bellamy, the author of the original Pledge of Allegiance, placed more emphasis on pledging allegiance to an abstract symbol, a flag, (as well as “the Republic for which it stands”) than to the “liberty and justice for all,” which are mentioned only at the very end of the Pledge.  Pledging allegiance to a flag draws attention away from the more important underlying principles that actually deserve an explicit declaration of our allegiance, such as recognizing and honoring universal rights and freedoms.  Indeed, “liberty and justice” are more deserving of having been the first principles mentioned, rather than the last ones mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance.  Bellamy’s mentioning the flag first in his Pledge stems largely from the fact that the original Pledge was part of an advertising campaign to sell U. S. flags in the children’s magazine, Youth’s Companion.

Moreover, since a flag’s meaning can be ambiguous or can even change over time, pledging allegiance to an abstract symbol, such as a flag, is at best an ambiguous declaration that is easily misunderstood.  For example, opinions as to what the United States flag means vary considerably throughout the world.  For some, especially United States citizens, the flag still symbolizes “liberty and justice for all.”  However, some United States citizens have ceased to regard the flag as a symbol of the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence.  Moreover, given the activity of our government and military in various locations throughout the world, the United States flag has come to symbolize imperialism and attempts at world dominion for many.

Moreover, within the United States, the U.S. flag has become a political symbol worn and displayed by both “conservatives” and “liberals” to suggest that they somehow stand for something more “patriotic” or more “American” as compared to others.  Clearly, in such instances, displayers of the flag are projecting their own political meanings onto the flag, which demonstrates that the flag has ceased to be identified with a specific set of principles for which there is a universal consensus.  In fact, the only meaning of the United States flag for which where is a universal consensus is that of a symbol signifying the legal entity of the United States, in the same way the initials “U.S.” also signify the United States.

Another instructive example of a flag whose meaning became highly ambiguous and thus, offers an important lesson into the kind of metamorphosis a flag can suffer, is the Confederate Flag as used by the Confederate States during the Civil War of the United States.  To some the Confederate flag now symbolizes a racist or even pro-slavery stance, while to others, it represents the memory of those who lost their lives in the deadliest war so far on the North American continent.

Another lesson about flags can be taken from my home state of Texas.  In Texas, a perennial historical exercise is to recall the fact that flags from six different nations have flown over Texas, including that of France, Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America.  When I think about these historical flags of Texas, I also appreciate the fact that it doesn’t matter what country’s flag is flying above my head as long as I have my freedom.  As long as our freedoms and liberties are intact, the country or state of which we are citizens is a mere formality.

Moreover, imagine if the Founding Fathers of the United States had been distracted by a tradition of reciting a “Pledge of Allegiance” to the British flag, or to the monarchy for which it stood.  If so, they would have been less focused on the fact that their own government was not representing them or honoring their unalienable rights, freedoms, and liberties.

Clearly, pledging allegiance to abstract and ambiguous symbols, such as flags, is problematic and should be avoided.  Fight for freedom, not flags.

Examination of the Declaration of Independence also reveals that the Pledge is not only to “the flag,” but also “to the Republic for which it stands.”  At first glance, pledging allegiance to “the Republic” might seem like a more robust pledge with less of a chance of such an allegiance being misunderstood or having the potential for a changing meaning over time.  However, merely calling the United States a “Republic” does not guarantee that the country is indeed a “Republic.”  For example, I have always understood the word “republic” to mean a form of government where representatives are elected to represent the will and interests of the people.  Yet, in my lifetime, the actions of politicians are far more representative of the interests of big money than of the will or interest of the people.  The “Republic” for which the Pledge claims our flag stands appears to have very little existence.  Another example of where the use of the word “republic” contradicts the actual form of government practiced is in the case of the so-called People’s Republic of China.

Moreover, to the extent the concept of a “republic” has inspired “Republican” political parties, it is instructive to examine the “Republican Party” of Thomas Jefferson, and the later “Republican Party” of Abraham Lincoln.   Both of these so-called “Republican” parties were a far cry from the current-day Republican Party that is largely controlled by the interests of big business and by religious zealots.  Such current-day extremes in the Republican Party can be witnessed in my own state of Texas, where the Republican Party of Texas pledges to “dispel the myth of separation of church and state” in a section of its official platform ironically titled, “SAFEGUARDING OUR RELIGIOUS LIBERTIES.”

Another example of how pledging allegiance to a so-called “republic” or even to a so-called “democracy” can be problematic comes from examining the history of France.  For example, pledging allegiance to France at the beginning of the French Revolution would have suggested dedication to an entirely different set of values and principles than to have pledged allegiance to France during the time at which the revolution had devolved into a reign of terror, or during Napoleon’s reign of power. 

Thus, to mindlessly go on generation after generation pledging allegiance to a “Republic,” rather than to specific values and principles, is potentially just as ambiguous and problematic of a declaration as pledging allegiance to an abstract symbol, such as a flag.

Although the original “Pledge of Allegiance” of 1892 was problematic even in it its original form, it became even worse when the phrase “under God” was added in 1954 during the Cold War to imply that God somehow supported the actions of our government more than the governments of other countries.  To the extent the Pledge of Allegiance has been adopted by taxpayer-supported institutions, the phrase, “Under God,” has served to further erode the “wall of separation between church and state,” of which Thomas Jefferson eloquently wrote in 1802.

As a citizen desirous of celebrating the original intent of the Declaration of Independence and as a citizen deeply concerned about erosion of the wall of separation between church and state, I have written a new version of The Pledge of Allegiance.  However, I have decided to call it “The Freedom Pledge,” so as to make more explicit the principles to which one should be dedicated, rather than use the word “allegiance” in its name, and thereby suggest that submission to authority was more important.  That is, when Bellamy used the word “Allegiance” in the name of his pledge, he called greater attention to allegiance itself, or submission to authority, rather than to have called attention to more important principles, such as freedom, liberty, rights, or justice.

The Freedom Pledge is intended to be a non-sectarian statement that recognizes universal rights and freedoms that naturally exist, rather than having been legally derived from an affiliation with a particular nation.

The Freedom Pledge

                                                                            “I pledge allegiance to the freedom of the united people of the world,

                                                                            and to the unalienable rights for which they stand,

                                                                            one indivisible humanity practicing liberty and justice for all.”

Happy Independence Day!

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