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Ninety years after the death of Francis Bellamy, his lasting legacy—The Pledge of Allegiance—is once again at the center of controversy. But this time, it’s because the whole thing may have been plagiarized.

A brief history of the Pledge of Allegiance

I covered the history of the Pledge in a lengthy podcast, but the story behind its creation boiled down to this: While working for a magazine called Youth’s Companion, which offered US flags with subscriptions, Bellamy devised a plan to make flags the epitome of patriotism. He wanted to see a flag in every school in the country (arguably because it was good for business more than anything else).

Everything came together in 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus reaching the Americas. Bellamy and his colleagues went all out in promoting flags that year, printing the first version of the Pledge as well as the original salute, all geared toward a nationwide celebration of Columbus that October.

While the Pledge has been revised a few different times since then, including the addition of “under God” in the 1950s, Francis Bellamy has always been credited with writing the original.

Now that history has been called into question.

A different Bellamy may have written the Pledge

Bellamy, a former Baptist preacher, had always insisted he wrote the Pledge himself, a month before it went into print in the magazine that September. That is, he claimed to write it in August of 1892. (The print version didn’t include a byline with the Pledge.)

The Pledge of Allegiance was first published in Item 3 in the leftmost column as part of a special program in honor of Columbus Day.

But earlier this year, while researching the Pledge’s origins, historian Barry Popik discovered something rather shocking: A copy of the Ellis County News Republican, a newspaper in Hays, Kansas, ran an article about a class saying the Pledge during a school ceremony on April 30, 1892.

That would be a few months before Bellamy claimed he wrote the first version.

And make no mistake: The students in Kansas were indeed saying a version of the Pledge that’s virtually identical to the one Bellamy later published: “I pledge Allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation inseparable, with Liberty and Justice for all.” (Bellamy’s version removed the “to” and swapped “inseparable” with “indivisible.”)

So if the students were saying a version of the Pledge that Bellamy later took credit for, who the hell wrote it?

There’s one plausible alternative, as noted by the New York Times:

The discovery may also vindicate a longstanding but disputed claim that the oath actually originated in 1890 when a 13-year-old Kansas schoolboy — remarkably named Frank E. Bellamy — said he submitted it to a contest that was organized by Francis Bellamy’s own magazine to promote American values such as patriotism.

The overlapping names can get confusing, but that means a revised timeline would look like this: A child named Frank Bellamy submitted his Pledge to a magazine run by Francis Bellamy in 1890. It was never published in the magazine… until September of 1892, after which Francis Bellamy began taking credit for it. However, Frank Bellamy’s version was already being recited in schools before that issue of the magazine was published.

Fred R. Shapiro, the “associate library director for collections and special projects at Yale Law School,” says the implication is fairly clear cut:

… Mr. Shapiro of Yale said that the May 1892 newspaper clipping makes it look “very strongly that Francis could not have written it, and less strongly but compellingly that points to Frank E. Bellamy.”

This is only one of many problems with the Pledge

This isn’t the only problem with the Pledge, but it’s certainly a major one. In case you’re wondering what the other problems are, though, here’s a short list:

Francis Bellamy was a xenophobic bigot who wrote the Pledge to make sure immigrants pledged their loyalty to the U.S. flag instead of the one representing where they came from. While he had no problem with European immigrants, he lamented the newer wave of immigrants coming into the country at the time.

From Italy, he said, “we are receiving the vilest elements.” From Poland and Russia, he said, came “expelled Jews who will not labor with their hands, but choose to be parasites of tenement houses and worthless vendors.” He especially lamented non-white immigrants, saying in a speech, “There are other races which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard, which should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.”

The addition of “under God” in 1954, a change made to distinguish the U.S. from the “godless” communists who were our opponents during the Cold War, suggested we were a Christian nation. We weren’t. We aren’t.

Nor are we a nation that truly has “liberty and justice for all.” A number of people of color have protested the Pledge precisely because of this line, not the God reference. It implies that justice is a given rather than an aspiration.

Finally, reciting a pledge of loyalty to prove your patriotism is inherently unpatriotic. If you love something, you shouldn’t have to say it out loud to remind everyone.

The irony of the new discovery, then, is that Francis Bellamy may be separated from one of the worst things he ever claimed to write. It’s a gift, really.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.