Shelley Lapkoff, Ph.D. Shelley Lapkoff, Ph.D.
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A Brief History of the Hand Salute to the Flag
While Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance

Over the years, particularly until 1942, there have been various ways of physically saluting the flag during recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but people have always saluted in one way or another.  As imaginatively recounted in Margarette S. Miller’s Twenty-Three Words (1976), the first hand salute to accompany the Pledge of Allegiance was that of James Upham.  Upham’s salute occurred almost spontaneously upon his first verbal recitation of the Pledge, which had been composed within the previous two hours by his fellow employee at The Youth’s Companion magazine, Francis Bellamy.  The year was 1892, and the Pledge was to be part of the program they were assembling to accompany the National Columbian Public School Celebration of Columbus Day of that year (see Pledge History).  At the words “my flag” Upham extended his arm out, palm upward, towards the imagined flag he was addressing.

By the time the Pledge appeared in print on September 8, 1892, in The Youth’s Companion, as part of the “Official Programme” of the National Columbian Public School Celebration of Columbus Day, instructions specified that, “At a signal from the Principal, the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag.  Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it.  Standing thus, all repeat [the Pledge] together, slowly.  At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.”  This exact wording appears in a leaflet, “How to Give the Salute to the Flag,” issued to public schools by The Youth’s Companion, at the direction of James Upham, in 1894.

As described by Richard J. Ellis, in To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance (2005), for the next fifty years, there were several variations on the salute (most captured in historic photographs), but no standardized or officially sanctioned form.  Some people held their right hand to their foreheads in a military salute for the entire address.  Some modified the military salute by holding the right hand against the heart, open palm downward.  Some laid their right hand over their heart; a man removed any hat he was wearing and held it over his heart.  And some held the right hand on an outstretched arm towards the flag, palm up, palm sideways, or palm down.

Following World War I, attempts were made to provide for not only a standard salute but also a uniform national flag code.  At the second of two flag conferences held in Washington, DC, in 1923 and 1924, it was agreed, again according to Ellis, that “All civilians should stand with ‘the right hand over the heart,’ and then at the words ‘to the Flag’ the right hand should be ‘extended, palm upward, toward the Flag.’  At the close of the Pledge the hand was to be dropped to the side.”  This virtually duplicated the salute specified in the 1892 program developed by Upham and Bellamy.  However, it was conceded that civilian adults could merely stand at attention, men removing their hats, to show respect during the Pledge.  Military personnel were still to salute with the right hand to the forehead.

But by 1935, people were pointing out the embarrassing similarity between the German “Heil Hitler” salute to the Führer (arm extended, palm down) and the common raised arm salute to the flag during the Pledge (arm extended, palm up), a form that continued in use well into the United States’ entry into World War II.  Over the next few years—despite objections by the United States Flag Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution, despite even an official congressional codification of flag rules and etiquette adopted in June 1942 that included the raised arm salute prescribed in 1924—many groups and school districts began eliminating the extended arm portion of the salute. 

Only in December 1942 did Congress officially sanction an amended flag salute in which the right hand, or a hat removed by the right hand, is held over the heart during recitation of the Pledge.

Title 4, Chapter 1, section 4 of the United States Code, as modified January 22, 2002, entitled “FLAG AND SEAL, SEAT OF GOVERNMENT, AND THE STATES CHAPTER 1 - THE FLAG” reads as follows:

The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag . . . should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.  When not in [military] uniform men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart.  Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.”


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