With their right arms extended stiffly forward, angled upward with fingers straight, man, woman, and child reflexively spoke the familiar words in unison. While this scenario might easily be mistaken as coming straight out of a reviled chapter of European history, this particular description is not denoting a gesture of fascism, but a largely forgotten and benign expression of American patriotism: the Bellamy salute.
In 1892, the American Civil War had been over a mere 27 years, and the acrimonious conflict was still fresh in the minds of a country still much divided in spirit and suffering from a failed Reconstruction which ended 15 years earlier. In a bid to promote patriotism throughout these United States, a Boston publication entitled Youth’s Companion built upon an earlier campaign to place an American flag in every school by publishing a pledge of allegiance to the American flag. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy and published in Youth’s Companion on 8 Sep 1892. After its publication, Bellamy promoted the pledge at a national meeting of school superintendents, who enthusiastically created a committee with Bellamy as chair to incorporate the pledge into a nationwide patriotic program for the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America.
Following the widespread popularity of the Pledge of Allegiance, it was decided that some manner of salute would be preferable to the awkward postures adopted as young and old, male and female, recited the Pledge of Allegiance in gestures of patriotism at schools and social gatherings. The salute described above – right arm extended stiffly forward, angled upward with fingers straight—was created and published in the same magazine that first published the Pledge of Allegiance, Youth’s Companion, and the deliberate, respectful gesture was named the Bellamy salute, after Francis Bellamy. This gesture (and others like it) is often claimed to have been modeled off of a salute of the Ancient Romans, although this is disputed.
The stiff-armed gesture known as the Bellamy salute was adopted with the same widespread enthusiasm as the Pledge of Allegiance, and for decades the two were synonymous with a common display of American patriotism. While the published Bellamy salute instructions called for a military salute (later replaced with having the hand over the heart) to be then extended with the palm facing to the sky, many found it less awkward to perform the salute with the palm facing to the ground. Then in the mid-1930s, fascist regimes in Italy and Germany adopted an almost identical, extended-armed salute as a show of fealty to their fascist leaders. The once-benign gesture of patriotism was quickly becoming synonymous with something far more sinister, and thus something needed to be done about the Bellamy salute.
Although the Bellamy salute had just been incorporated into Public Law 77-623; Chapter 435, better known as the National Flag Code, on 22 Jun 1942, the prominence of similar fascist salutes and the United States involvement in World War II led to the Bellamy salute’s timely demise when the law was amended on 22 Dec 1942.
The Bellamy salute was created in 1892 to be used when reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance. After fascist regimes in Italy and Germany adopted a similar salute in the years leading up to World War II, Congress ultimately amended the National Flag Code to replace the Bellamy salute with the hand-over-heart gesture used today.