I PROMISE Not to Pervert or Subvert

Good news: I just got a promotion!

But to do so, I had to promise not to subvert the constitution of the United States.


The answer can tell us something about the history of conservative educational activism in the US of A.

As part of my move to the rank of Associate Professor at the august Binghamton University, State University of New York, I had to reaffirm my pledge to support the constitution of the USA and of the State of New York.  I also had to promise to “faithfully discharge the duties” of my new position.

As I discuss in my current book, The Other School Reformers, conservative school activists throughout the twentieth century insisted on this sort of loyalty oath as an iron-clad requirement for all teachers in public schools.  It seems quaint these days to think of asking enemy agents to solemnly promise not to undermine the American way of life, but from the 1930s through the 1950s and beyond, many leading conservatives considered such oaths a primary means of combating alien influence in American society.

In 1950, for example, conservatives in Pasadena, California, fretted that their award-winning school superintendent had aligned himself too closely with communist-friendly “progressives.”  One of the fixes the conservatives insisted on was to put the Daughters of the American Revolution in charge of administering new teacher loyalty oaths.

The move made sense at the time.  Throughout the 1930s, the DAR had led the fight to pass mandatory loyalty-oath laws in several states.  By the 1950s, the DAR had established itself as the leading proponent of teacher loyalty oaths.  Therefore, it makes sense to think that if we want to understand the reasoning behind such oaths, we should start with the DAR.

At the tail end of the 1920s, for example, Grace Brosseau, national leader of the DAR, told the annual meeting that teachers’ loyalty oaths made up a key component of the DAR’s strategy to improve American education.  Such oaths, Brosseau insisted, could help America’s mothers be confident that “instructors in your communities are of the right calibre and are teaching sound Americanism instead of instilling pernicious doctrines into the minds of their pupils.”[1]

At that same national meeting, the assembled DAR representatives passed a resolution in favor of such teacher loyalty oaths.  Why?  Because, in their words, “anti-American elements are incessantly working to overthrow our constitutional form of government.”  Teacher loyalty oaths could help, they thought, along with “greater care in the selection of instructors for our schools, more widespread interest in curriculum and textbooks and a deeper understanding of methods of instruction.”[2]

In the mid-1930s, a successor to Grace Brosseau agreed that teacher loyalty oaths constituted a key element of right-thinking conservative school reform.  As President General Florence Becker argued in 1935,

A Teachers’ Oath of Allegiance law is but a tardy recognition of the fact that of all public servants holding positions of trust and receiving pay from public funds, the teacher holds the key position of importance.  The education system should be kept free from government control, and the American people should not commit suicide by failure to provide teachers who have faith in America.[3]

One DAR activist in Michigan thought that a teacher oath would at least give parents some legal recourse if they found a subversive teacher in their local school, “spreading his un-American doctrines among our children.”[4]

In sum, it seems that teacher loyalty oaths resulted from anti-communist political pressure in the 1930s and 1950s.  Even at the time, other anti-communists wondered if such oaths mattered.  Would a foreign agent dedicated to subversion be deterred by such an oath?

These days, the United States does not face the threat of a large body of communist agents.  Does it make any sense to continue these loyalty oaths?

[1] Grace L.H. Brosseau, “Annual Message of the President General,” Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Continental Congress, National Society of the DAR (1929), page 11.


[2] “Resolution No. 16, Teachers’ Oath,” Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Continental Congress, NSDAR (1929), 681-682.


[3] Mrs. William A. Becker, Tapestry Weavers: an Address of Mrs. William A. Becker, President General, National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution at Fall State Conferences, 1935 (no publisher, no date, [likely DAR published, likely 1935.  Copy in the NSDAR archives, Washington, DC]), pages 6-7.


[4] Vivian Lyon Moore, “Michigan’s ‘Oath of Allegiance’ Bill,” DAR Magazine Volume 65 (July 1931), page 404.


Leave a comment


  1. Kudos for the promotion!! Tenure as well?

  2. Adam: You know the answer to your final question—at least the answer that TRUE PATRIOTS will give. To wit, we’re *always* at WAR! Know it’s the War on Terror. We must always be ready to give oaths that reaffirm (again and again, whenever conservatives want it) our citizenship and loyalty to the U.S.!

    Aside: Any my family wonders why I raise an eyebrow whenever they discuss their latest DAR activities. Sigh.

    • Erratum: …NOW it’s the War on Terror.

    • Tim,
      Do you know if loyalty-oath issues ever came up in later 20th-century campus culture wars? Or even in some post 9/11 campus controversies?

      • That’s a great question. I don’t think so. But I’d suspect loyalty oaths only matter when you don’t believe you can’t obviously identify the enemy. By this I mean race (i.e. communists as “caucasians” and 21st century terrorists as “arabs”).

  3. Congrats Dr. Laats.

  4. Donna

     /  July 1, 2013

    Congratulations! 🙂


  6. Thanks to all!

  1. Our fundamentalist neighbours | Leaving Fundamentalism

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