Is It Time to Ditch the Star-Spangled Banner?


Ted Widmer is a historian based at Brown University. He edited American Speeches for the Library of America.

... A deeper study of Key only compounds the problem. We can overlook the fact that he was tone-deaf. But his position on slavery is impossible to avoid. Key was not only a slave-owner, he zealously defended the peculiar institution in his legal work, persecuting local journalists who questioned slavery, and even those who possessed anti-slavery writings in their homes. (A 2012 book, Jefferson Morley’s Snow-Storm in August, fills out the details.) His brother-in-law was Roger Taney, who became chief justice of the Supreme Court and authored the infamous Dred Scott decision, which argued that African-Americans could never be citizens of the United States. Indeed, much of what we know about how Key wrote out “The Star-Spangled Banner” comes from an account Taney published in 1857, the year of Dred Scott.

The fact that “The Star-Spangled Banner” contains these serious flaws did not in any way slow down its popularity. It may even have helped, as the new song spread like wildfire through newspapers and songbooks. Americans were desperate for good news in 1814, and didn’t care to look too closely at the details. New England was on the verge of seceding over America’s feckless foreign policy and a war that had achieved none of its objectives. The president of the United States, James Madison, was in flight, and the White House a charred ruin. At other difficult times in our history—notably, during the Civil War— the anguish that lies not too deep below the surface of the song gave it a new burst of popularity. That note of fragility gives the song more depth than the drum-bashing triumphalism with which it is usually performed.

There were other national anthems earlier in our history—“Hail Columbia” was composed for George Washington’s first inauguration, in 1789, and did honorable service at public events throughout the 19th century. It now occupies a precarious limbo, not quite forgotten, as the official vice-presidential anthem. But the “Star-Spangled Banner” gained currency as the Navy began to play it more officially in the 1890s, in the same decade that the Navy was spearheading the spread of American influence around the world. Its use accelerated in World War I, and it officially became the national anthem in 1931, after a lobbying effort led by Maryland Rep. Charles Linthicum. As such, it is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Herbert Hoover administration.

Two hundred years after that long night in Baltimore, is it time to rethink the Star-Spangled Banner? It has its merits—to drown out bad news with bluster, brass and percussion worked in 1814, and the song continues to radiate personality, even as most of us try and fail to sing along with its awkward leaps over one-and-half octaves. It feels right that the city that gave us Hairspray also surrendered this essential bit of national theater. The music has entered so deeply into our consciousness that even its parodies can seem beautiful—much as the Jimi Hendrix version, inflammatory at the time, has acquired a great dignity of its own.

But the story of Key’s nearness to slavery cannot easily be forgotten, especially in an era that demands more accountability, and offers to tools to find it....

Read entire article at Politico

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