Commentary Magazine


Topic: War of 1812

In Praise of the Star-Spangled Banner

This weekend marks the 200th anniversary of the writing of the poem that eventually became our national anthem. But though the bicentennial will be marked by ceremonies at Fort McHenry with all the pomp the occasion deserves as well as spirited renditions of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at baseball and football games around the country, it is also the excuse for another round of bashing from critics who dislike the song and want it replaced with something more vanilla or easier to sing. But though there are some ironies about its origins and there is little doubt that it can be a challenge for performers, the calls for trashing the anthem are as ill conceived as the war that spawned it.

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This weekend marks the 200th anniversary of the writing of the poem that eventually became our national anthem. But though the bicentennial will be marked by ceremonies at Fort McHenry with all the pomp the occasion deserves as well as spirited renditions of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at baseball and football games around the country, it is also the excuse for another round of bashing from critics who dislike the song and want it replaced with something more vanilla or easier to sing. But though there are some ironies about its origins and there is little doubt that it can be a challenge for performers, the calls for trashing the anthem are as ill conceived as the war that spawned it.

The latest attack on the “Star-Spangled Banner” comes from historian Ted Widmer who writes today in Politico Magazine to suggest that it be replaced with the more anodyne “America the Beautiful.” Widmer, better known as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House and is reportedly the ghost for Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir, also supplies a great many historical arguments against both the anthem and its author. But like all such attacks on the song, they underestimate the symbolism of the circumstances of its origin as well as the power of its words.

As every schoolchild used to know (in today’s era of left-wing influenced pedagogy in which American history is rarely taught in a straight-forward manner it is difficult to know what most kids are taught, let alone actually learn), the anthem was written by Key, an attorney who was on board a ship in the invading British fleet where he witnessed its bombardment of Fort McHenry. Fresh off their raid on Washington D.C., where they burned the Capitol and the White House, the Brits were hoping to take Baltimore and its strategic harbor. But unlike the disastrous defense of Washington which ended in rout and the U.S. government being forced to flee, the defenders of Baltimore were made of sterner stuff. The British failed to shell the Americans into submission and when Key saw the enormous (36’ x 42’) American flag that flew over McHenry still waving in defiance of the forces of perfidious Albion (and still on display at the Smithsonian Institution), it moved him to verse.

Though it had a slow start and a lot of competition from other songs associated with American national identity, by the end of the 19th century it had become universally popular before finally Congress declared it to be the anthem in 1931 in what is, as Widmer aptly notes, probably the most lasting legacy of the administration of Herbert Hoover.

The arguments against the “Banner” fall into three categories: historical, poetic, and musical.

As Widmer writes, it is no small irony that the American anthem, which was written in reaction to an incident in a war between the U.S. and Britain, is actually sung to the tune of a drinking song composed in London in the 1770s. To some, the English origin of the melody as well as its vulgar origins makes it inappropriate for the status of America’s song.

It can also be argued that any melody associated with the War of 1812 is a poor choice since that war should never have been fought (the British naval abuses that were the casus belli for the U.S. declaration of war were actually abolished by the time the war started and the hopes of American war hawks for an easy conquest of Canada were mistaken and did the young country little credit) and led to more American disasters than almost any that followed.

Even worse, as far as Widmer is concerned, is that Key, like many of the nation’s Founding Fathers, was a slave owner (a fact that allows him to argue that one of the anthem’s lyrics refers to escaped slaves supporting the British rather than a more traditional interpretation which views any followers of monarchy as “slaves”) and the brother-in-law of Roger Taney, the future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who wrote the disgraceful decision in the Dred Scott case.

Some also find Key’s poetry offensive. Michael Kinsley dismissed it as bombast and others prefer, as does Widmer, the lyrics of songs that simply celebrate America’s beauty rather than one that speaks of military valor.

Others complain, with some reason, about the difficulty of singing the song, whose broad range of notes and melody has defeated many of those who are asked to perform it.

But these complaints pale before the power of a song that is now, as Widmer admits, so deeply engrained in the American national consciousness that replacing it is inconceivable.

While the military narrative turns off leftists and cynics who spurn its language of heroism, the fact that the “Banner” is not merely about America’s glories but, instead, a moment when the very survival of our republic was in danger, adds to, rather than detracts from, its importance. It doesn’t matter that the War of 1812 was an absurd conflict. Outside of the battle in Baltimore Harbor and the conduct of the U.S. Navy on the high seas and the Great Lakes (the one land victory of the war at New Orleans was actually fought weeks after a peace treaty was signed in Europe), the war was something that Americans needed to forget.

Key’s lyrics recall American courage at a moment when it was in short supply. That fact is worth memorializing for every subsequent generation. But more than that, the song’s unique power stems from the fact that it ends, not in cheers for our landscape or good intentions but in a question. For 200 years, Key has challenged Americans to ask themselves if they are still living in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” These are no unworthy questions and there is no other anthem in the world that is so pointed about the aspirations of its people. This is very much to the song’s credit.

Say what you will of the America in which he lived or the details of Key’s life and that of his relatives. Dismiss its musical origins and groan about how hard it is for some people to sing. But Americans should be proud to have an anthem that is, at its core, a test of their fidelity to the principles on which their nation was founded and their willingness to sacrifice to preserve it. If our liberty is to be preserved in the generations that follow, it will be because of our ability to answer both of Key’s queries in the affirmative. Let us hope they do and that the immortal strains of the “Star-Spangled Banner” will accompany the melody of American freedom for countless centuries to come.

And for those who need a reminder of how beautiful the anthem can be when sung properly, here’s a reminder from last year’s Super Bowl as the brilliant Renee Fleming gives us all a singing lesson.

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Madison’s Moment

He may not have a grand monument like Thomas Jefferson; the pop culture revival of John Adams; a name synonymous with courage and heroism like George Washington; or the institutional legacy of Alexander Hamilton. But James Madison has still managed to work his way back into the daily experience of Washington D.C.’s political conversation. Madison–constitutional framer, secretary of state, president–is being invoked furiously by both Republicans and Democrats because of his consistent advocacy for the separation of powers that produces compromise and gridlock by design.

Unfortunately for Madison (though he might not find it unfortunate at all), he is being invoked for his culpability in the recent government shutdown. From the Washington Post to National Review to the Washington Examiner to even the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there is striking agreement that if you’re looking for someone to blame for the recent polarization in Washington, the culprit of choice is Madison.

That’s the good news–sort of–because whether or not you think Madison should be praised for his conception of the separation of powers (and he most certainly should), it is at least accurate to credit him with being a driving force behind the system. The bad news is that some of those who come to praise Madison do so based on a misreading of history that Madison would scarcely recognize. There has been much hyperbole aimed at conservatives from liberals who believe that the government shutdown was unprecedented–this view, keep in mind, relies on the idea that the history of the world began with Barack Obama’s election in 2008–and as such was the manifestation of a malevolent world view on the part of Republicans in Congress. Here is the opening paragraph from John Judis’s cover story in the New Republic:

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He may not have a grand monument like Thomas Jefferson; the pop culture revival of John Adams; a name synonymous with courage and heroism like George Washington; or the institutional legacy of Alexander Hamilton. But James Madison has still managed to work his way back into the daily experience of Washington D.C.’s political conversation. Madison–constitutional framer, secretary of state, president–is being invoked furiously by both Republicans and Democrats because of his consistent advocacy for the separation of powers that produces compromise and gridlock by design.

Unfortunately for Madison (though he might not find it unfortunate at all), he is being invoked for his culpability in the recent government shutdown. From the Washington Post to National Review to the Washington Examiner to even the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there is striking agreement that if you’re looking for someone to blame for the recent polarization in Washington, the culprit of choice is Madison.

That’s the good news–sort of–because whether or not you think Madison should be praised for his conception of the separation of powers (and he most certainly should), it is at least accurate to credit him with being a driving force behind the system. The bad news is that some of those who come to praise Madison do so based on a misreading of history that Madison would scarcely recognize. There has been much hyperbole aimed at conservatives from liberals who believe that the government shutdown was unprecedented–this view, keep in mind, relies on the idea that the history of the world began with Barack Obama’s election in 2008–and as such was the manifestation of a malevolent world view on the part of Republicans in Congress. Here is the opening paragraph from John Judis’s cover story in the New Republic:

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison promised that a large republic with a representative government would avoid the “instability, injustice and confusion” that had plagued many nations in Europe. In a representative government, he reasoned, disruptive factions would be unable to gain sufficient power to dissolve the social contract. The people’s representatives would not necessarily be paragons of virtue, but they would be less likely to succumb to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice.” In the 225 intervening years, Madison has been proven correct, with two great exceptions. One was the Civil War. The other was the 16-day government shutdown of October 2013.

Madison would, of course, be appalled. He was, after all, president during the War of 1812. That war would split the nation so profoundly as to be dubbed, variously, a civil war all its own and a second war of independence. And as for succumbing to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice,” the war’s political polarization would crest with the Hartford Convention of 1814 at which Federalists from New England would either threaten secession openly or implicitly. They had already, as Richard Brookhiser notes, been “smuggling supplies to the British army in Canada.” Shy of secession, they made noises about striking a separate peace with the British.

The “or else” tacked on to these threats was a list of constitutional amendments the conventioneers wanted adopted, among them restrictions on presidential eligibility aimed specifically at curbing the electoral success of the sons of Virginia. For those who think Republicans engineered the 2013 shutdown because they could not win elections fair and square and therefore contrived to take the country “hostage,” one wonders what they would make of such personalities as Gouverneur Morris (“Unquestionably it is civil war. And what of it?”) and Timothy Pickering.

But of course Madison was far from blameless. One clever flourish of the conventioneers was in writing that “in cases of deliberate, dangerous and palpable infractions of the constitution” it is appropriate for “a state to interpose its authority” with the federal government. This language echoed nearly word for word a section of the Virginia Resolution of 1798, which was written by Madison himself. (Madison’s authorship was not yet publicly revealed, but as it was promulgated by his party in his home state, his affiliation with and approval of its ideas were widely assumed.)

The Virginia Resolution, in turn, along with Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution, was a protest against the Alien and Sedition Acts which were put in place by the Federalists and used by President John Adams (and an enabling Supreme Court) to silence domestic criticism and stack the deck electorally against the Republicans. Madison talked Jefferson out of pushing secession in response to the Acts, but he would no doubt scoff at the idea that the government shutdown of 2013 was an unprecedented manifestation (aside from the Civil War) of partisan polarization, disrupting a history of harmony that he would not recognize.

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