The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An anthem reflecting the wonder and warts of the nation that sings it

An American flag in 2014 in Washington, D.C. Mark Clague argues that the "Star-Spangled Banner" is “a primary document, a living record of the American experiment in flux.” (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)
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It’s no surprise in this era of U.S. historical reckoning that our national anthem has come under scrutiny.

Its author was an enslaver, a founder of an organization that sought to send emancipated African Americans to Africa, and friend, ally, and brother-in-law to Roger Taney, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision that denied U.S. citizenship to Black Americans. The rarely sung third stanza of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” asserts “no refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” words that have sown division ever since. The lyrics are militaristic and set to a tune that is notoriously difficult to sing.

Indeed, controversy is nothing new for the anthem, whose lyrics were repeatedly used in the antebellum period to highlight the gap between the nation’s promise to be “the land of the free” while permitting the hereditary enslavement of millions. At the outset of the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a new stanza celebrating the effort to free the enslaved; it was published in public school texts after the conflict ended, triggering book purges and originalist-minded anthem censorship laws in several states. During World War I, peace activists wrote and performed pacifist versions of the song, which triggered a media backlash that presaged cancel culture. Americans didn’t even settle on it as a national song until the early 20th century.

If the purpose of a national anthem is to foster unity and patriotism, not a few have argued that other songs with less baggage — “America the Beautiful” and “America (My Country ’Tis of Thee)” are often cited — might better serve the purpose than an homage to a largely forgotten battle in the barely understood War of 1812 set to the tune of an exclusive British social club’s ceremonial song.

Diving into these treacherous waters is Mark Clague, professor of musicology at the University of Michigan and board president of the nonprofit Star-Spangled Music Foundation, which seeks to separate fact from fiction for musical educators when it comes to national and patriotic songs. His timely new book, “O Say Can You Hear: A Cultural Biography of The Star-Spangled Banner” argues that our anthem is valuable precisely because its baggage is the nation’s baggage, “a primary document, a living record of the American experiment in flux.”

“I have come to embrace its contradictions and to celebrate its controversies,” he writes. “To replace The Star-Spangled Banner may be a mistake. It would discard the power of history, the use of both the troubles and triumphs of Key’s song as a compass navigating toward a more constructive future.” The anthem forces us to confront our uneven legacy and “is less a call to sing than a call to compose. The Star-Spangled Banner is an invitation to citizenship.”

Readers may agree or disagree with Clague’s assessment — does the socially compulsory singing of a politically fraught song at a sports stadium or official ceremony really further national self-examination? — but his book matches rigorous scholarship with clear, engaging writing on a wide range of anthem-related questions: Who was Key, and how did he come to write the lyrics? Where did the tune come from? How did Key’s song beat out rivals to become our official anthem in 1931? When and how did it become a sports ritual? Why the fuss when patriotic Americans performed it in Spanish or with soul, gospel, jazz or psychedelic rock interpretations? How have its lyrics been rewritten in political protests or protested when they were performed?

Clague also dispels a number of popular myths about Key and the song’s creation. The Georgetown lawyer and future D.C. district attorney didn’t write the lyrics on the back of an envelope — he had days stuck on his truce ship to compose it at a writing desk — and he consciously wrote it to the already familiar melody of “The Anacreontic Song,” the anthem of the London club of the same name which was already a popular template for America’s songwriters. This was not a “drinking song” but, rather, an intentionally challenging piece ritualistically performed at each meeting of the Anacreontic Society since its composition for that purpose in the 18th century. (The drinking would occur afterward.)

Clague shows how the song slowly and organically gained acceptance as a national anthem, receiving a boost with each military conflict, to vanquish its rivals (especially “Hail, Columbia”) long before Congress gave it official status in 1931. As a musicologist, he has the vocabulary to bring melodies and specific performances alive with words, a skill he deftly uses to parse examples as diverse as the tune of the Anacreontic Song and Jimi Hendrix’s epic “Banner” performance at Woodstock.

On Key himself, Clague takes a moderate position. He acknowledges that the Maryland native owned more than a dozen enslaved people; that he co-founded and passionately supported the American Colonization Society (whose goal of shipping free Black Americans to West Africa was vehemently condemned by Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and other prominent abolitionists); and that his aggressive and legally flawed prosecution of a local abolitionist helped trigger the Washington City “race riot” of 1835, when a White mob attacked Black churches, schools, restaurants and businesses. But Clague gives far more attention to the antislavery side of Key’s complicated ledger: his regular denouncement of slavery as “a great moral and political evil”; his professional record of supporting Black men, women and children who were seeking freedom in the courts, including a successful effort to free 131 people held captive aboard an illegal slave ship; and his freeing of many of his own enslaved people during his lifetime.

“Key was on the wrong side of history, and his words and actions cannot be excused,” Clague writes. But Key’s “attempts to find a pragmatic solution to slavery exposes a more chaotic struggle, one at odds with a simple narrative of slavery’s acceptance. It is likewise the messy, tumultuous and evolving story of America.” Readers, again, may agree or disagree with his stance — my reading of the evidence is less sympathetic — but he presents his case competently.

Clague also assembles a largely exculpatory argument in regard to the notorious third stanza of our anthem. Most accounts consider “hireling and slave” a reference to two types of infantry units deployed against Fort McHenry: the British regulars (the hirelings) and Colonial Marines, the Black men who had escaped slavery and taken up the King’s invitation to fight for the crown (the slaves.) Clague argues based on a careful analysis of what Key did and did not know about the battle when he wrote the lyrics — and the fact that the words are singular — that they were meant to describe British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, who had been killed in the attack and was, unlike the Americans, a salaried soldier (or “hireling”) and a “slave” or subject of the King, which was a common aspersion directed at the British in 1814.

Regardless, Clague notes that Key never intended to write a national anthem as he watched the shelling of Baltimore’s defenses from the deck of a ship. But the song nonetheless burrowed itself “deep within the collective American psyche” in a way no other song has. “Reinforced by more than two centuries of use, the sheer weight of this cultural legacy is the song’s most powerful asset,” he writes. Clague suggests this may be for the best: “An anthem lyric like Key’s that celebrates the nation’s ideals while carrying the burdens of its contradictory history — both its triumphs and struggles — may be an advantage, helping to chart a path forward.”

Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” and “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood.” He is a senior visiting fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University.

O Say Can You Hear

A Cultural Biography of The Star Spangled Banner

By Mark Clague

Norton. 320 pp. $28.95.

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