Politico Magazine celebrated the bicentennial of America’s national anthem this past Saturday with a lead story entitled “Is It Time to Ditch the Star-Spangled Banner?”
Written by Ted Widmer, a former Bill Clinton speechwriter and ghostwriter for Hillary Clinton’s recenmtly released Hard Choices, the piece decries the anthem’s militarism and rampant racism that Widmer feels has no place in modern political discourse.
To the columnist, Francis Scott Key’s historic account of the 1814 defense of Fort McHenry gratuitously celebrates the horrors of war, “forc[ing] us to relive Key’s emotional trauma during that long night 200 years ago” with “a kind of musical bombardment.”
Couching it as a compliment, Widmer claims the song serves the jingoistic purpose of “drown[ing] out bad news with bluster, brass and percussion.”
Widmer doesn’t have a particularly original idea: He quotes favorably from a 2009 piece by Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley that slammed the anthem’s “empty bravado” and “mindless bluster about rockets and bombs.”
But that’s nothing compared to the rank bigotry Widmer sees lying beneath our patriotic hymn. He points to a line from the rarely sung third stanza in which Key taunts “the hireling and slave” who fought with the British.
“That line calls attention to a fact that considerably weakens the song’s claim to celebrate ‘the land of the free,’” he says: “the presence of significant numbers of African-Americans, fighting with the British in hopes of finding a personal freedom they had no chance of securing in the United States.”
The songwriter’s personal history also offers insights into what Widmer sees as “The Star-Spangled Banner’s” inherent racism. “[Key’s] position on slavery is impossible to avoid,” Widmer writes, noting that not only was the lawyer a slave-owner, “he zealously defended the peculiar institution in his legal work, persecuting local journalists who questioned slavery.”
“The story of Key’s nearness to slavery cannot easily be forgotten,” he says, “especially in an era that demands more accountability, and offers the tools to find it.”
Widmer suggests a couple of replacements for our current anthem. “Hail, Columbia,” a song composed to extol the martial prowess of George Washington and his troops during first inauguration in 1789, is mentioned favorably. But the former Clinton flack’s personal favorite is “American the Beautiful” — “a stirring piece of music, easily sung and irrefutably composed by U.S. citizens.”
But isn’t “Hail, Columbia,” with its belligerent talk of “fight[ing] and bleed[ing] in freedom’s cause” and calls to “defend your rights, defend your shore,” even more martial than Key’s ode?
And let’s not get started on “American the Beautiful,” whose refrain “from sea to shining sea” sounds suspiciously like a celebration of Manifest Destiny, America’s imperialist ambitions, and our relentless campaign against the continent’s native peoples. There’s even that “God shed his grace” line, which surely is just a Freedom From Religion Foundation lawsuit waiting to happen.
Perhaps Widmer should more fully consider the racial and moral implications behind the songs he suggests. Or, like the rest of us, he could just enjoy a good patriotic tune.
— Brendan Bordelon is an editorial associate at National Review Online.