As Independence Week (July 4-11, 2014) draws to a close, stop and reflect upon Professor Jill Lepore's ode to the national anthem that eschews the "love it or leave it" mentality of the patriots. This thoughtful essay is a splendid addition to the great writing featured in this blog. The Jillster hits a home rn of her own with her meditation of the meaning of "The Star Spangled Banner." If this is (fair & balanced) genuine patriotism, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Jill Lepore
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At the first game of the 1918 World Series, in Chicago, Babe Ruth pitched for the Red Sox, and a leftie called Hippo Vaughn pitched for the Cubs. An American flag flew from the right-field pole, snapping in the wind like a whip. During the seventh-inning stretch, the band played a song never before played at a major-league baseball game: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the stands, fans scrambled to their feet and doffed their caps and sang as best they could, quietly at first. The poem that Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814 can be very hard to sing.
Key, a lawyer, wrote what came to be called “The Star-Spangled Banner” outside Baltimore, at the end of the War of 1812, after seeing, by the dawn’s early light, that the American flag, with its broad stripes and bright stars, was still flying over the ramparts of Fort McHenry, despite having been bombarded all through the night by British cannon fire—their rockets’ red glare, their bombs bursting in air. Set to music and published, Key’s poem got popular. From the start, people made up their own words. Key was a slaveholder and, as a U.S. Attorney, opposed abolition in print and in court. Abolitionists sang a song of protest: “O say, does that blood-striped banner still wave / O’er the land of the fetter, and hut of the slave?” Key died in 1843. In 1857, his brother-in-law and former law partner, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, wrote the most infamous legal opinion in American history, in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford: he said that Americans descended from Africans “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution.” Frederick Douglass called Taney’s decision monstrous. Abraham Lincoln said that the nation could not endure half slave and half free. In the civil war that followed, more than seven hundred thousand Americans died.
In 1917, the United States entered the First World War, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the official anthem of the Army and Navy. Many Americans opposed the war. Congress passed laws meant to silence that opposition; dissenters were jailed. At the 1918 World Series, when the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch, Fred Thomas, the Red Sox third baseman—a Navy sailor on furlough—stood at military attention. The applause was like thunder. There was more thunder to come. During the eighth inning, warplanes flew over the field. Babe Ruth pitched a shutout; the Red Sox won. But it was the singing of the song that everyone remembered. In 1931, Congress made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem. Before then, there hadn’t been one.
No nation has a single history, no people a single song. Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” a populist anthem about the poor and the needy, in 1940: “As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?” In the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties, wars abroad were followed by struggles for justice at home. Civil-rights activists sang Guthrie’s song while they marched, walking that ribbon of highway, seeing that endless skyway.
Key’s song carried on. In the nineteen-sixties, what started as a song of war came to mean something more, something searching and grave. In 1969, at Woodstock, while Americans were fighting in Vietnam, Jimi Hendrix, who’d been honorably discharged from the 101st Airborne, played the national anthem on his guitar, angry and mournful and shattering. “I’m American, so I played it,” he said later. “I thought it was beautiful.” It became, in that moment, an anthem of dissent.
Democracy is difficult and demanding. So is history. It can crack your voice; it can stir your soul; it can break your heart. The poem that Key wrote two hundred years ago, in a very different United States, ends with a question: Does the star-spangled banner yet wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave? The band plays; the band stops. But the song of democracy asks, of everyone who sings it, whether the brightest of our ideals have abided, through each dark and fierce night, into the faint and tender gleaming of dawn. Ω
[Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University as well as the chair of the History and Literature Program. She also is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest books are The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012) and Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013). Lepore earned her B.A. in English from Tufts University, an M.A. in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University.]
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