America is currently dealing with a reckoning of our culture. Institutions are being questioned. Much of culture and our history is being described in a new light. Even our National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner” is being questioned.
For years, I thought of “The Star Spangled Banner” as being a song of hope. It reflected Francis Scott Key’s joy at seeing he still had a nation to call home following the bombardment of Fort McHenry near Baltimore in the War of 1812. He had seen the British sack and burn Washington, D.C. I still feel stirred by Key’s words, as I want to see my flag, the American flag, the Star Spangled Banner, fly over the land of the free and the home of the brave.
However, we have now learned some not-so-nice things about the song and Key. The third verse (which hardly anyone knew existed until recently) seems to glorify the deaths of slaves who joined the British after being promised their freedom.
We also know Key was a slave owner. Unlike founders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, all of whom owned slaves but were clearly uncomfortable with the institution (Washington made sure his slaves were freed upon his death), Key was an unapologetic slave owner and what today we could call a white supremacist.
When he was District Attorney for Washington, D.C., he used his authority to prosecute abolitionists and seek severe criminal penalties against them.
I guess it’s safe to say our National Anthem has, in recent times, been tainted by what we now know about its composer.
That doesn’t mean it should be dropped as our Anthem. Perhaps what’s needed is for Americans to own their Anthem even as we disavow its author and drop the third verse. We can make it stand for what we want America to be: truly the land of the free and the home of the brave.
While we’re on the subject of National Anthems, I can think of one other that may call for some reconsideration. It’s the French National Anthem, “Les Marsielles.”
I’m sure most people are familiar with the stirring strains of “Les Marsielles.” It is almost immediately associated with anything French. It’s often used in movies and television shows to set the mood for a scene set in France. The singing of “Les Marsielles” was one of the dramatic highlights of the classic film, “Casablanca.”
However, you may not think so highly of it when you hear a translation of the lyrics.
“Les Marsielles” was written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792. European monarchies, fearful the ideas of the French Revolution would spread to their countries, had attacked France. The song was written to rally the troops to defend the nation and the French Republic.
The first verse describes how tyranny has raised its bloody standard, and the ferocious soldiers are coming to French men to slit the throats of their wives and sons.
It gets better. Here’s an English translation of the chorus:
Form up your battalions!
So their impure blood
Floods the furrows of our fields.
The German National Anthem, “Deutschland Uber Alles,” has been tainted by its association with the Nazis. However, it is downright benevolent when compared to “Les Marsielles.” It speaks of working brotherly hand in hand, and sings of the beauty of German women, wine and song.
If America needs to have a reckoning with its National Anthem, I would suggest the French need a reckoning with theirs. I suspect that, if we look around the world, we’d find we’re not the only ones.