AMAC Exclusive by David P. Deavel
For those of us who do not think of apple pie and the American flag as racist, celebrating Flag Day, which remembers the adoption of the first American flag on June 14, 1777, is an occasion for gratitude and a reminder that our nation has ideals and principles but also a history that binds us together.
For too many on today’s left, that history is composed only of the nation’s worst episodes, which are then made to stand in for all of American history. New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay created a splash earlier this week when she told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that a recent trip to Long Island had left her “disturbed.” Ms. Gay saw not only trucks with anti-Joe Biden messages and Trump flags, but “in some cases, just dozens of American flags, which is also just disturbing, which essentially the message was clear, this is my country. This is not your country. I own this.” The “I” here is a white man.
In other words, displaying the American flag is racist.
Happy Flag Day!
the New York Times.
Yet for most of us normal, non-Times-editorial board members, respect for the flag—including the Pledge of Allegiance and the playing of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”—has nothing to do with white supremacy or declaring ourselves as the owners of the country. It has to do with our gratitude as inheritors of it. We are inheritors of a grand experiment in self-government and ordered liberty that has its own fascinating and particular history. That is why it is always so delightful to look at the history of our national anthem.
Many countries have national anthems that are rooted in some specific event of their own history. The German anthem, which begins “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (Germany, Germany over all), was written in 1841 by August Heinrich Hoffman von Fallersleben, is not so much about Germany conquering the world but about thinking about Germany as a nation instead of a group of semi-autonomous regions. “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, was originally written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle as a war song after the declaration of war against Austria. Its name came from the fact that soldiers from Marseille were the first to take it up as a song. (If the soldiers had been from Mayonne, I suppose it would have been called “La Mayonnaise.”)
But our national anthem really does tell the story of a specific part of our history. Officially adopted as such by Congress only in 1931, it was a song born after a battle during the somewhat unknown War of 1812. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer on a mission from President James Madison, sailed from Baltimore with another lawyer, John Stuart Skinner, on September 3, 1814, to arrange for an exchange of prisoners with the British. At this point, things did not look good for the Americans as the British had burned Washington, including the White House. Key and Skinner were successful in their bid to have the popular doctor William Beanes released, but they were not allowed to leave British custody because they had heard about the plans to attack Baltimore.
They watched the ferocious battle from onboard a British ship. Unable to know what had happened, Key did see the small “storm flag” (17 x 25 feet) flying above Baltimore’s Fort McHenry through the night. But by morning, he was not sure what had happened. At dawn, Fort McHenry took down the smaller flag and put up the much larger one (30 x 42 feet) that had been commissioned by Fort McHenry’s commander George Armistead and later came to be known as the Star-Spangled Banner.
Key was so inspired by the victory that he began a poem on the back of a letter in his pocket and finished it in the Indian and Queen hotel when the British finally released him. After showing it to his wife’s brother-in-law, a judge and former volunteer commander at the Fort, he was convinced to have it printed as a broadside—a large sheet of paper printed on one side only—with the direction that it be sung to the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven,” a British drinking song. It caught on and was sung in a public performance a mere month later on October 19, 1814, and published by a music store under the name “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was first published nationally by The Analectic, a magazine edited by Washington Irving.
The song was popular over the next forty years, though not perhaps as popular as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Hail Columbia.” During the Civil War, the song really caught on as many pointed to the flag as a source of national unity. By the 1890s, it was designated by the U. S. Military for ceremonial occasions, and by 1916 President Woodrow Wilson had, through executive order, declared it our national anthem.
Today the anthem, like our flag, is often attacked because Key’s attitudes to slavery were not exactly coherent. In some ways, he personified the paradoxes and contradictions on slavery that troubled our early history, but that America’s innate goodness ultimately resolved in favor of slavery’s extinction on these shores. On the one hand, Key opposed the emancipation of slaves, but on the other hand, he was a critic of slavery itself. He bought and owned slaves himself, but he also freed them. He prosecuted abolitionists, but he also defended slaves seeking their freedom.
But we don’t sing the National Anthem because of Key’s somewhat confused positions on slavery. We sing it because it represents a particular moment early in our history when our fledgling nation, fewer than forty years old, was in danger of losing its independence again. We sing it because it points us to the symbol of our nation, and thus to the unity of our nation, forged through wars and difficult times and worth defending today despite its flaws. We sing it because its own history is one that connects us to the founding era creation of the Flag, the Civil War, World War I, our sporting history (who doesn’t want to add “Play ball!” at the end?), and the many local celebrations of Flag Day that dot our history. It is “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” both her beautiful principles and ideals and her history of trying to make them live, that we celebrate when we sing the anthem and salute the flag.
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