Should "The Star Spangled Banner" Be The National Anthem?

by | July 8, 2008

Between fireworks and celebration this July 4 weekend, I took some time to read Sean Wilentz's excellent treatment of the War of 1812--a controversial war that produced, among other things, our national anthem.

During college, I had a bloc of friends who were opposed to "The Star Spangled Banner." They thought it elevated tacky militarism above America's other endowments and wanted it replaced by the (excellent, but far less succinct) "America The Beautiful."

I was agnostic on the issue, but Wilentz's account of 1812 helps put the anthem in context: The War of 1812 is oft derided as a blunder; a destructive, unnecessary attempt to assert American honor that ended in a stalemate and got Washington, D.C. burned to the ground. It was America's first war driven by the Western and Southern nationalists that Walter Russell Mead labels Jacksonians, whose goal was essentially to give Britain and the Indian tribes the finger.

Francis Scott Key's lyrics--written during the bombardment of Baltimore soon after the burning of D.C.--channel this sentiment (up yours, enemies); something anyone who's shouted the phrase "FLAG WAS STILL THERE" at a football game knows. The song is a tribute to this Jacksonian spirit, written during a war that turned those new nationalists into a dominant political force. (Andrew Jackson, whose political career was based on the War of 1812, would later become their eponymous leader.)

In that sense, the song's critics are right. It does celebrate America's special brand of defiant, honor-soaked militarism. Whether or not you like "The Star Spangled Banner," I suppose, depends to a degree on whether you think Jacksonian nationalism is a worthy addition to our national ethos.

I'm of the opinion that it is: Even if 1812 was a strategic dud, it unified American society, further democratized the country, and changed it for the better. And while Jacksonianism has sometimes led us astray, its net benefits to the United States have been undeniably great. You could even say we wouldn't be recognizably American without it. 

Nevertheless, I can see why reasonable people might disagree.

--Barron YoungSmith

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