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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

April 16, 2024: Mythic Patriotisms: The National Anthem

[Up here in New England, the third Monday in April is a holiday, Patriots’ Day. But as I argue in my most recent book, patriotism is a very complex concept, and so this week I’ll highlight a handful of examples of the worst of what it has meant for how we remember our histories. Leading up to a weekend post on the state of mythic patriotism in 2024!]

On two layers of mythic patriotism found in the later verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

There are multiple reasons why I decided to put Francis Scott Key conceiving of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Colin Kaepernick kneeling during a performance of it on the cover of Of Thee I Sing, and none of them make Key look particularly good. I wrote about some of those layers in this 2019 post on the anthem (and especially on its much less frequently performed later verses), and so once again would ask you to check out that prior post and then come on back for a couple further thoughts on this complex national text.

Welcome back! In the opening paragraph of that prior post, I highlighted a particular couplet in the anthem’s generally overlooked third verse: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” As I mentioned there, Key himself was both a slaveowner and a lawyer who opposed abolition and fought for the rights of other slaveowners, making his use of that particular word especially fraught if not overtly hypocritical. But I would argue that the entire phrase also plays into a specific mythic patriotic narrative of both the War of 1812 and the American Revolution: that enslaved people were adversaries of the American cause in both cases, allied with the English and thus suffering defeat (flight, the grave, etc.) at the hands of the U.S. The realities of those histories are multilayered, as I traced in this column; but as I argued in yesterday’s post, many of the Revolution’s most inspiring patriots were enslaved people, a trend that continue into the Early Republic and that Key’s phrase and verse entirely and frustratingly elide.

The anthem’s third verse is thus particularly fraught with mythic patriotic ideas, but I would add that the fourth verse likewise includes its own form of mythic patriotism. Key writes there, “O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand/Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!” and adds, “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,/And this be our motto—‘In God is our trust.’” He’s alluding there to a narrative of the War of 1812 as a defensive conflict, one in which the United States was invaded by England and fought back to protect and preserve its homes and homeland. That’s certainly one way to understand the war’s origin points; but as I wrote in this column, that narrative entirely minimizes the concurrent ways in which the war was both caused and defined by U.S. aggression, particularly towards both Canada and indigenous communities. Indeed, the United States did seek to “conquer” as part of the war, to conquer and annex a great deal of territory from those other sovereign nations—and whether we see that “cause” as “just” or not, it’s unquestionably a distinct one from self-defense. One more way in which Key’s anthem views our history through an overtly mythic patriotic lens.

Next patriotism post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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