As the backlash against Confederate symbols continues to embroil flags, statues and the names of roads, icons related to slavery are becoming fair game for censure and removal. Perhaps the country should consider also replacing the national anthem because poet Francis Scott Key owned up to 20 other human beings.
Beyond the transgression of its author, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a national joke due to our inability to sing it or to remember the words of even the first verse (there are four). Created during the War of 1812, one of our many forgotten conflicts, it seems to glorify militarism and is the most controversial song in American history.
Yet the anthem has lasted for 201 years as a secular prayer for the nation's well-being and is venerated by veterans and other patriots who have attempted to preserve it in a traditional form, with much success. The only lasting patriotic composition inspired by perilous circumstances, the anthem is adaptable to varied musical styles and offers an edgy, memorable melody.
Key never touted his song, even though "The Star-Spangled Banner" catapulted to instant popularity as the de facto national anthem soon after its creation (Congress made it official in 1931). After leaving a mixed legacy regarding race as attorney general in Washington, D.C. during the Andrew Jackson administration, Key died in 1843, leaving slaves to his wife but stating in his will that he preferred that she free them.
During the Civil War, Key's entire line of descendants fought for the Confederacy. As the divided Maryland legislature readied to decide which side to support, federal officials jailed his grandson, outspoken newspaper editor Frank Key Howard, along with other southern sympathizers at Fort McHenry in Baltimore — the place where Francis Scott exulted at seeing the flag "still there" in 1814.
When the conflict began, many Confederates claimed "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the rightful anthem of the South. But it lionized the emblem of the enemy (which some rebels also wanted to co-opt), so the committee charged with creating the would-be country's symbols designed a flag that resembled the Stars and Stripes (the Stars and Bars). This emblem caused chaos on the battlefield at Bull Run, and Confederate politicians adopted the Army of North Virginia battle flag, now known universally as the Confederate Flag.
During secession, the North erupted into what observers called star-spangled fever, bellowing the song and letting Old Glory loose at numerous rallies. It remains a great irony that a slave-holding southerner wrote the Union's national song and an anti-slavery Northerner wrote "Dixie," the unofficial anthem of the South.
In the 1890's, "The Star-Spangled Banner" accompanied the United States Navy on what can be interpreted as imperialistic exploits, from taking over Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the adventures of the Great White Fleet in the early 1900s.
Nationalists fought back in song: A Filipino journalist and patriot added words to the tune of his country's anthem in direct response to American occupation. Cubans and Puerto Ricans played versions of their respective anthems despite strictures against public or private performances.
Americans have long argued about the merits of national songs. In the 1800s, many patriots favored long-forgotten "Hail, Columbia" over "The Star-Spangled Banner," because two Americans wrote it, contrary to Key's hybrid, which borrowed its melody from an English song that lauded drinking, dancing and carnal pleasures.
In the 1920s, as Congress moved to enshrine The Star-Spangled Banner as the official anthem, many Americans instead supported "America, The Beautiful," written as a poem in 1893 by gay, freethinking feminist Katharine Lee Bates. The arrival of "God Bless America" in 1939 split those who sought to scrap "The Star-Spangled Banner."
After many Americans blamed the alleged bellicose nature of the anthem for the Vietnam War and its fallout, soul-searching surrounding the Bicentennial in 1976 created momentum for replacing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Every year, Congress entertained a bill to designate "America, the Beautiful" as the national anthem through the 1980s.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" is entrenched in our national psyche — even if Americans don't know much about it. Only in the United States does the song ring out at sporting events major and minor, along with civic celebrations and dedications. Still, many people take the anthem for granted and rarely reflect on its meaning and history.
Now, with a growing movement to tear down symbols associated with slavery, the status of Francis Scott Key's composition — with its famous contradictory line about the "land of the free" — warrants scrutiny. Perhaps it is time to revisit the long standing debate about replacing the song that Americans love to complain about.
Marc Ferris is the author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem (Johns Hopkins University Press). His email is email@example.com.