I have to admit, I cry when I hear our national anthem played at the Olympics. Well, maybe not cry, but it does stir my emotions. I love those few bright moments watching a young athlete take the podium, representing the best of their country. I love it when they cry. For Americans, our flag and anthem are outward and visible reminders of the promise of our nation – liberty, equality, the rule of law, and opportunity. The symbols mean something. I’m moved when others understand that something.
And while I love our flag, I’m not a great fan of the national anthem. The Star Spangled Banner was made our official anthem by President Hoover in 1931, largely at the request of John Phillips Sousa. Written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, the Star Spangled Banner began as a poem in honor of the brave men of Fort McHenry who withstood British bombardment during the war of 1812. Keys was onboard a British ship effecting the release of some American prisoners when he witnessed the nighttime bombardment of the fort, rocket’s red glare and all. When the dawn’s early light came, the American flag was still flying, giving proof that the fort had not surrendered. So moved was keys by the sight that he sat down and wrote a poem entitled the Defense of Fort McHenry. The poem was quickly set to the tune of an English drinking song (which may explain why it’s so difficult to sing) and became a popular anthem at patriotic events for over a century until it was made official.
I’ve always thought My Country, ‘Tis of Thee (alternatively called America) is a prettier and more accessible song than the Star Spangled Banner. I think that’s why we teach it to little kids first. America is our version of the English national anthem God Save the Queen, and I’ve always liked the musical connection between the two countries. I guess the fact that the tune is officially taken by England removes it from our list of possible national hymns. The Olympics games would be very confusing if two nations had the same anthem.
My prefered national anthem would be America the Beautiful. This flowing melody was published first as a poem by English teacher Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929) in 1895 after an inspirational trip to the top of Pike’s Peak. After its publication the poem was attached to various tunes, most notably Auld Land Syne. I’ve tried singing it that way, but it makes me weepy and in need of an adult beverage. It just doesn’t feel right. Over the years, people decided that the tune Materna, written almost a decade prior by choirmaster Samuel Ward, best fit the words and sentiment of the poem. That’s how we sing it today.
What I like best about American the Beautiful is the moral lesson that follow the geography lesson. Following the first and most familiar verse about amber waves of grain and majestic purple mountains, the second verse mentions both Liberty and Freedom. Freedom is mentioned with reference to our pilgrim fathers, who land on the shores of North America and “with determined feet a thoroughfare of Freedom beat, across the wilderness.” It sounds better when you sing it, but I like the reference to the Pilgrims and carving out a little sanctuary for Freedom in the New World.
What I like most, however, is the reference to Liberty mentioned at the end of the verse:
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm they soul in self-control,
Thy Liberty in law.”
Though the passage is flowery, the idea of “self-control” is vital for understanding the difference between Freedom and Liberty. The Founders believed that men were inherently flawed and prone to all sorts of irresponsible vices. To preserve order among men, to make irresponsible men responsible, you need laws to rein them in. Responsible people must use their Freedom responsibly. The Founding Fathers were always leery of Freedom, rarely using the word and preferring Liberty, which implies some sort of order and purpose. I like that the verse recognizes our fallen nature, and our desire to be better people and improve ourselves through both reason (self-control) and faith.
Don’t get me wrong. I sing out loud our national anthem any time the occasion presents itself. I just think I prefer fewer bombs bursting in midair and a little more self-control if I had my choice. USA #1!