In which I defend the national anthem

Not quite an Overlawyered topic, but: The crazies who defaced the Francis Scott Key statue in Baltimore the other day weren’t just lawless goons — they were wrong about the song too. I explain at National Review.

I might have added countless other examples of songs, poems, and nationalist rhetoric in which “slave” was employed 1) as an epithet, 2) to signify subjection to kingly or other un-republican authority, or 3) both, everywhere from Patrick Henry’s famous speech to Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell to Rule, Britannia! to La Marseillaise. Suffice it to say that the word’s occurrence in a poem — even one penned by a slaveholder — needs to be read in context to determine whether American chattel slavery was the intended reference, and in the case of the third verse of the national anthem, there are plenty of reasons to think it was not.


  • Can you defend the tune against the charge that it’s undemocratic because it’s too hard to sing? Anybody can bellow along with “America the Beautiful,” but who but a professional can hit that “rockets’ red glare”? 🙂 When it was the drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” everybody who sang it was probably too tipsy to care about all the cracking voices.

  • “but who but a professional can hit that “rockets’ red glare”?”

    The tune is an old English drinking song. You don’t need to be a professional to sing it, you need to be drunk.