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National Anthems

Given the importance of tomorrow to our many American readers, I have been toying with the idea of posting the words of the Star Spangled Banner as a Samizdata Quote of the day at a minute past midnight this evening. However, although the anthem is stirring, the words are a celebration of an American military defeat of the British. And while this defeat led to the foundation of a great nation, it is not the whole story. In the longer term the two nations who fought that war have of course become extremely good friends. The country of which I am a citizen, Australia, is today an equally good friend of both. And I would rather be celebrating these friendships.

In particular, the third verse of the American anthem is somewhat problematic today.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out
their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save
the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight
or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

This is not terribly complimentary to the British enemy, and our American friends note this by generally leaving it out these days.

Amusingly, the national anthem of Australia has precisely the opposite problem. The second verse of our anthem is this:

When gallant Cook from Albion sail’d,
To trace wide oceans o’er,
True British courage bore him on,
Till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised Old England’s flag,
The standard of the brave;
With all her faults we love her still,
“Britannia rules the waves!”
In joyful strains then let us sing
“Advance Australia fair!”

And while many Australians have great fondness for the British (although we still really enjoy it when they lose at sporting events), this verse is today considered a little too sycophantic, as well as being a little out of date about who rules the waves. Therefore, it isn’t normally sung either.

In any event, Jonathan Pearce beat me to action, and has expressed the appropriate sentiments about tomorrow already. I would simply like to wish the nation that actually does rule the waves a happy fourth of July.

Update: Yes, the Star Spangled Banner was actually written during and about the War of 1812. Notwithstanding that, I still wish everyone a happy Independence Day.

45 comments to National Anthems

  • Jim Bennett

    The reference to “hirelings and slaves” harks back to the use of German mercenaries during the War of Independence. Since the Hessians were conscripts who were rented out by their ruler (who collected the payment) the reference is only slightly guilty of rhetorical overkill. The interesting thing about the use of the Hessians is that the British government resorted to it because the English were very reluctant to volunteer for service in that war. On this point see Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars.

  • jc

    “American defeat over the British”? Hell, if we Americans hadn’t fought then, we’d probably all be speaking English now!

  • Rutherford

    The Star Spangled Banner refers to the British shelling of Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812 not the Revolution which would have been a victory that “led to the founding of a great nation”.

    1812 was not a military victory for the United States. Although our “flag was still there” we lost virtually every land battle except the last at New Orleans 6 months after the armistice was signed and had our capitol burned. We did however win most every naval engagement during the war.

    Further, the Queen of England sang the Star Spangled Banner following 9/11 (which touched me deeply btw) so maybe you can post the lyrics in celebration of our continuing friendship after an acrimonious breakup.

    btw. That flag is still there.

  • David Mercer

    Don’t forget that the music to it was a British drinking song, either! Can’t recall the title, but get drunk and you’ll notice that the metre is very conducive to slurred speech.

  • steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve)

    (writing from Baltimore) Here in Baltimore, we also have fireworks in September, to commemorate the battle of Ft. McHenry.

    The battle of New Orleans has its own song:

  • J. Austin Wilde

    I much prefer “America the Beautiful” over “The Star Spangled banner.” “America” does a better job of encapsulating the best of the United States – not to mention being a lot easier for the average person to sing.

  • Mike

    “America” always seemed a bit draggy to me. I’d rather we had a national anthem in a truly American style, with lyrics that celebrate American culture: “Back in the USA” by Chuck Berry. And you can dance to it!

  • Chris Josephson

    Our national anthem is pratically un-singable in places (notes too high). But, it is the national anthem.

    I prefer ‘America’ or ‘God Bless America’, myself.
    Much easier to sing.

  • Chris Josephson

    Wanted to mention that my favorite national anthem is Canada’s. Love the music and the words.

  • Nancy

    I have a framed poster, the original of which, according to the poster, hangs in the Officer’s Mess, R.M. Barracks, Plymouth, which enjoins “spirited young boys of a promising appearance who are five feet high” to join the Royal Marines in fighting the American War.

    Talk about your overheated prose. “What a Brilliant Prospect does this Event hold out to every Lad of Spirit, who is inclined to try his Fortune in that highly renowed Corps.” The Royal Marines, When every Thing that swims the Seas must be a Prize!” Huge black letters everywhere.

    My favorite bit is, “…when once embarked in BRITISH FLEET, he finds himself in the midft of Honour and Glory, furrounded by a fet of fine Fellows, Strangers to Fear, and who ftike Terror through the Hearts of their Enemies wherever they go!”

    The main draw seemed to be the money involved, which is mentioned repeatedly: SIXTEEN GUINEAS BOUNTY, plus food and clothes. “The Single Young Man on his return to Port, finds himself enabled to cut a dash on shore with his GIRL and his GLASS, that might be envied by a Nobleman.”

    There is a bit of potboiler patriotism: “furely every Man of Spirit muft blufh to remain at Home in Inactivity and Indolence, when his Country and the beft of Kings need his Assistance”; but mostly, it seems to have been about the dosh.

    Of course, all that outrageous fraternisation with the enemy ruined everything! There is certainly an appalling amount of it in this household.

    Michael, thank you for that lovely and gracious sentiment. How about an Anglosphere Day?

  • If you want a problematic anthem, try Maryland, My Maryland. The “despot’s heel” referred to in the first stanza is Abraham Lincoln(!), and the “Northern Scum” and “Tyrant”s Chains” refer to US Federal troops sent to Baltimore to prevent Maryland from joining the Confederacy and thus surrounding Washington DC. Obviously it was written by the other side.

  • I’ll be celebrating Ind. Day tomorrow with my family, even my quite left-leaning borderline-american-hating step-brother.

    But an Anglosphere Day is a splendid idea.

    Otherwise, I’m curious how other US Samizdatistas will be spending the day and evening tomorrow.

  • Della

    The Star Spangled Banner is a tune written during the 1812-1814 American-British war, a war that America started when it tried to invade Canada. The Americans did this because they thought that Britain would be too preoccupied fighting the whole of Europe to win (Napoleon had invaded all of Europe and set up puppet regimes in the countries of Europe).

    America lost, and lost badly. How pathetic.

    This is a far nicer tune:

    When Britain first at Heaven’s command,
    Arose from out the azure main,
    This was the charter, the charter of the land,
    And guardian Angels sung this strain,


    Rule, Britannia, Britannia rule the waves,
    Britons never will be slaves!

    The Nations (not so blest as thee)
    Must in their turns to Tyrants fall,
    While thou shalt flourish great and free,
    The dread and envy of them all.


    Still more majestick shalt thou rise,
    More dreadful from each foreign stroke;
    As the loud blast that tears the skies,
    Serves but to root thy native oak.


    Thee, haughty Tyrants ne’er shall tame:
    All their attempts to bend thee down,
    Will but arouze thy gen’rous flame,
    But work their woe, and thy renown.


    To thee belongs the rural reign,
    Thy cities shall with commerce shine;
    All thine shall be the subject Main,
    And ev’ry shore it circles thine.


    The Muses still with Freedom found,
    Shall to thy happy coasts repair; Blest Isle!
    With matchless beauty crown’d,
    And manly hearts to guide the Fair.


  • S. Weasel

    Jesus, Della. Get over yourself. Nobody’s shitting on your quaint local customs.

    Talk about bad houseguests.

  • Kelli

    Stirrings of statist jingoism, Della. Beware!

  • A lot of us think that our national anthem should be changed to “America the Beautiful”. Not only is it a better piece of music (and just as well known), but the words are better as well. But it’s not likely to change; there’s no real urge to do so.

    The original music for the Star Spangled Banner is a piece called “To Anacreon in Heaven“.

  • Yes, I should have realised it was the war of 1812. For one thing, the flag that the song was about did not exist until after the war of independence. I at least sort of knew that, but got it wrong anyway.

    Rutherford: I agree that the changing of the guard in London to the sound of the Star Spangled Banner was an extraordinary moment.

    Personally, I like the Star Spangled Banner from a musical point of view. Purely instrumental renditions are very inspiring. The trouble is that it is very difficult to sing, and one or two of the other songs mentioned possibly have more inspiring lyrics. As a non-American, I would hate to see you change it though.

  • Jermaine

    The U.S. declared war on Britain in June 1812 and invaded Canada in July 1812. I’m not going to pretend that American colonialists and early American citizens didn’t have designs on Canada, but to claim that the U.S. started the War of 1812 is to ignore that Britain and the U.S. had had been arguing over the seizure of American citizens and residents from American ships for 20 years.

    Also keep in mind that in 1807, a British warship attacked an American warship and seized 4 American sailors, an incident that almost prompted a war then.

    I actually prefer “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. To me, it celebrates the perseverance of the United States in the face of overwhelming odds. And given the improbable history of the U.S., I think it’s appropriate.

  • Well, if the Star Spangled Banner gives you pangs of divided loyalty, use God Bless America instead. It has an added benefit: nothing enrages leftists as much as a few bars of God Bless America. Anytime I meet up with any of the ANSWER crowd, I start belting it out. They react like it’s fingernails on a chalkboard, and seeing that reaction just gives me a warm fuzzy.

  • Jermaine is right.

    And the United States didn’t lose, either. The treaty had equal terms, and the last battle of the war, just before word of the treaty arrived, was an ignominious rout for the British.

    But that’s water under the bridge.

  • I agree with Della that Rule Britannia is a fantastic piece of patriotic music, far more so than the turgid ‘God Save the Queen’ national anthem, plus Rule Britannia, far from being ‘statist jungoism’ sings about rejecting tyranny and slavery and praising commerce… but I hate to say it but for my money the most stirring national anthem is the French one. La Marseillaise is superb musically and certainly stirs the soul more like Rule Britannia rather than other national anthems.

  • veryretired

    I love music, and would have loved to have been a musician or singer if I had any talent for it. Alas, the piano lessons of my childhood are a distant, and painfully funny, memory. Since my voice changed in my teens, I have been discouraged from singing, especially when I became a parent, and my children would groan and hit me from the back seat if I tried to sing with the radio.

    I am, however, allowed to sing on special occasions, those being birthdays, and baseball or hockey games. The former are usually marked by a neverending rendition of happy birthday, and the latter two, by a lusty attempt at the Anthem, with the added fillip of “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” at the stretch when at the stadium.

    Without becoming too maudlin, I have a personal reason for a very powerful devotion to the flag and the anthem, and cannot normally finish without tears. As I get older, and more foolish, this tendency increases. As much as I love the other songs mentioned, there is no substitute for the Anthem as far as I am concerned. Those red stripes, those red stripes, those red stripes….

    It is important to remember that the last line is both a question and a challenge.

  • “It is important to remember that the last line is both a question and a challenge.”

    There’s some debate in the states about the last line. Most say it’s “Play Ball!” while others insist that it’s “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

  • Geo

    Ah, nothing like spending my 4th of July here in France.

    Well, I agree with Perry that “La Marseillaise” is incredibly stirring. I can’t help but launch into dramatic hand gestures whenever I hear Mireille Matthieu belting out the lyrics, accompanied by the swell and flourish of an orchestra.

    It’s lyrics are also a little over the top. If you think the whole “rocket’s red glare” thing is a bit too martial for an anthem, then consider the French:

    “To arms, citizens!
    Form your battalions!
    March on, march on!
    So that an impure blood
    irrigates our furrows!”

    Ew…it’s enough to make you want to skip the fresh veggies.

    Still, one consolation: I’ve got Bastille day coming up in 10 days. And I know where I can get some baguettes…

  • jk

    Happy 4th! I’m spending it in the UK on business.

    I appreciate the kind words and Angloshere camaraderie — count on me to reciprocate on St. Crispen’s Day.

    Cheers, brave allies,

  • Bill Dooley

    For reasons that escape me, I, though my father’s Irish and mother’s Polish lines have been in the U.S. for scarcely a generation or two, feel a special fondness for England. It is, after all, our spiritual and intellectual foundation.

    So, thanks for your good wishes, fellow Anglophiles down under.

    Of course, after reading Trinity, I had a little trouble with the English, but we Americans are a forgiving lot.

    If you don’t like us, fuck you. Please send your name and address so I can put you on the list. See, we’re working on these orbital weapons …

    You know not the day nor the hour …

  • Um… (I’m gonna go to Hell for this)
    If the tune really gives you a burr in the britches, try this:
    Coming to America (Neil Diamond)
    Told ya I was headin’ fer Hell!
    Happy 4, y’all

  • mark holland

    If you are talking about national anthem verses that have fallen by the wayside God Save The Queen has had many fifth verses that have come and gone over the years. The most famous of which contained the line “rebellious Scots to crush”. It was about defeating the Jacobites and was added after the battle of Culloden in 1746.

    The thing I really like about God Bless America is that it was written by a Russian born Jew. To me that sums up the American dream and it’s yet another way to wind up the ANSWER crowd.

  • Dave F

    Down with all national anthems. Apart from being cliched music with overwrought and sentimental lyrics, they extol nationalism, a dangerous and destructive force.

  • All forces and ideologies are dangerous and destructive when in excess (I wouldn’t like to live in an extremist libertarian, ie anarchist, “state”), but speaking for myself, I think a little more old fashioned patriotism in the green and pleasant land wouldn’t go amiss.

  • S. Weasel

    Fire evil! Fire bad! Ban fire!

  • A_t

    Naaah… fire keeps me warm when all else fails.

    Patriotism tho’, dunno…haven’t found a use for it yet; just seems to get in the way of my rational thought processes from time to time.

  • S. Weasel

    A_t: then I recommend you avoid getting a puppy. Or an elderly grandmother. If fondness for your country interferes with your rational thought processes, wait’ll you see what happens when she trains those liquid brown eyes on yours and begs for tablescraps.

    Your grandma, I mean.

  • A_t

    errr. yeah, ‘cos humans evolved to feel the same affiliation for huge artificial constructs as they do for family & cute, defenceless creatures. Yeah, I buy that!

    I’m not saying patriotism’s bad bad, & yeah, it can be a positive force, but on balance worldwide, i’m not sure it is. Think how many stupid petty little conflicts would be sorted out if people ditched this national pride bullshit & just thought of themselves as human beings, & considered their own interests in that light.

    Just my take on it, & I’m certainly not having a pop at anyone who feels patriotic; that’s your prerogative…. plus, i’d be a fool to deny that I feel patriotic at times, but as i say, the national pride thing often gets in the way of a rational assessment of what would be best.

  • I think that the Star-Spangled Banner is a better national anthem because it speaks to the spirit of the country rather than the land. After seeing what goes on in battles over land (see Middle East Peace, lack thereof) I’d rather the American spirit be celebrated.

    Of course, in the interests of full disclosure, 1) I can sing it, in several keys, and 2) do you really expect that the ACLU would allow a song with the words “God shed his grace on thee” as an anthem?

  • Kodiak

    Happy 7/4 to you all.


    ” (…) the most stirring national anthem is the French one. La Marseillaise is superb musically and certainly stirs the soul more like Rule Britannia rather than other national anthems”

    >>> if I weren’t too mediocre a patriot, I could say thank you to you.


    “Well, I agree with Perry that “La Marseillaise” is incredibly stirring. I can’t help but launch into dramatic hand gestures whenever I hear Mireille Matthieu belting out the lyrics, accompanied by the swell and flourish of an orchestra”

    >>> I agree: Mireille Mathieu performing “La Marseillaise” is really atrocious. I think this anthem doesn’t fit at all to philharmonic orchestras. As odd as it may look, I think “La Marseillaise” is more adequate to be sung either in cheering-up for the fight or in desperate situations, when you know there ISN’T any escaping… Also, chanting this hymn during boring cyclic commemorations is just bad taste.


  • Mark Cameron

    Here’s the Canadian musical take on the war of 1812, from what used to be the unofficial national anthem of Canada, “The Maple Leaf Forever”:

    In Days of yore,
    From Britain’s shore,
    Wolfe the dauntless hero came
    And planted firm Britannia’s flag
    On Canada’s fair domain.
    Here may it wave,
    Our boast, our pride,
    And join in love together,
    The thistle, shamrock, rose entwined,

    The Maple Leaf
    Our Emblem Dear,
    The Maple Leaf Forever.
    God save our Queen and heaven bless,
    The Maple Leaf Forever.

    At Queenston Heights and Lundy’s Lane
    Our brave fathers side by side
    For freedom’s home and loved ones dear,
    Firmly stood and nobly died.
    And so their rights which they maintained,
    We swear to yield them never.
    Our watchword ever more shall be:
    The Maple Leaf Forever!

    P.S. Who do you think our fathers bravely fought and nobly died defending freedom against?

  • ” Who do you think our fathers bravely fought and nobly died defending freedom against?”

    The Bill of Rights? Lower taxes? Elected Head of State? The New Jersey Devils? Gimme a hint!

  • swassociates

    I always thought that Waltzing Matilda would have been a better choice than Advance Australia Fair.

  • For some reason there has been no discussion (until that last comment) about the Australian anthem in this thread so far, although I talked about it in the original post. However, Scott Wickstein’s (Australian) blog linked to my original post, and there has been a good follow up discussion in his comments section over there.

    The consensus seems to be with you. Most of the people who have left comments prefer Waltzing Matilda, as do I. However, I don’t think changing it is on the political agenda at the moment.

  • One reason to not prefer “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) as an anthem is that it’s the same boring music as God Save The Queen, and the Swiss Anthem (and God knows how many others).

    I think it’s quite appropriate that our anthem has been set to a drinking song, though if we had to change, I’d prefer something modern like Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America”.

    California has some rather mawkish state song; a few years ago, we almost changed it to The Mommas and the Poppas’ “California Dreamin'”. Who says we have to rely on old stuff or old styles?

  • Um. Anthony, I think that some of the votes for “America” were really for “America the Beautiful”. AtB is not an easy song to sing, but it has a smaller range than TSSB, and is a bit less martial in tone.

    As for “Coming to America”, I will always associate that title with the Eddie Murphy movie, rather than the Neil Diamond song.

  • Bleepless

    Union Unbreakable, the Soviet national anthem, was written in 1943. Heavy on the great Comrade Stalin. Then came 1956 and destalinization, so they just lost the words. Then came Team Canada (hockey) for an exhibition match. The Canadians sang “Oh, Canada” and the Muscovites looked chagrined. So there was a contest for new words. It was won by the original composers and was just a thin rewrite, replacing Stalin with great Comrade Lenin.

  • John Hale

    I rather suspect that The Star Spangled Banner will remain our National Anthem, and I’m perfectly happy with that. Most Americans understand that our Revolution began when the colonists wished to assert their rights as Englishmen, and only later became a war for independence. I for one never forget that my country is a proud son of the mother of Parliaments (just hope that this phrase is permissible on samizdata.net 🙂

  • Tom

    Regarting America the Beautiful: “I think that the Star-Spangled Banner is a better national anthem because it speaks to the spirit of the country rather than the land. ”

    Only the first verse really refers to the land. Verses 2,3,4 are focused on different groups of people in the history of the US.

    I think the music may be a bit slow, but it is thoughtful, and in reading over the lyrics several times, there seem to be many words that are slightly different than might be expected and as a result are thought provoking.

    For example, “Who more than self their country loved, And mercy more than life!” Not freedom or liberty, but mercy.

    I expect it should give the same groups the same “fingernails on chalkboard” reaction they get from “God Bless America”

    America! America!
    God mend thine every flaw
    And firm thy soul in self control
    Thy liberty in law.