Why We Should Change the National Anthem to ‘America the Beautiful’
It's a better expression of our republican aspirations to be humble and good. And it's not 'Imagine.'
No real conservative can help but feel a pang of regret that the turkey wasn’t chosen as the official symbol of the American republic.
As Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to his daughter Sarah, the bald eagle is “a rank coward,” for “the little king-bird, no bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly, and drives him out of the district.” He is “a bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his living honestly”; being “too lazy to fish for himself,” he resorts to stealing from osprey.
The turkey is “a much more respectable bird,” Franklin argued, “a true original native of America.” And it’s “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
In the years since Franklin praised the turkey, its relative virtues have only grown. Maybe Ben could have guessed that, in time, America’s choice of national emblem would doom her to become an empire. Rome, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and all three German Reichs took the eagle as their symbol too. And little wonder! Proud and warlike, he soars high over the mountains and makes his lonely nests in lonely crags.
The turkey, however, is unique to our homeland. He is, as Franklin noted, “a little vain and silly, ‘tis true, but not the worse emblem for that.” Anyway, he’s silly all the more because he’s vain: that bald blue pate and red wattle are nothing to write home about.
Turkeys are polygamous, which is an unfortunate vice, but one they share with all the patriarchs of Israel. The toms court their hens in groups, with the males and females clustering awkwardly together; it’s rather like a high school dance. Once the mating is finished, the hens politely retire to nest together, leaving the toms to their port and cigars.
And the turkey—though surprisingly agile in flight—never attempts the dizzying heights of his rival, the bald eagle. For the most part, he’s content to spend his days with his feet planted firmly in the soil, foraging for hazelnuts and crabapples.
All in all, the turkey is a sensible, sociable, and down-to-earth sort of bird. If a gutless, angry loner like the bald eagle is a more fitting symbol for our nation, it is to our shame.
Think of President Bush II standing on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, that infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner glimmering behind him. How fitting that his podium was blazoned with the Great Seal and its horrible bird of prey. No president would have dared make such a speech if he’d had to appear behind an image of that serene and noble gamefowl. The joke would have been too obvious. Instead of traipsing around the Middle East like some Persian despot, Mr. Bush would have had to stay home and find something more suited to the president of a republic to do, like veto bills or collect stamps.
“Change is the means of our preservation,” as Burke said. And that goes for our national symbols, too. They’re not merely cosmetic; they’re a standard to which we hold ourselves. They profoundly affect the way we perceive our nation. Those symbols embody who we are as Americans, and we aspire to embody the values they represent.
So there’s nothing wrong with changing our national bird—or even, say, our national anthem. Certainly, during this time of shameless iconoclasm, it should come as no surprise that someone might try. As soon as protesters brought down the statue of Francis Scott Key in San Francisco, it was only a matter of time before they went after “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But our anthem isn’t made of stone or metal. It can’t be torn down by some mob in a fit of self-righteous fury. It would require an act of Congress, which isn’t likely to happen. Whatever you might read in The New York Times, most Americans aren’t hailing the dawn of these neo-Jacobins’ “Year Zero.”
Still, I think we’re long overdue for an anthem overhaul. Frankly, there’s not much to recommend “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Mr. Key’s poem is alright, but John Stafford Smith’s musical setting is pretty dreadful. For one thing, it’s notoriously difficult to sing. As a matter of fact, it only became widely popular in the late 19th century (the Age of Sousa) when played by marching bands. Had Christina Aguilera or Fergie been able to treat the American people to one of their stirring renditions circa 1890, we probably wouldn’t even know about “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2020. No God-fearing American would be able to countenance such a future for his country.
More than that, the song is just uninspiring. It’s set during a single, not especially significant battle in a B-list war. It’s mostly about the American flag, which is nice, but having a national symbol play off another national symbol seems like a waste of a symbol. And it’s worth noting that the flag that Key wrote about isn’t the same as ours: the banner that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 was about 35 spangles short.
All in all, I think we could do better.
But what’s the alternative? Let’s ask Kevin Powell. Billing himself as an “author and activist,” Mr. Powell is best known for once having beaten his girlfriends and then talking about it on Oprah. He suggests that we adopt John Lennon’s “Imagine,” calling it “the most beautiful, unifying, all-people, all-backgrounds-together kind of song you could have.”
Sure, it would be amusing for any country to adopt as its anthem a song whose second verse begins, “Imagine there’s no countries.” Still, I don’t expect it will get much traction. “Imagine” is notoriously cloying, vapid, and listless. It’s as if the Ohio Express cover of a Woody Guthrie song was turned into elevator music.
So how about “America the Beautiful”?
As it happens, that enduring staple of fourth-grade chorus recitals was nearly chosen as our national anthem by popular acclaim, before President Hoover signed an Act of Congress establishing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1931. Some historians argue that it was actually more popular with the American people. It was definitely more singable: a contemporary report by the Associated Press says that Key’s supporters enlisted an “an attractive soprano” named Elsie Reilley to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Congress. She was “exhibit ‘A’ to prove…that the ‘rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air’ no longer soar too high for the average voice,” which is dubious.
Anyway, the great virtue of “America the Beautiful” is that it’s actually about a place: namely, America. It celebrates the land that we’re rightly proud to call home, with its purple mountains, fruited plains, and shining seas. It has a history: the pilgrims, who beat “a thoroughfare of freedom” across the wilderness, and those brave men “proved in liberating strife”—who loved their country more than self “and mercy more than life.” It’s these things we share, our common home and history, which “crowns our good in brotherhood.”
Yet despite every boast, “America the Beautiful” has not a whiff of triumphalism. On the contrary, the second verse concludes,
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
This is an anthem fit for a republic. There’s no abstract idealism, no martial spirit, no self-congratulation. There’s only love and gratitude and humility. It’s a song about a country and a people: our own.
Much of our present discontent arises from our failure to live up to our self-image as a “shining city on a hill.” Of course, for many of us, that’s exactly what America is. But we spend so much time bragging about it that, inevitably, someone’s going to feel ripped off. But “America the Beautiful” doesn’t say that we’re perfect: only that we’ll never stop trying to be better. It’s a reminder that the promises of our Founding aren’t empty promises, so long as we make good on them—not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters, our countrymen. It doesn’t ask us to be great, only to be good. It’s a real turkey of a national anthem, and we should be proud to call it our own.
Also, the authoress, Katharine Lee Bates, was probably a lesbian. That must count for something in the Grievance Olympics, no?
Anyway, let patriotic Americans debate these matters passionately—
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!
—so long as we can all agree that “Imagine” is off the table.
Michael Warren Davis is the editor of Crisis Magazine. Read more at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.