Why haven’t black civil rights leaders demanded that the American national anthem be changed?
But first things first: This is the sesquicentennial of the year the American Civil War ended. The four-year conflict being of perennial interest and debate in this country, a great many books and essays have poured forth anew to mark this occasion. Apparently, a lot of questions remain unsettled.
Take “The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox,” a recent installment in the irregular series that The New York Times started under “Disunion” in 2010. Gregory Downs who wrote it warns that the popularity of Appomattox as a Civil War site may obscure what the war was all about and its aftermath.
Appomattox, Virginia, is where Confederacy Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, on April 9, 1865. This symbolic ending of the war — the actual one wasn’t declared until a month later — comes with a “laying-down-of-arms ceremony” and the pronouncement, “We are all Americans.”
Actually, Grant himself rejected the core of this story. “The much talked of surrendering of Lee’s sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance,” he wrote in his “Personal Memoirs.”
Yet Appomattox, a little town now with about 2,000 residents, draws more than 300,000 pilgrims every year.
The problem is that this “myth” may reinforce the sense that the war was not really about slavery but “an honorable conflict among white Americans” that “ended in regional reconciliation,” says Downs, professor of history at the City University of New York. This dilutes slavery as the real cause of the war.
The cause was evident to some foreigners visiting this country soon after the war, among them Japan’s Iwakura Mission — a large-scale fact-finding tour of leading nations of the world.
In describing Washington, which they visited in early 1872, the mission showed a deep grasp of the history of slavery in Europe and in the United States, even mentioning the English abolitionist Granville Sharp and the fact that Americans drafting the U.S. Constitution knew of the inhumanity of slavery. They cited the ancient Confucian texts proscribing treating humans as beasts of burden and judged that the “cruelties” done to the black slaves “defied description.”
Finally, the strong opposition to this institution led to a “four-year great war” in the U.S. and, with “the South ending in defeat,” the black slaves were able “for the first time to appear among human beings.”
“Additions have been made to the Constitution,” and there were now several black men elected to the House of Representatives. There were also some “tough-minded” men who became millionaires.
“It is evident, then, that the color of skin had nothing to do with intellect,” the mission concluded.
But their assessment was already proving premature.
The “additions” to the U.S. Constitution were, of course, the three Amendments, 13th, 14th, and 15th. Of these, the 13th, which abolished slavery, managed to pass Congress before President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. But this amendment met stiff resistance among those Southerners. Blacks in the South were soon pushed back to second-rate status.
The 14th, which guarantees “due process of law” for all U.S. citizens, was too easy to violate through legalistic sleight of hand. The Supreme Court may be among its top culprits. After all, it approved of the “equal but separate” doctrine — a twist on a phrase in the Declaration of Independence — by supporting Louisiana’s contention in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896. The court struck it down in Topeka v. Brown of 1954, but its ill effects persist.
As to the 15th, which gives the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The U.S. Congress passed it in early 1869 amid intensifying violence against blacks in the South. At the end of the year, when Georgia’s legislature expelled all the black elected officials, the government reintroduced federal military rule of the South.
There were a couple of unintended benefits to the 15th Amendment, to be sure. It required the Northern states, which had held a holier-than-thou stance toward the South till then, to give the same right to blacks as well.
It also led to the women’s suffrage movement, though the 19th Amendment extending the right to women was not realized until 1920.
In the years following the Civil War, however, Southern states put up poll taxes and other barriers to blacks’ voting rights, practically nullifying them.
It was for this reason that President Lyndon Johnson worked hard on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave teeth to the 15th Amendment and, upon its passage, hailed it as “a triumph for freedom.” Yet the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has recently gutted the Voting Rights Act. And the recent series of police shootings of blacks, among others, demonstrate persisting discrimination against blacks.
To go back to the U.S. national anthem.
During the U.S. War of 1812 against Britain, the British Navy raided Bladensburg and burned the White House in August 1814. British forces then attacked Baltimore but were repulsed. It was this failure that “inspired” the relieved Francis Scott Key to write a poem later renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
This much is what every American school student is supposed to learn and know. What many may not learn is what lay behind Key’s belligerence and animus. Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy made it his policy to rescue and free slaves, in the end a total of 6,000. He also turned the willing slaves into the Colonial Marines. This unsettled American defenders and created paranoia. Hence these lines in the third stanza of the national anthem:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.
In his last years as district attorney in Washington, Key worked as an anti-abolitionist prosecutor.
This is what the admiral’s descendent and journalist Andrew Cockburn tells us in “Washington Is Burning” (Harper’s, Sept. 2014).
You may add that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put Key’s idea into law. Ulysses S. Grant wrote that it turned Northern marshals into “slave-catchers” and the courts into their backers — a “degradation which the North could not permit any longer than until they could get the power to expunge such laws from the statute books.”
Thus the North-South clash had to occur.
A frequent contributor to The Japan Times, Hiroaki Sato is a poet, translator and essayist who lives in New York City.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.