Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hail Columbia: America's Original National Anthem

And How it Illustrates the
Evolution of American Nationalism

I know I am going to catch a lot of crap for this but I'm going to say it anyway: I really don't like our national anthem that much. Don't get me wrong, it's a pretty song and all and does invoke patriotism in the hearts of many. With that said, I simply dislike the fact that our nation's official anthem is nothing more than a poem commemorating a bombardment we barely survived, put to the tune of an old British drinking song. Hardly the inspiring anthem so many make it out to be! But hey, that's just me and I realize that many Americans love the song. So be it.

But whether you like "The Star-Spangled Banner" or not, everyone should recognize the fact that it doesn't have the patriotic history everyone assumes. In fact, the "original" national anthem of this fair land, which was in place from roughly the time of George Washington to FDR, was muscled out by Francis Scott Key's over-dramatic drinking song. That's right folks, the "Star-Spangled Banner" has a relatively recent history as America's national anthem; a history that illustrates the evolution of American nationalism.

Before Francis Francis Scott Key ever witnessed the "rockets' red glare" and the "bombs bursting in air" America (a name that you will see not everyone was sold on) marched to a different patriotic tune. It was "Hail Columbia" that initially served as America's unofficial but very popular anthem:

Hail Columbia, happy land!
Hail, ye heroes, heav'n-born band,
Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
And when the storm of war was gone
Enjoy'd the peace your valor won.
Let independence be our boast,
Ever mindful what it cost;
Ever grateful for the prize,
Let its altar reach the skies.

Immortal patriots, rise once more,
Defend your rights, defend your shore!
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Invade the shrine where sacred lies
Of toil and blood, the well-earned prize,
While off'ring peace, sincere and just,
In Heaven's we place a manly trust,
That truth and justice will prevail,
And every scheme of bondage fail.

Behold the chief who now commands,
Once more to serve his country stands.
The rock on which the storm will break,
The rock on which the storm will break,
But armed in virtue, firm, and true,
His hopes are fixed on Heav'n and you.
When hope was sinking in dismay,
When glooms obscured Columbia's day,
His steady mind, from changes free,
Resolved on death or liberty.

Sound, sound the trump of fame,
Let Washington's great fame
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Let ev'ry clime to freedom dear,
Listen with a joyful ear,
With equal skill, with God-like pow'r
He governs in the fearful hour
Of horrid war, or guides with ease
The happier time of honest peace.

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.
Now, it probably sounds strange to some when they discover that "Hail Columbia" was America's "original" anthem. After all, what does Columbia have to do with America?

Well, first off, we're not talking about the Columbia where all that lovely "mota" and cocaine come from. This Columbia is quite different. The Columbia of America's earliest generations was the female personification of her "discoverer," Christopher Columbus. Columbia's role as a symbol became obvious to all Americans. Whether she served as the title of a city, a river, a college or a monument, Columbia's role in American culture was ever-present. Much in the same way that Britannia became the female personification (and Roman goddess) of Britain, Columbia was the feminine guardian of the new American republic. In other words, she was sort of the Uncle Sam before Uncle Sam.

And Columbia's influence didn't stop with the founding. She can be seen throughout the course of America's history. From the very name of our capitol city (Washington, District of Columbia) to the very first space shuttle ever commissioned by NASA. She was present in American artwork like the one above depicting Columbia's divine protection to western settlers on their quest to secure the country's "Manifest Destiny," and she even graces the opening credits of several modern movies. Heck, many Americans have (incorrectly) suggested that she was even the inspiration for "Lady Liberty" herself. Bottom line, Columbia's role as a symbol in America's growth and development is as important (if not more so) as any other symbol of American providentialism.

Perhaps more importantly, Columbia illustrates just how complicated the concept of the American nation was for our founding generation. Contrary to what we are often let to believe, America's founding was far from a united effort where all parties saw eye-to-eye on the direction the country should go. In reality, it was a complicated mess of clashing ideas and beliefs. As historian Gordon Wood points out in his newest book Empire of Liberty, a book that is the surefire winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize (on a side note, it's worth mentioning that the Pulitzer Prize is awarded by none other than COLUMBIA University. The irony is striking):
Despite the ratification of the Constitution, most Americans knew that they were not yet a nation, at least not in the European sense of the term. At the end of the Declaration of Independence the members of the Continental Congress had been able only to "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor." In 1776 there was nothing else but themselves that they could have dedicated themselves to -- no patria, no fatherland, no nation as yet.


The fact that most Americans were of British heritage and spoke the same language as the subjects of the former mother country created problems of national identity that troubled the new Republic over the next several decades. Indeed, almost to the movement of independence the colonists had continued to define themselves as British, and only reluctantly came to see themselves as a separate people called Americans. The colonists were well aware of the warning of John Dickinson, the most important pamphleteer in America before Thomas Paine, had given them on the eve of independence. "If we are separated from our mother country," he asked in 1768, "what new form of government shall we adopt, and where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affection, relation, language and commerce we must bleed at every vein."

Could the colonists who had been British and who had celebrated their Britishness for generations become a truly independent people? How could one united people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, and professing the same Protestant religion differentiate themselves from the people of the mother country? These questions, perhaps more than any others, bedeviled the politics of the early decades of the new Republic's history.

If there were to be a single national people with a national character, Americans would have to invent themselves, and in some sense the whole of American history has been the story of that invention. At first, they struggled with a proper name for their country. On the tercentenary celebration of Columbus's discovery of America in 1792 one patriot suggested "The United States of Columbia" as a name for the new Republic. Poets, ranging from the female black slave Phillis Wheatley to the young Princeton graduate Phillip Freneau, saw the logic of the name and thus repeatedly referred to the nation as Columbia. With the same rhythm and number of syllables, Columbia could easily replace Britannia in new compositions set to the music of traditional English songs.
As illustrated above, early had a difficult time understanding what their new nation was supposed to look like. The pull of tradition from the Old World and the allure of new possibilities brought on by the Enlightenment, obscured America's sense of itself. This is the precise reason why Columbia became such a popular symbol. While so much was still up in the air, Columbia was, at the very least, the embodiment of what it truly meant to be American.

But alas, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. With the onset of nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America's sense of itself began to change. And with that change, Columbia's presence in American culture began to fade. "Hail Columbia," which had never been made an official national anthem, found itself in a contest with other popular songs like, "My Country Tis of Thee," "America the Beautiful," and yes "The Star-Spangled Banner." Like most nations of this era, the creation of official anthems became an important component of surging nationalism, and in the United States, the "Star-Spangled Banner" was gaining ground. Thanks in large part to the attention given it a professional baseball games, the "Star-Spangled Banner" became a quasi-national tradition. Long story short, the song's popularity grew over the next thirty years, until finally in 1931 when President Hoover and Congress officially made "The Star-Spangled Banner" America's anthem. In addition, Key's suggestion that the national motto be changed from "E Pluribus Unum" (From Many, One) to "In God We Trust" (inspired from the 4th verse of his song/poem) was later accepted and made law in 1956. In short, the rise of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries led to many of the changes we now accept as a part of the American culture.

But Columbia wasn't completely lost. Her presence, though very limited, is still around. All you have to do is look for her. And who knows, maybe she'll return one day! As for her song, "Hail Columbia," well, it went from being the unofficial anthem of a nation to the entrance song for the Vice President, in a similar fashion as "Hail to the Chief" is for the President.

And just in case you were curious, it's not that I hate "The Star-Spangled Banner." Rather, I simply believe there are better songs out there. For my money, "America the Beautiful" is the song I would select as our official anthem. Perhaps it is a personal bias, being that the song was written in my back yard, but I don't care. It simply sounds more "American" (or Columbian) than the rest. And to help prove my point I give you the one and only Ray Charles. Take us home, Ray:


Mark D. said...

Very informative! Thanks for posting this.

Personally, I prefer "My Country 'Tis of Thee" -- it honors our British roots while also providing what I think is a much more evocative vision of patriotic love of country.

T. Greer said...

I cannot provide a source for it, but I have been told that the shift to "Star-Spangled Banner" came during the 1rst World War. U.S. forces had traditionally used My Country Tis of Thee for military functions, but as the melody was the same as God Save the King Pershing and co. decided they should use a more "American" tune. Has anybody else read/heard something to this effect?

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Mark.

I've never heard of that, T. Greer. That would be interesting to find out. Seems to make sense. I imagine there must be some source material on the topic...assuming that it's true.

Robert Cornwall said...

Thanks for the historical background to our national songs. I too prefer America the Beautiful. I think it would be much better expression of our sense of nationhood, with less emphasis on the militarism, and it's easier to sing!

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