Home of the Brave

We toured Fort McHenry today. You know Fort McHenry as the fort bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. It’s where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner. Later, it was used as a training ground and prison for Confederate soldiers and sympathizers during the Civil War.

To say the exhibits at this National Historic Monument and Shrine are problematic is an understatement. In one building, for example, is an exhibit entitled: “Lincoln: Statesman or Despot?” It discusses the fact that President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus early in the war and imposed military rule in Maryland in order to quash secessionist activity. The writ was later restored. Lincoln did what he did because the nation’s capital would have been indefensible had Maryland seceded.

Historians consistently rate Lincoln as the greatest President in the history of this country. We should remember and teach his legacy objectively, including the extra-constitutional measure of suspension of the writ. But it is lunatic to suggest that he was a despot. It is unbalanced. It is not scholarship. It is not history.

There’s more. The exhibits at Fort McHenry lionize Key and the Star Spangled Banner. That’s understandable. But most people don’t know that the poem/song has four verses, of which we only sing one. The third verse addresses the British attempt to sow disorder and win the war by offering to free American slaves who abandoned their masters and fought for Britain. Some slaves accepted the offer. In the third verse Key looked forward with glee to murdering them after the war:

  • 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.
  • Nice.

    The exhibits at Fort McHenry gloss over this grotesquerie, noting only that the words were inspired by Key’s anger at the British invasion. The meaning of the words is completely ignored, while in other places exhibits strain to give the impression that the few free blacks who fought for the U.S. somehow proved that the armed forces were integrated and inclusive.

    I suppose you could say that the unbalanced nature of this exhibit is explained by its location in Maryland and a consequent desire to appease the local population. But that only begs the question of why we, as a nation, are still trying to appease white supremacists who describe their racism as “southern culture” and “heritage.” For too long, we have taught that the Civil War was caused by political disagreements between people who were otherwise good, loyal, honorable, and decent Americans. This is patently untrue. The war was a contest between good and evil, between freedom and slavery, between the idea that liberty and bondage were incompatible and the idea that African-Americans were, in the words of Chief Justice Roger Taney, “of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

    Our weak-kneed attempt to be “fair” to the Confederate cause has brought us to where we are today: a place where a national monument questions the legitimacy of our greatest President. A place where a President can describe white supremacists as “fine people” and shrug off violence between them and counter-protestors by saying there were “good people on both sides.” Imagine if we taught that Hitler and the Nazis were good Germans who had legitimate grievances after World War I; they just took those grievances too far or expressed them poorly. We don’t teach that. We teach that Naziism was, and is, pure evil. We teach that no legitimate grievance or economic dislocation could have justified it. When we teach about World War II, we call good and evil by their true names. We do not hesitate.

    The descendants of those who fought for slavery and racism should be ashamed of the actions of their ancestors. They should not still be waving Confederate flags. They do so only because the rest of us have shied away from compelling them to face the reckoning that Germans were not spared after their descent into barbarity. This is cowardice. It is moral relativism at its worst. It needs to stop.

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