Sanitizing American History

by W.D. Ehrhart

In September 1814, as Francis Scott Key stood on the deck of a British warship watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry, he was inspired to write a poem that eventually became the “Star-Spangled Banner.” We hear that song a lot these days: at every football game from middle school to the NFL; at NASCAR races and hockey games and commencement ceremonies, and, well, at just about any public event that attracts more than three Americans.

I wonder how many of my fellow citizens know that Key’s original poem contains not just the stanza we sing, but three additional stanzas, one of which goes like this:

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.

In case you’re not quite up on U.S. history, that bit in there about nothing saving “the hireling and the slave” from “flight” and “the grave” is Key’s way of rebuking the British for granting freedom to any enslaved African American who escaped to the British side. Like so many Americans before and since, Key was certain that “the land of the free” was and is only for white people.

Then there’s our Statue of Liberty, that beacon of hope, that icon of freedom. What schoolchild doesn’t learn Emma Lazarus’s famous words:

              Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me[.]

It is the essence of who we are, the best of what we are.

But a contemporary of Lazarus, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, penned a poem called “Unguarded Gates” in which he described “Liberty” as a “white Goddess,” and warned that the nation was being overrun by “a wild motley throng” bringing “unknown gods and rites,” “strange tongues,” “accents of menace,” “come to waste the gift of freedom.” The poem ran in an 1892 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, then one of the most popular and influential journals in the country.

Another one of my favorite examples of American Exceptional Myopia is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” We don’t hear this one nearly as often as the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but we always hear it at events that want to celebrate how wonderful all we Americans are and what a wonderful country we live in.

Except that when we sing that song, written in the midst of the Great Depression, there’s always a few stanzas we never sing. Indeed, if you even want to find them, you have to Google “original lyrics;” otherwise you get the sanitized version that doesn’t include these stanzas:

As I went walking I saw a sign there,

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.

That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,

By the relief office I seen my people;

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?

Then there’s the memorial we erected to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. It contains fourteen different inspirational quotes from his various speeches. It’s even got one from February 1967 that says: “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America.” But the designers didn’t include this one from just a few months later: “[T]he greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

Too little time has passed since 9/11 to see how more recent events are going to be sanitized for public consumption, though the continued almost uniformly accepted fiction that Americans died in Iraq and Afghanistan defending this nation and our freedoms does not bode well, nor does the number of so-called responsible voices in government and media who describe the January 6th insurrectionists as “normal tourists,” “peaceful protesters,” and “true patriots.”

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you to ponder a few of our misquoted heroes like Patrick Henry, who famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Okay, it’s not really a misquote, but no one ever seems to mention that when he said, “Give me liberty,” he really meant: me; Patrick Henry. Never mind my 67 slaves. No liberty for them. It’s all about me. (There’s even a widely used high school U.S. history textbook titled Give Me Liberty.)

Here’s a good one: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick begin their 18-hour documentary “The Vietnam War” by asserting that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people.” Well, okay, Burns and Novick aren’t really what most of us would call American heroes—yet—but “good faith” and “decent people” don’t really apply to men who actively courted and supported Ho Chi Minh during World War II only to turn their backs on him when the war was over; men who refused to allow elections in 1956 because they knew Ho would win any free and fair election by a landslide; men who said Asian boys should fight Asian wars, and then sent 3,000,000 American boys to fight in Vietnam (58,000 of whom came home dead).

Then there’s the frequently misquoted Union General and later U.S. Senator Carl Schurz—this is one of my favorites—who did not say, “My country, right or wrong.” What he said was, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

And there’s a lot to be set right in this country, so we’d better get to it.


Ex-Marine Sergeant W.D. Ehrhart holds a PhD from the University of Wales at Swansea, and spent many years as a Master Teacher of History & English at the Haverford School for Boys.


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