Francis Scott Key on boat, with arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Baltimore's Fort McHenry. Painting by Percy Moran, c. 1913.
Library of Congress
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Patriotism, Partisanship, and “The Star-Spangled Banner”: A View from the Early Republic

Music continues to hold an allure for elites seeking to politicize patriotism in support of their privilege.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is no stranger to debates over patriotism and protest. But few realize that the politicization of patriotism lay at the heart of the song’s creation. While most of us tend to associate music’s political power predominately with its ability to enable anyone with a voice, a melody, and a message to speak truth to power, it is also true that many early American elites (including the song’s author, Francis Scott Key) were enamored by a more conservative conception of music in politics—one that more readily located the political utility of music in its capacity to shape popular opinion from a position of power and privilege. In this sense, President Trump’s recent use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to try and define American patriotism on his own terms is of a piece with the same conservative musical tradition that helped motivate the song’s original composition.

One of the earlier adherents to this conservative conception of musical power was a Federalist lawyer named Joseph Hopkinson, who penned “Hail Columbia” in 1798. At the time, he explained to George Washington that the song was intended to help ameliorate the evils of partisanship by supporting a return of the non-partisan form of patriotism that founders like his correspondent had advocated all along. Yet, Hopkinson’s letter betrayed partisan sensibilities of its own: condemning murderous French melodies (popular with Republicans) but not British tunes (popular with Federalists), inferring that Americans were lacking in unity not liberty, and setting the song itself to a Federalist-favored tune called “The President’s March. Republicans, for their part, disputed the patriotism of “Hail Columbia” immediately, characterizing it instead as a Federalist conspiracy meant to hijack American patriotism by framing consent to the Federalist administration as a patriotic citizen’s only real option.

Later, during the War of 1812, another young Federalist lawyer would again look to music to combat another partisan political crisis. Francis Scott Key never directly revealed what influenced his decision to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” but his political reflections at the time jar with our common acceptance of the idea that it emerged purely from his famous moment of patriotic inspiration aboard a British warship during the Battle of Fort McHenry.
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