- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Two members of the Maryland General Assembly want to scuttle the lyrics of the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland.”

What gives Democratic Delegates Pamela Beidle and Joan Ivey the vapors? Letters of protest from fourth-graders and the song’s “harsh” lyrics.

First, a political history lesson for the vexed ladies. Written in 1861 by James Ryder Randall, a Maryland English professor teaching in Louisiana, the song has as its warrant original federalism, the shared power between the states and the national government. So when uninvited troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania marched through Baltimore on April 19 to put down rebellion after Fort Sumter, Baltimoreans rioted against them. Rocks were thrown, shots were fired, and many lay dead and wounded. The troops then scattered or retreated north above the Mason-Dixon Line. Maryland newspapers thundered against the Yankee incursion and other Marylanders destroyed bridges and telegraph lines to cut off Washington from the North.

The year before the General Assembly had voted sympathy with the South, and Maryland’s 1860 presidential vote was for James Breckinridge, pro-slavery Democratic opponent of Abraham Lincoln.

The result? Lincoln declared martial law, imprisoned city councilmen, state legislators and editors without trial and ignored a Supreme Court injunction against his lifting habeas corpus. Occupying Baltimore, from Federal Hill, Gen. Ben “Beast” Butler trained guns down on the city, the largest in the Upper South, ready to level it in the event of secession. It was a crux of American history: federal power vs. states’ rights.

Next, the “harsh” lyrics. Randall’s first verse echoes the sentiment of the whole song: “The despot’s heel is on the shore.” The despot, of course, is Lincoln, but the verse is allusive as well. Marylanders were proud of their turning back another despot in 1776 at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights and again in 1814 at Fort McHenry. The “despot” then was King George III. So the song invokes Maryland heroes who fought for independence from despots in the wars of the Revolution and 1812 - John Eager Howard, Charles Carroll and others.

With “Dixie,” “Maryland, My Maryland” became one of the favorite marching songs of the Confederate armies. So whatever politics prevail now, history shows that an entire section of the country subscribed to its sentiments then. By their lights, a state’s independence was paramount.

Maybe the ladies will next move to ban the harsh lyrics of “bombs bursting in air” and “rockets’ red glare,” from Maryland editions of the national anthem.

But a liberal education, the ladies might ponder, liberates oneself from one’s own times and prejudices to see things from other points of view. Simply to ban people and things with which we might disagree would have us burn Aristotle’s books because he held slaves, Machiavelli’s because he extolled autocratic expedience, Shakespeare’s because he was a monarchist, or Marx’s because he was a Marxist.

So rather than helping their fourth-grade advisers see the song as a “teaching moment,” Delegates Beidle and Ivey would prefer to scuttle it as history by transplanting in it lyrics about Maryland’s wooded hills and pretty flowers.

“The patriotic gore / That flecked the streets of Baltimore” may not be pretty, but it recounts a time when U.S. troops fired on Maryland citizens. Harsh lyrics, maybe. Harsher history, surely. Isn’t that something Maryland state delegates should know? Otherwise, why not prettify Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of a Slave” to immunize us from the harsh condition of involuntary servitude in Maryland?

Nor what’s pretty is some literary history that the ladies missed: George Orwell’s memory hole in “1984” where inconvenient history is trashed by the government then revised to validate current politics.

As to the historical song? Censure at will. Censor, never.

H. George Hahn is professor of English and director of the graduate division of humanities at Towson University in Maryland.


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