by Spencer Howard
Did you know that on March 3, 1931 President Hoover signed the law that designated “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem?
For more than a century, the people of the United States debated what song, if any, should be our National Anthem. A number of popular possibilities emerged, including “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”
World War I increased interest – and resistance – in designating an official National Anthem. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson named “The Star Spangled Banner” the anthem of the Armed Forces, but Congress declined to make it the official National Anthem. Even the idea of a National Anthem was controversial – some Americans saw it as a European affectation, at a time when many people wanted nothing to do with the war raging in Europe. Others argued that patriotic songs and traditions should be adopted organically, without laws or regulations.
In 1918, World War I drew to a close with the U.S. now involved. At the seventh inning stretch of Game 1 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, September 15, 1918, a Navy band in attendance spontaneously played “The Star Spangled Banner.” Many of the civilians stood and sang along, and active duty military personnel saluted the flag. The crowd went wild, and the spontaneous expression of patriotism quickly became a new tradition.
After the war, advocates for an official National Anthem continued their work, with “The Star Spangled Banner” as a leading but still controversial choice. The militaristic text and references to mercenaries and slaves (in verse 3) was offensive to many Americans, but inspiring to others. After allying with Great Britain during World War I, a song about a past war between the two nations seemed undiplomatic. Some professional musicians including the great John Philip Sousa considered the tune insipid, and it has always been notoriously difficult to sing. In the 1920s, the era of Prohibition, the origin of “The Star Spangled Banner’s” tune as an English drinking song also raised objections, especially in staunchly “dry” rural areas.
In 1929, Representative John Linthicum, a Democrat from Maryland who had advocated for “The Star Spangled Banner” for almost a decade, introduced a bill to make “The Star Spangled Banner” the official National Anthem. The Congressman also submitted a petition containing more than five million individual signatures, resolutions and letters from 150 organizations, and “letters and telegrams from 25 governors . . . asking that the bill be enacted into law.” The bill was approved by the House on April 21, 1930 and finally passed the Senate on March 3, 1931.
President Hoover carefully avoided weighing in on the subject. Most of the letters he received from concerned citizens argued that “The Star Spangled Banner” was inappropriate or offensive. When asked for his opinion, Hoover’s response was a terse form letter indicating that the National Anthem was a matter for Congress to decide and people should contact their Senators and Representatives. After signing the legislation on March 3, 1931, Hoover’s secretaries would only confirm that he had signed the bill; he refused to offer any public statement. More than 90 years later, the National Anthem continues to be a focus of controversy.