Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - “Our National Anthem Should Be Sung in English”

Posted on May 5, 2006

On May 1, thousands of immigrants, legal and illegal, marched in a nationwide rally to say that they, too, want to be Americans. But I’m afraid their message was quite literally lost in translation. As part of these demonstrations, a new version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was produced in Spanish. Almost all of us are descended from immigrants from some other country. Our forefathers came from many different countries and spoke many different languages. But in coming here, they agreed to speak one common language, one language to unify us as a nation, one language so we can all speak with one another – and that language is English. In fact, in order for a legal immigrant to become a citizen of the United States, he or she must demonstrate at least an eighth-grade level understanding of the English language. English is a part of who we are as Americans. It’s part of what unites us, just as we are united by our history and our shared values like liberty, equal opportunity, and the rule of law. I worry that translating our national anthem will actually have the effect of dividing us. It adds to the celebration of multiculturalism in our society which has eroded our understanding of our common American culture. Ours is a diverse nation. But diversity is not our greatest accomplishment. Jerusalem is diverse. The Balkans are diverse. Iraq is diverse. What makes America unique is that we have taken all that magnificent diversity and turned it into one nation. Our national anthem is a symbol of all those things that unite us. It’s a product of our history. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. Our nation was then in the midst of the War of 1812. Our capital, Washington, D.C., was invaded and burned by the British. Smoke was billowing from the White House and from the Capitol building. On September 13, 1814, just a few weeks after the invasion of Washington, British forces began a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Throughout the day and all through the night, the rockets and bombs flew. And the next day, on September 14, standing aboard an American ship eight miles out from Baltimore, Francis Scott Key looked and saw that the stars and stripes were still waving over the fort, and the British were forced to withdraw. Our flag was still there. I went to see that very same flag a few months ago at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The museum is in the process of carefully preserving it so that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to see the original flag that inspired our national anthem. It has 15 stars and 15 stripes for the 15 states of the Union at that time. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1818, that Congress and President Monroe decided the flag should always have 13 stripes, but a number of stars equal to the number of states. That flag and that song are a part of our history and our national identity. It declares some of our national ideals, in being the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” That’s why, in 1931, Congress declared “The Star-Spangled Banner” our national anthem. That’s why we should always sing it in our common language, English. And that’s why I introduced a Senate resolution that affirms that statements of national unity, especially the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, ought to be recited or sung in English. We wouldn’t recite the Pledge in French, or German, or Russian, or Hindi, or even Chinese –which, after Spanish, is the second most spoken foreign language in the United States – and we shouldn’t sing the national anthem in Spanish, or any other foreign language. In this land of immigrants, we should sing our national anthem as one American nation, in our common language: English.