Opinion Articles

Tripoli, the American national anthem and an old drinking song

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Libyan rebels are finally taking Tripoli and have reached Gaddafi's own compound, two months after US lawmakers rebuked and filed a lawsuit against President Obama for not seeking congressional authorization for military involvement in Libya. Now comes the 'reflection' phase of the operation.

Despite the press coverage and analysis of this conflict, the ironic history of America's military connection to Tripoli and its relationship with the US national anthem remains largely unknown.

President Thomas Jefferson became the first US president to bypass Congress and take the nation to war in 1801, when he pitted the US Navy against Tripoli's pirate fleet and blockaded the city. This was America's first forgotten conflict with Tripoli - the First Barbary War of 1801-1805.

Legend has it that lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner in September 1814, inspired by the sight of the American flag flying above Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

Key had actually published what could be argued as the first draft of the national anthem in a Boston newspaper years earlier. His 1805 poem, 'When the Warrior Returns' was written about the First Barbary War and its naval hero Stephen Decatur. The words to the poem were set to the tune of a popular British drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven - the same tune that Key would later use for The Star-Spangled Banner. This British drinking song was so popular in taverns across America that it was used for dozens of patriotic songs.

Like The Star-Spangled Banner, Key's earlier 1805 anthem espoused patriotism, sacrifice and glory. One verse read:

By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.
Where each radiant star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turbaned heads bowed to its terrible glare,
Now, mixed with the olive, the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath for the brows of the brave.

How easily the 'brows of the brave' became 'the home of the brave.'

The 'Star Spangled flag' that Key first envisioned was not the one that flew above Fort McHenry. Instead, it flew on the masts of American warships and, briefly, above the sands of Libya after America's first military victory in a foreign country.

Key's flag in the Libyan sand is the origin of yet another musically-inspired misunderstanding. According to the myth, the US Marine Corps was born on 'the shores of Tripoli.' This line of the Marine's Hymn refers to the same Barbary War against Tripoli that Key wrote about in 'When the Warrior Returns.'

The First Barbary War is notable as the first foreign war fought by the US after the American Revolution, the first time the President took the nation to war without congressional approval, the first time an American soldier shed blood on foreign soil, the first time the US Marines saw battle, and the first time the Stars and Stripes were raised over foreign soil after a military victory. It was also the first attempt by the US to overthrow a foreign ruler and install an American-friendly government - an attempt which ended in compromise, not in victory. The mission was embarrassingly abandoned yet oddly commemorated by the Marines who never actually made it to the shores of Tripoli.

The idea was to offer a deal to the exiled brother of Tripoli's ruler: the US would provide the supplies and personnel needed to stage a coup in exchange for his agreement to form a US-friendly government. American diplomat and Army officer William Eaton was asked to unofficially broker the deal and lead the mission. He marched a motley crew of eight US Marines and several hundred Arab and Christian mercenaries almost 600 miles from Alexandria in Egypt to the Libyan town of Derne (now Darnah). In a coordinated land and sea attack, Eaton's forces took the town and raised the American flag. Two American lives were lost - the first on foreign soil. Nevertheless, Eaton was ordered by President Jefferson to surrender Derne as part of a compromise. Tripoli's ruler remained on the throne, and Eaton's plan to march to the shores of Tripoli and overthrow the government was aborted.

It took more than 200 years, but Libyans and the West are now effecting regime change. Hopefully, a victory will mean that this time the songs will be properly credited.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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