Could the United States Actually Change Its National Anthem?

We asked a legal expert.

by Monica Hunter-Hart
Getty Images / Jamie Squire

It’s easy to hate the national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” has a range of over an octave and a half, making it hard to sing; it glorifies war; a rarely-heard stanza seems to commend the death of enslaved people; and it’s set to a British tune, for crying out loud.

So let’s say the country comes to agree that the anthem should be changed: How could we even do it? We asked the University of Pennsylvania’s Louis S. Rulli, an expert on the legislative process, to explain.

“Since it appears the national anthem was a duly enacted law, passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Professor Rulli tells Inverse, changing it “will take formal legislation.”

President Hoover signed a bill designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our anthem in 1931; it had previously been introduced in the House of Representatives and approved by both chambers, a process which took two years. The law (46 Stat 1508) looked like this:

The text of the bill.

Public Record

Similarly, changing the anthem would need to begin with a bill sponsored by a Senator or Representative. “This could take the form of an amendment to the current statute,” explains Professor Rulli, “accomplished by a free standing bill or by an amendment to related pending legislation.”

If such a bill passes the committee process and receives a floor vote in the chamber of the sponsoring congressperson, “it will need to pass that chamber and then it will go to the other chamber,” says Professor Rulli. “If both the House and Senate pass identical language, the bill will then go to the President for his signature. If approved by the President, the bill will become law.”

We all remember when Christina Aguilera botched the anthem at the 2011 Super Bowl with lyrical mistakes and off-pitch notes. She’d probably be among the happiest if we changed it.

The words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are taken from a 1814 poem written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Baltimore, which the United States fought against the British in the War of 1812. The text was set to a melody that same year; ironically, the tune is from a British song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which was popular in the United States at the time.

It’s hard to imagine Congress ever deciding to change the anthem. As much as many people hate “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it’s still treated with reverence. There may be no better proof of that than the outrage unleashed on football player Colin Kaepernick when he refused to stand during the anthem in 2016.

Even if popular opinion did shift, it’s hard to imagine forming a consensus on a better option. “America the Beautiful” could conceivably work, though if we’re looking for something more contemporary, the list of possibilities gets wider and probably more controversial.

But hey, last year Canada took a step toward updating the lyrics of its anthem to make them more inclusive. If Canadians can do it, why can’t we?

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