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Maryland Repeals State Song That Called Lincoln A 'Tyrant'

May 20, 2021
Originally published on May 20, 2021 10:53 am

A song alluding to Abraham Lincoln as a "tyrant" and a "despot" and to the Union as "Northern scum!" is no longer Maryland's official anthem after Gov. Larry Hogan this week approved its repeal — a move that some Republicans say is another example of "cancel culture."

Hogan gave the measure his OK months after the state's legislature voted to eliminate the long-controversial Civil War-era song, Maryland, My Maryland.

"We're repealing the state song. It is a relic of the Confederacy, which is clearly outdated and out of touch," Hogan, a Republican, said when he signed the measure on Tuesday.

Maryland, My Maryland, sung to the tune of O Tannenbaum, is based on a poem written in 1861 inspired by the Pratt Street Riot on April 19 of that year. The riot saw Southern sympathizers attack the 6th Massachusetts Infantry as they marched through Baltimore on their way to Washington, D.C., days after the South Carolina militia fired the opening shots of the Civil War upon Fort Sumter.

At the outbreak of the war, Maryland — which allowed slavery — was one of a handful of "border states" that declined to secede from the Union, but was also unwilling to take up arms against the Confederacy. Despite the state's official neutrality, many Marylanders fought on both sides during the Civil War. The state was occupied by Union forces for most of the conflict.

The Maryland state flag adorns a plaque in Annapolis commemorating residents who fought in the Civil War. The U.S. and Confederate flags once occupied the spot.
Brian Witte / AP

After it was composed, Maryland, My Maryland quickly became an anthem in the Confederacy, used as a rallying cry against what Southerners saw as Northern oppression.

It was adopted as the state's official song in 1939, years after one governor rejected it, citing its inflammatory and divisive lyrics. By the 1960s, there were rumblings about replacing it. Beginning in the 1970s, there were numerous attempts to repeal it, but none until the latest measure managed to make it past lawmakers.

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Last year, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, said she wanted to get rid of the song.

"The time to do it is now," Jones, the state's first African American House speaker, said.

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Democrat from Montgomery County who sponsored the legislation after two previous attempts failed, said in March that "There was a feeling of enough is enough."

But ahead of the March vote in the Maryland House of Delegates, Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, said that although she was personally offended by portions of the song, she would not vote to repeal it.

"We have a lot of cancel culture going on, and we're canceling everything," Szeliga said, according to Maryland Matters, an independent news site. "So I'd like to relegate this song to history, but I'm not going to be able to vote to repeal it."

The lyrics to Maryland, My Maryland were written by Baltimore native James Ryder Randall, a journalist and poet who lived in the South, "as a plea for his native state to take what he saw as its rightful place among the states who left the Union to form the Confederacy," according to a Maryland State Archives study of the song commissioned by the legislature in 2015, amid one of the numerous efforts to repeal it.

Randall would later go on to serve in the Confederate navy before returning to journalism after the war.

His song includes typically unsung lyrics that allude to "The despot's heel" of President Lincoln. The words also implore Marylanders not to allow Virginia to "call in vain" for secession, suggesting instead they will spurn the "Northern scum!"

In a premonition, the song even echoes the infamous cry – "Sic semper tyrannis!" ("Thus always to tyrants!") of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, as the actor leapt from the stage at Washington's Ford's Theater after shooting the president on April 15, 1865.

When Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces crossed into Maryland near Frederick in September 1862, his army's band struck up Maryland, My Maryland, apparently hoping it would stir up secessionist sentiment, the archives report said.

After the war, the song remained popular, and by the time it was officially adopted as Maryland's state song it had "already functioned as the de facto state anthem" for many years, the report said.

Until recently, there was a long-standing tradition of it being performed — at least in abbreviated form — at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course for the annual Preakness Stakes.

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