The Disturbing Origin of Maryland's State Song
"I used “Maryland, My Maryland” as an opening number for a production of Julius Caesar I directed earlier this summer (with the lyrics modified to “Roman land, my Roman land”). It seemed to fit the impetuous idealism of Caesar’s killers and the pride of those reactionary aristocrats in their homeland. Some members of my cast were surprised when I explained the song’s real history. They had assumed from its lyrics it was a song of the American Revolution. Weren’t the first lines (“The despot’s heel is on thy shore, / Maryland! / His torch is at thy temple door, / Maryland!”) about King George III? No, in fact the “despot” is Lincoln. And the line “Dear Mother, burst the tyrant’s chain” refers not to abolishing slavery but to defying the supposed tyranny of Lincoln over the rights of the Southern states. Although the song does contain references to other episodes in and figures from Maryland history, including from the revolutionary period, it is very much a Civil War song.
I was born in Charlottesville but raised in Philadelphia and never considered myself a Southerner; the mythology of the Confederacy as a noble lost cause has no appeal to me. Yet I still find the song’s martial lyrics stirring. The nine image-rich stanzas build up a powerful momentum. “Thou wilt not cower in the dust. . . .Thy beaming sword shall never rust.” The poem conjures Maryland as a glorious goddess of war, “the battle queen of yore” who has girt her “beauteous limbs with steel”—a compelling figure for loyal sons to follow into battle.
But the honors of this song are stolen; they belong not to Maryland but to Mary. Mary is the Mother of the Church whom Catholics see in the biblical praise of a bride “comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.” But, as a priest recently reminded me, when Mary invades this vale of tears it is on behalf of the poor and marginalized—witness Lourdes, Fátima, and Guadalupe. The Magnificat—the great hymn of Mary, lifted from the Gospel of Luke—is a counter-song to Confederate anthems that laud strength of arms and ignore the suffering of the enslaved. Mary says of God, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, / and has lifted up the humble. / He has filled the hungry with good things, / and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Christians especially should be troubled by the song’s appropriation of imagery from church to state. Randall longs for a Confederate Maryland in the image of a pre-Christian goddess, a Minerva or a Bellona."