The Star-Spangled Banner is a Song Full of Questions

Early on the morning of Sept. 14, I joined several hundred fellow citizens, along with guests from Canada and the United Kingdom, inside Fort McHenry in Baltimore. We huddled in the chilly morning air in the dawn’s early light to remember the moment 200 years earlier when Francis Scott Key penned the first words of the poem that was to become our national anthem.

Key watched the 25-hour bombardment, part of the War of 1812, from a truce ship anchored about four miles from the fort. On Sept. 13, 1814, British war ships launched 200-pound bombs a mile into the air, which fell toward the fort and burst in air ten feet over the defender’s heads. The rockets’ red glare came from a new technology – rockets that screeched through the night sky, lighting it up. They were designed not to maim but to instill fear. From accounts left by those who fought, they did their job effectively.

The British ships fired their ceaseless barrage from two miles, a half mile beyond the reach of Fort McHenry’s 24-pound cannons. One solider in the fort wrote that “we were like pigeons tied by their legs to be shot at,” yet they persevered. 

Key and his two companions on the boat that evening were not the only ones watching the battle rage through the night. The people of Baltimore gathered on rooftops, as they had two weeks earlier to watch the distant red glow to the south as the British burned the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and most government buildings to the ground. What would be the fate of their city?, they wondered.

At seven o’clock the following morning, the first light of dawn broke and the shelling stopped. What did this mean? Had the British taken the fort? Key penned the first stanza of his poem, ending with the famous line: O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave? It was a real question, not a rhetorical one. It was directed toward his fellow Marylanders who watched in suspense along with him. 

It had rained through the night, and the fort was flying its smaller, lighter storm flag. But by dawn, the storm had passed and blue skies blanketed the refreshing, smoke-free air. The storm flag was pulled down. Which flag would the people see next? Would it be Britain’s Union Jack or the stars and stripes?

At 9:00 a.m., with a military band playing Yankee Doodle, the informal national anthem of the day, the larger garrison flag was hoisted. That flag, the one Key named the Star-Spangled Banner, made clear that the defenders of Baltimore had carried the day. The British departed, and the hostilities of the War of 1812 were over. 

General Colin Powell spoke at Fort McHenry after the flag had been raised. He reminded guests that the history of our nation is a history of struggle toward a more perfect union. There have been many dark days when the future was anything but certain and when the question of whether the U.S. would remain the land of the free and the home of the brave was, for people of those times as it was for Key, an open question.

Key’s poem and our national anthem has four verses. Most of us know the first stanza, which Key directed toward those who watched with him. The second stanza is about the flag itself, the third about war and all its troubling consequences, and the fourth stanza is about faith. It imbues the question of the first stanza with timelessness. It makes the question of whether the banner still waves, our question.

The people of Baltimore, like people throughout American history, struggled with divisions of class, race, religion, and political bent. Some were open supporters of the war that had suddenly arrived at their doorstep. Others, including Key, had opposed the war. But with the war front and center, those differences receded and they knew they were all in it together. When the flag was still there, they celebrated their perseverance more than the victory.

America has faced other dark days over the last two centuries: a Civil War at home and many wars on foreign fields, depressions, lynchings, segregation, floods and earthquakes and hurricanes, Dust Bowl-induced hunger, terrorists – both homegrown and external – and at every turn, we’ve been left to wonder whether life as we knew it was coming apart at the seams. We’ve faced a choice of giving up or, like differently colored broad stripes and differently shaped bright stars, coming together in one fabric of a people.

In the divisions among us that currently tear at our national fabric, can we, like our forbearers two hundred years ago, persevere through our own dark nights of partisan political paralysis, deepening economic inequality, and the deep wounds of racial strife? Will we succeed and awaken to a new day, when our flag is still there, proudly waving over a people who have come together to make our nation a better place for all? 

That’s our question to answer.

The Defence of Fort McHenry, by Francis Scott Key
(Later renamed The Star-Spangled Banner, proclaimed the National Anthem of the United States of America in 1931)

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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