O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright starts through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, 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?
“Defence of Fort M’Henry”
A lawyer and sometimes poet from Marlyand named Francis Scott Key wrote those words after watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Key was American but watched the bombardment from a British Navy ship (the HMS Tonnant), a ship on which he was aboard with the goal of negotiating the release of some American prisoners of war. His business had all but concluded but he was forced to stay on the ship because by then he knew too much about the strength, location, and strategy of the Royal Navy and was considered an intelligence liability.
For two days between September 13 and 14, 1814 the British bombarded the whole of Baltimore but particularly American stronghold Fort McHenry (sometimes spelled M’Henry, as was the custom of Scots-Irish names of the sort). On the morning of the second day of fighting, Key noticed a garrison flag—that is, one of those enormous flags that you sometimes see flying over car dealerships and government buildings on certain days—waving in the morning sunlight. Inspired, Key later wrote a four-verse poem he called “Defence of Fort M’Henry” which was published on September 21, 1814.
The first verse is the one everyone in the United States knows because it eventually became our national anthem. Key wrote the poem to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s club for amateur musicians in London. The song was sung at meetings and became something of a party song for the Anacreontics. That said, our “Star-Spangled Banner” is just another in the long line of British songs commandeered for American purposes, but as usual we took what they did and made it better.
The remaining three verses are more obscure, and possibly with good reason. Key’s views on race were typical of many Americans at the time, particularly Americans in Maryland and southward, and verse three makes disparaging comments about Black slaves who chose to defect to the British cause during the war. However, in a perfect microcosm of the muddled and occasionally hypocritical views of post-Revolution America, the remaining verses celebrate the freedom of man.
The poem and song were both immediately successful. The young nation did not have an official anthem, though “Hail, Columbia” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” both served as unofficial anthems during the 1800s. (As an aside, “Hail, Columbia” was also the official presidential anthem until it was replaced by “Hail to the Chief.” Now, “Hail, Columbia” serves as the official anthem of the vice president.) By the time of the Mexican-American War in the 1840s and the Civil War in the 1860s, “The Sar-Spangled Banner” was widely known throughout the United States, especially by members of the military and various militias in the country. In 1889 the United States Navy adopted the song for official purposes, and that marked the first time it was used in any official government capacity.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” continued to be popular over the next 25 years, so much so that in 1916, in the midst of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson made it the national anthem via executive order. At the 1918 World Series, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played during the seventh-inning stretch, and that is believed to be the origin of the song being played at sporting events.
A handful of bills were introduced in Congress between 1918 and 1930 to try and make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem, but none passed. Interestingly, in 1929, Robert Ripley (founder of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, made a cartoon that correctly stated “Believe it or not, America has no national anthem!” This drew more media attention to the fact that the USA did not have a national anthem, and in 1930 the Veterans of Foreign Wars began petitioning government officials to recognize “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States. In late 1930 the House of Representatives passed a bill adopting the song as the official national anthem, and the Senate passed the bill on March 3, 1931. The next day President Herbert Hoover signed the bill into law, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” officially became the national anthem of the United States of America.
90 Years On
The intervening 90 years have seen the anthem be used as a call to arms (World War II), a point of national pride (Olympics), a cornerstone of sport at almost every level, and as a form of peaceful protest (Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, Colin Kaepernick more recently). It’s authorship by Key and the racist tones of the third stanza have led some organizations such as the California NAACP to petition the government to remove the song as the national anthem. However, those efforts have been unsuccessful.
If you will allow me to editorialize for a moment, I have some thoughts on this that also apply, tangentially, to the University of Texas’s school song, “The Eyes of Texas.” Almost any song written more than 70 years ago or so will likely have been written by someone with very lamentable views on race. Racists have existed for as long as humans have been able to distinguish one another, and racism will, regrettably, likely persevere into the next generations. You cannot prevent people from being bigots and jerks, which is unfortunate but is also the thing that makes us humans. We aren’t hive animals, we aren’t drones, we are individuals with the capacity for great things. However, our individualism also means we are capable of terrible things. People like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Robert Mugabe could only exist as humans. It doesn’t make what they did right, admirable, or anything else, but it is the harshest side effect of freewill.
Very few people from before the 20th century would fit in in today’s world. Hell, few people from before about 1950 or so fit in well in today’s world. The point is that views are always evolving, and most of the time for the better. There are still racists and still awful machinations of racism (and other -isms) in today’s world, but they are fewer and farther between than they once were. That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of every product of a racist. “The Eyes of Texas” shouldn’t be banned just because someone allegedly heard Robert E. Lee use the phrase or that the tune is to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” No one uses “The Eyes of Texas” as a basis for racism or racist views today. The meaning and context of words, phrases, and works of art change all the time, and it’s actually a sign of progress that we can take what once might have been a racially-derogatory song and use it to unite people of all different races, creeds, sexes, and backgrounds under one thought.
And that’s an Aggie talking. I’m here defending “The Eyes of Texas,” Lord help us. But the same goes with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Francis Scott Key was a racist, just like most people of his generation. But no one even knows the third verse of the song. I bet you didn’t even know it had other verses, did you? But that first verse, and the second verse, and in fact the fourth verse, all indicate the ideas of freedom that we have come to cherish and expand to folks of all differences, biological and otherwise. How about we take some solace in knowing that if Key saw his song being played before a football game where Black millionaires are the idols of young white children, he would blow his top? Isn’t that funny to imagine? He might be mad we are using his song to promote unity between all Americans irrespective of race, and that’s something to be happy about.
But I digress. The point is this: 207 years ago a young nation defended itself for the second time against the world’s most powerful navy, which also happened to have one of the most formidable land armies of the time as well. The White House was burned to the ground, men, women, and children died, non-white and white alike were slaughtered mercilessly by all combatants. But the tiny nation survived again, and grew into the wealthiest nation on earth and a place where ideas like individual liberty are taken seriously and preserved. I say this a lot, so I’m sorry if you’re a regular reader and have seen these words before: We’re not perfect. No nation made up of imperfect men and women will ever be perfect. On some issues we have done very well and are on the cutting edge. On others there is still a lot of work to be done. But what we have done is grown. If George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or even Teddy Roosevelt could see this nation now they would not recognize it immediately. Sure, the supermarkets, skyscrapers, cars, and other technology would be shocking, but likely not as shocking as seeing interracial couples, people of all races congregating together in equality, and women and minorities in positions of power. We have a long way to go, but we’ve also come a long way, and I think it’s important to remember that.
So happy birthday, “The Star-Spangled Banner!” May you continue to serve as a reminder that this country can always evolve to bring wider freedom to more people, and may you always stand for the ideals of a nation rather than the views of a solitary man.