Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner -- and our county, and us.

The Star Spangled Banner
Fourth of July (2013)

This is the story about the Star Spangled Banner. And a little bit about our country, and a little bit about you.

Some historians claim that the most important political act in American History was neither the daring signing or publishing of the Declaration of Independence, nor was it the brilliant design or ratification of the U.S. Constitution. But that it was when George Washington, the first president of the United States of America, purposely chose to step down from power. Evidently this was the first time in world history that the leader of a great nation voluntarily left office of his own accord. Prior to Washington, if a leader or king did not die of natural causes they were either overthrown or assassinated. By the way, this was not the first time Washington gave up power. After he won the Revolutionary War, rather than take over as the conquering hero/general, he turned back his military commission to the civilian leaders who initially asked him to lead our ragtag rebel forces.

In 1799 just over two years after he stepped down as president, he died at his beloved Mt. Vernon. Adams serves one term, Jefferson serves two terms, then James Madison – the Father of the Constitution -- is elected. In the middle of his two terms, America fights what has been called the Second War of American Independence -- the War of 1812. Really we had been warring with Brittan on and off since 1793.

By the way, it was in the middle of that war, that seven year old Joseph Smith has his leg operation. Six years later, he asks his questions and has what we now known as the First Vision. The country was just barely strong enough to guarantee freedom of religion, freedom of worship. Congress shall not establish a religion, “nor prohibit the free exercise” of it.

Both countries wanted to end the war. Negotiations were taking place. However, both sides continued to fight -- fiercely. In fact, in August of 1814, British troops were marching on Washington, DC. President Madison moves the Federal government en masse in a train of wagons to Leesburg, Virginia. They take the main copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and the story goes that Dolley Madison would not depart till they took down the large iconic painting by Gilbert Stuart of George Washington.

The British burn the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the U.S. Treasury. One of the servants in the White House said that the president and First Lady left in such a hurry, that they left dinner on the table. He also reports that prior to burning the White House, British soldiers ate the Madison’s dinner and drank their wine. The British generals then turn their army and navy toward the north to attack Baltimore and cities on up the Eastern Seaboard.

In preparation for the onslaught, the U.S. commander of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry commissions a local seamstress, along with three relatives and two Black assistant, to sew two flags -- one which will be so large (30’x42’) that the British would have “no difficulty seeing it at a distance.”

So. The stage is set.

Prisoners of war were taken on both sides. As the British attacked Washington DC, they captured a beloved local Doctor, William Beanes. His friend Francis Scott Key, a 35-year old lawyer and amateur poet, approached the British with the approval of President Madison under a flag of truce to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. They held their negotiations on a British ship which was preparing for the Battle of Baltimore. At first the British heard that Dr. Beanes was harboring British soldiers who turned to our side. They were not disposed to release him. But when they heard that the doctor cared for wounded soldiers on both sides, without regard to defecting, they agreed.

Because Key had heard much of the preparations for the Baltimore attack, they were held captive till the battle was over.

On September 13, at 7:00 a.m., the British fleet of 19 ships attacked the fort and the Battle of Baltimore had begun. Bombardment of the fort lasted till 1:00 a.m. of September 14. Some smaller gunboats attempted to slip past the fort, but were turned away by gunners – the city’s last line of defense. During the rainy night Key had witnessed the bombardment and observed that the fort’s smaller “storm flag” continued to fly. But once the shelling stopped, he could not tell whether the flag still flew or whether the 5,000 British soldiers had taken the fort. He would not know till dawn. Darkness obscured whether it was the British or American flag which flew.

By morning’s first light the smaller storm flag was lowered and the larger main garrison flag had been raised. But Key did not know it. Till “dawn’s early light.”

The next day, while still onboard ship, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. After being released in Baltimore on the evening of September 16, he finished the poem -- which he originally entitled, “The Defense of Fort McHenry” -- at the Indian Queen Hotel where he was staying. Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicolson. Nicholson took the poem to a local printer. It was printed in Baltimore in just a couple days. Within a month the poem was printed in newspapers up and down the whole Eastern Coast.


Now, let’s briefly review the several verses. Poets use imagery and symbolism in the words they use.

In the first verse Key talks of light. Dawn’s early light -- twilight’s last gleaming – and the red glare of rockets and bombs bursting in air.

He then poses the question as to whether he would see the American flag still flying the next morning. Or, whether the British flag was flying. At dawn he would be able to tell.

    The Defense of Fort McHenry
    September 15-16, 1814, by Francis Scott Key

    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, thro' 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 thro' 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?

In the second verse Key uses the imagery of sight. Seeing, that is, the flag (and all it represents). At first, dimly seen – then through mists – then it is half concealed, half disclosed. The, it catches the gleam of the mornings first beam – then IN FULL GLORY the flag reflects the light of the sun’s streaming brightness.

He then sees -- and declares -- that indeed, it IS “the star-spangled banner” which waves, and yearns, even prays, “Oh, long may it wave…”

    On the shore dimly seen thro' 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 on 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! . . .

In the last verse he changes the focus from what he would see, what he did see the next morning, to what WE should do. And what we should be. It is not enough to triumph in war, but to do so only when our cause is just, and when we praise the Power that made and preserves us as a nation.

Note that the “free men” in the first verse are not those of us at home, but are those in the military service who “stand between” their “loved homes, and the war’s desolation.” We stand in our homes; it is our soldiers and others who defend us and our “loved homes” -- and our loved ones.

    O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand
    Between their loved home and the war's desolation;
    Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-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!


Exactly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, on July 4, 1826. Later that day, Adams’ last words were, “Jefferson lives.” In fact Jefferson had died earlier that day.

It is my hope and prayer that the spirit of Jefferson and Adams and Washington and all the Founders lives in our hearts…

  •  On July 27, 1889, the Navy formally made "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag.
  •  In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ordered that "The Star Spangled Banner" be played at military and other appropriate occasions.
  •  Two years later, in 1918, the song was first played at a baseball game; in the World Series, the band started an impromptu performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the seventh-inning stretch.
  •  The players and spectators stood at attention, took off their hats, and sang, giving rise to a tradition that is repeated at almost every professional baseball game in United States today, though it is now performed prior to the first pitch.
  •  On November 3, 1929, Robert Ripley drew a cartoon in his Believe it or Not!, saying, "Believe it or Not, America has no national anthem."
  •  In 1931, John Philip Sousa published his opinion in favor, stating that "it is the spirit of the music that inspires" as much as it is Key's "soul stirring" words. By Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was adopted as the national anthem of the United States on March 3rd, 1931.

Ode. Adams and Liberty.

Robert Treat Paine -- named Thomas Paine at birth -- had his name changed to that of his father, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (NOTE: The original Thomas Paine had fallen out of favor with the public later in his life.) Robert Treat Paine wrote a song: Adams and Liberty. It was perhaps the most popular political song of its era, and was even republished in Great Britain. It was one of many songs sung to the tune of the English song To Anacreon in Heaven. A later, now more famous, The Star-Spangled Banner.

This poem/song is, in its own right, quite a commentary on the promise and character of the new nation. (Try singing it to yourself in the melody mentioned above.)


Robert Treat Paine (1773-1811)
Written for, and sung at the fourth Anniversary of the Massachusetts Charitable Fire Society, 1798.

1   YE sons of Columbia, who bravely have fought, 
        For those rights, which unstained from your Sires had descended,
    May you long taste the blessings your valour has brought,
        And your sons reap the soil which their fathers defended.
                        'Mid the regin of mild Peace,
                        May your nation increase,
    With the glory of Rome, and the wisdom of Greece;
        And ne'er shall the sons of Colmbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

2   In a clime, whose rich vales feed the marts of the world, 
        Whose shores are unshaken by Europe's commotion,
    The trident of Commerce should never be hurled,
        To incense the legitimate powers of the ocean.
                        But should pirates invade,
                        Though in thunder arrayed,
    Let your cannon declare the free charter of trade.
                        For ne'er shall the sons of Colmbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

3   The fame of our arms, of our laws the mild sway, 
        Had justly ennobled our nation in story,
    'Till the dark clouds of faction obscured our young day,
        And enveloped the sun of American glory.
                        But let traitors be told,
                        Who their country have sold,
    And bartered their God for his image in gold,
                        That ne'er will the sons of Colmbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

4   While France her huge limbs bathes recumbent in blood, 
        And Society's base threats with wide dissolution;
    May Peace like the dove, who returned from the flood,
        Find an ark of abode in our mild constitution
                        But though Peace is our aim,
                        Yet the boon we disclaim,
    If bought by our Sov'reignty, Justice or Fame.
                        For ne'er shall the sons of Colmbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

5   'Tis the fire of the flint, each American warms; 
        Let Rome's haughty victors beware of collision,
    Let them bring all the vassals of Europe in arms,
        We're a world by ourselves, and disdain a division.
                        While with patriot pride,
                        To our laws we're allied,
    No foe can subdue us, no faction divide.
                        For ne'er shall the sons of Colmbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

6   Our mountains are crowned with imperial oak; 
        Whose roots, like our liberties, ages have nourished;
    But lone e'er our nation submits to the yoke,
        Not a tree shall be left on the field where it flourished.
                        Should invasion impend,
                        Every grove would descend,
    From the hill-tops, they shaded, our shores to defend.
                        For ne'er shall the sons of Colmbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

7   Let our patriots destroy Anarch's pestilent worm; 
        Lest our Liberty's growth should be checked by corrosion;
    Then let clouds thicken round us; we heed not the storm;
        Our realm fears no shock, but the earth's own explosion.
                        Foes assail us in vain,
                        Though their fleets bridge the main,
    For our altars and laws with our lives we'll maintain.
                        For ne'er shall the sons of Colmbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

8   Should the Tempest of War overshadow our land, 
        Its bolts could ne'er rend Freedom's temple asunder;
    For, unmoved, at its portal, would Washington stand,
        And repulse, with his Breast, the assaults of the thunder!
                        His sword, from the sleep
                        Of its scabbard would leap,
    And conduct, with its point, ev'ry flash to the deep!
                        For ne'er shall the sons of Colmbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

9   Let Fame to the world sound America's voice; 
        No intrigues can her sons from their government sever;
    Her pride is her Adams; Her laws are his choice,
        And shall flourish, till Liberty slumbers for ever.
                        Then unite heart and hand,
                        Like Leonidas' band,
    And swear to the God of the ocean and land;
        That ne'er shall the sons of Columbia be slaves,
        While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.