The faddish design to repeal the Star-Spangled Banner as the National Anthem is growing. While it grows in recognition, its sophistication remains stagnant. There are now more naysayers crying out against the Anthem, either because of anti-American sentiment, or the new trend of labeling everything racist, or both. Is there merit in their reasoning? Is the Star-Spangled Banner outdated and unreflective of the modern times? Is it really celebrating racism? Or are the blind once again leading the blind, albeit in ferocious fervor?
After listening to scores of activists wish for a new anthem, and scores more of google-historians declare it a racist poem, I decided to read it for myself. I, like you, did not know any of the other verses of the Anthem, nor how many there were. After reading it, I was moved to share its importance. The inspired message is the rally cry we ought to use as Americans to unify us once again, under one Nation, under one Banner, and under one Anthem. Below is the rich symbolism and meaning I found in our Anthem. I am convinced, now more than ever, that replacing our Anthem would be a short-sighted disaster, and the Star-Spangled Banner should remain America’s Anthem; not to keep the status quo, but because we need its message.
As we examine this poem, I invite you to read it as a poem. Do not sing the words in your head. We have sung, or heard it sung, hundreds of times without analyzing the words. By singing the words I fear you will slip back into auto pilot, thus missing the inspired meaning. As we work through, if words have meaning, we will come away with a greater hope in America, and an urgency to uphold her guiding principles as a light in these darkening times.
Before we begin the analysis of The Star-Spangled Banner, we must have some context. First, why is the “Banner” the object on which Francis Scott Key fixates his hope in the poem? A banner is another term for a flag, and in the military, flags were used to communicate to soldiers what to do and where to go. Because war is chaotic, loud, and confusing, winning battles often came down to who better controlled their units. It is no wonder that soldiers would need to look to a flag to know what is happening. In this case, the banner flown above the fort would signify who occupied the territory, or who won the battle. Key could watch the battle and know instantly that the British won by a changing of the banner. The Star-Spangled Banner would be lowered or torn down, and the Royal British Banner would be raised. The signal of the banner would tell Key the fate of his fellow patriots and beloved country.
Second, the year is 1814, the British burned the White House only weeks prior to their assault on Fort McHenry and Baltimore. Key is aboard a British ship, within eyesight of the fort, negotiating prisoner exchange with Major General Robert Ross, the same man who ordered the White House burned a few weeks ago. Key boarded the ship before the bombardment of Fort McHenry began. Since Key and his companions knew the size, strength, and plans of the British to attack Fort McHenry, the British forced them to remain on the ship during the assault to prevent them from alerting American forces. Key is privy to the information to attack and destroy Fort McHenry and Baltimore, he is unable to aide his fellow Americans in any way, and he just finished negotiating with the man responsible for burning the Capitol Building. All he could do was wait, watch, and hope for the best. The bombardment lasted for 25 hours. It is in this situation that Key pens his inspired poem.
“Oh, 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?”
During the bombardment lights would have been put out so as to not draw attention to oneself as a target. Therefore, the last time Key saw the Star-Spangled Banner flying above Fort McHenry was from the last gleam of twilight. Its broad stripes and bright stars stood bravely for all to see.
“And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
This is one of the most inspired, impactful, and American lines. Throughout the dark night, rockets and bombs exploded, attempting to destroy the fort. Little did her enemies know, that with each rocket and bomb, a burst of light pierced the night sky, revealing that the Banner remained, providing enough proof that she had not yet fallen, that America still stood – instilling hope to all those who looked on. The enemy’s very object for her destruction also provided the hope that she would outlast this bombardment. She had not yet lost; she still stands in the face of her adversaries.
“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
We end where we began, with a longing to know if her colors yet stand, if she survived the trials and turbulence. Is America still the land of the free and home of the brave? Has she fallen to her enemies? Is all lost?
“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?”
There on the shore that he can barely see, where her prideful enemies rest, what is that waving in the air? Which flag is waving?
“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! Oh long may it wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
Now that dawn gives her first light, he looks again to know the outcome. Has America survived, or have her enemies conquered? At the earliest possible moment, he can see it fully! It is the Star-Spangled Banner! She survived the assault! May it stand for all time over this land!
“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.”
Where are her enemies? Where are those who swore that through war and battle, they would leave her without a country – destroyed? Their polluted footsteps are washed away by their own blood.
“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!”
Nothing could save her enemies from their inevitable destruction and death, and the Star-Spangled Banner waves on triumphantly, signalling to all that she overcame her foes.
“Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand between their loved home and the war's desolation!”
All her enemies will suffer the same outcome whenever freemen, her brave citizen-soldiers, courageously stand between their home and those oppressors seeking to destroy and subjugate.
“Blest with victory 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!”
When victory is ours, we humbly give thanks to that Higher Power who made and preserves this nation. Whenever there is a just cause, we must go forward to victory, always keeping in mind that we must trust God to assure our success. If this be our way, then the Star-Spangled Banner will continue to wave over this land, as a signal to all, that good triumphs over evil, freedom over subjugation, and America over her enemies.
I submit that the Star-Spangled Banner is exactly the anthem we need. Its first verse reveals a country in peril, bombarded by her enemies, the mood is nervousness for all watching. Throughout the attack, flashes of light meant to destroy reveal her grit and act as proof that she is not yet fallen, instilling hope. We are experiencing this uncertainty now. America is under assault, the mood is tense, the night has come, and we await the result. But we must not be disheartened, for all things can be used for good, just as those rockets and bombs proved the persistence of America throughout the night.
After the chaos, in the second verse, we find that she endured, that she won the night because of her brave citizens. This will be the result of our current struggle if we act in humble courage and stand for the freedom of all. In the third verse, we affirm the continual triumph against the enemies of liberty. In the fourth verse, we humbly acknowledge the hand of God in our preservation.
This is exactly the anthem we need. As we face our enemies, we must remember that liberty prevails as long as our brave citizens stand for freedom against those who seek tyranny and oppression. Then we must remember the source of our strength in victory and must humbly acknowledge the greatness and mercy of our God. This is the anthem America needs now, it tells her history of overcoming evil in the strength of God, and it will become our story against our present woes. May God bless America as we humbly serve Him, may we sing our Anthem with joy, and may the Star-Spangled Banner yet wave over the land of the free and home of the brave.
*A great fuss has been made about the use of “hireling and slave.” Shallow thinkers have gone to great lengths to make so much of so little. To better prove that allegations of racism against Key and this phrase are unfounded, I refer the reader to (Is The Star-Spangled Banner A Racist Song From A Racist Man?) by Hector Guthrie, whose article I find satisfactory and compelling. https://hectorguthrie76.medium.com/is-the-star-spangled-banner-a-racist-song-from-a-racist-man-d54819d2c5b3.