News Story

'The Star-Spangled Banner': A Key to My Past

This past Saturday, Sept. 11, there were somber ceremonies, moments of silence and prayers in remembrance of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks on that date in 2001. American Flags fluttered in abundance — many at half staff — outside homes and businesses throughout the nation.

Hearts undoubtedly swelled a little extra as our national anthem was played at high school, college and professional football stadiums over the weekend.

For this proud American, the sounds of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are even more poignant. This is not only because I, like millions of my fellow countrymen, watched in horror as terrorists attacked our nation nine years ago, but because I am a direct descendant of the author, Francis Scott Key. But despite my family connection, like many Americans I am guilty of a common offense: stopping once the words "...home of the brave" have faded into the wilderness of cheers and the game.

Key actually wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a four-stanza poem. Only the first is played or sung before sporting events. What the late author and scientist Isaac Asimov suggests in his brilliant essay in 1991 about "The Star-Spangled Banner" is that we are robbing ourselves of an answer to the question raised in the first stanza and stemmed from what transpired on Sept. 13-14, 1814.

Key was aboard a British supply ship behind enemy lines when the Brits attacked Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the war of 1812. He was sent to help negotiate the release of Dr. William Beanes. After securing the doctor's release, however, it was too late. The attack had begun. Key started composing "The Star-Spangled Banner" by jotting notes on an envelope. The battle began the evening of Sept. 13, 1814, and ended 25 hours later.

Asimov speculated on what went through the minds of Key and the American doctor:

As twilight deepened, Key and Beanes saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Through the night, they heard bombs bursting, and saw the red glare of rockets. They knew the Fort was resisting, and the American flag was still flying. But, toward morning, the bombardment ceased, and a dreaded silence fell. Either Fort McHenry had surrendered, and the British flag flew above it; or the bombardment had failed, and the American flag still flew.

As dawn began to brighten the Eastern sky, Key and Beanes stared out at the Fort, trying to see which flag flew over it. He and the physician must have asked each other, over and over, "Can you see the flag?"

Thus launching the first stanza, which poses the question, "O say can you see?"

Most of us stop after "...home of the brave", not realizing that this is still part of the question. If the first stanza asks a question, Asimov suggests the answer is provided in the next stanza.

On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mist 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. Oh! Long may it wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

If you don't have goosebumps yet, perhaps stanzas three and four will oblige: (note is from Asimov):

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 footstep's 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.

(The fourth stanza, a pious hope for the future, should be sung more slowly than the other three, and with even deeper feeling.)

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

This is not to suggest all four stanzas become standard at sporting events, but Asimov's closing lines offer good advice no matter which part of the song you hear: "I hope you will look at the national anthem with new eyes. Listen to it, the next time you have a chance, with new ears. And, don't let them ever take it away."


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.