The Star Spangled Banner Asks a Question. What is its answer?

[The following is the text of a brief address that I gave to an assembly of students at Charter Day School, Leland, NC in 2004.  I have repeated it several times since and now share it with you on the anthem’s 200th anniversary.]

Our 20th President James Garfield said that freedom and justice can only stand on the foundation of a well-educated citizenry. In a moment we will sing our country’s national anthem – “The Star Spangled Banner” – so perhaps it is fitting to review for you boys and girls the heritage represented by this song.ssb

England had started a war to conquer the United States in 1812.  This song was written by Mr. Scott Key on September 14, 1814, after he had witnessed a horrific night-time attack by our enemy’s battleships on Fort McHenry – a vital defense to our land. Before the battle, our fort’s commander had ordered that a huge United States flag be erected over the fort. It was 30’ tall by 40’ wide and could be seen from a great distance. This great flag is the “Star-spangled banner” about which Key is writing.

As he tells during this opening stanza, Key saw his flag still flying at twilight the previous evening – “in the twilight’s last gleaming” he writes.  And during the night, he was able to catch glimpses of the big flag flying in the flashes of the enemy’s bombardment – “in the rocket’s red glare and bomb’s burst in air.”  But with the haze and fog, he asks in the dawn’s early light does our flag still wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave? That is the question of the first stanza with which we are all so familiar.

Now, in the second stanza, recall that our enemy the English also had a flag with red, white, and blue colors. The early morning’s mist makes it difficult for Key to distinguish which country’s flag flies over the fort after twenty-five hours of steady attack by the enemy’s entire fleet of warships. So through the morning mist he had a hard time seeing whose flag was flying over the fort. At the end of the second stanza, Key reveals the answer. “Tis the star-spangled banner – long may it wave, over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Key now realizes that with Fort McHenry undefeated the English have lost this last attempt to conquer our land. He realizes we have won this war.

So in the third stanza, Key hurls a warning to future enemies by asking – “Where now are those enemies that marched ashore to deprive us of home and country through the havoc of war’s confusion?” And he writes in this third stanza that there can be no refuge for our enemies who, in his words, “brought war’s desolation to our lov’d homes.”

He answers that “Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.” And that nothing can save them  “from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”  Key closes this stanza by again declaring that the flag of the free and the brave waves in triumph over the carnage.

Key’s fourth and final stanza dictates our course for future struggles and needs no comment; nearly 200 years later in 2004 we once more stand against an enemy who has brought “war’s desolation” to our lov’d home. Key’s forth stanza reads:

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d 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 preserv’d 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.

Our national anthem promises that victory is assured when we free people, trusting in God, stand to justly defend our homes from war’s desolation.

So as we stand and sing the question asked in our anthem’s first stanza, let us always remember the answer proclaimed in the fourth stanza.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,” 

May we all please stand.

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1 Response to The Star Spangled Banner Asks a Question. What is its answer?

  1. Buddy Coleman says:

    On target. Baker!

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