Today is the 200th anniversary of the writing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” an event commemorated in Baltimore this weekend — the site of Fort McHenry whose defense against a pitiless British bombardment inspired Francis Scott Key to write the stirring words that eventually became our National Anthem.
Every school child in America knows the story — or, at least, they used to. Today, I’m not so sure. With such short shrift given to the uplifting parts of our national narrative, Key’s remarkable, emotional story may have become something less than a footnote in history books.
Key was on a mission approved by President Madison to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with British Admiral Alexander Cochrane, including a good friend of Keys who had been captured a few days earlier. The attack began on the morning of September 13, with the British launching huge mortar shells and Congreve rockets against the fort. The rockets were more of a psychological weapon at that time as they were very loud but not very destructive. Not so the mortars that arched over the walls of the fort causing few casualties but wreaking havoc on the fort’s infrastructure.
The British plan was to silence the fort’s big guns that would have made any attempt to sail past McHenry into the harbor a suicide mission. Once in the harbor, the ships would then support a ground force whose job was to take the city of Baltimore.
It was a good plan, but dependent on the ability of Cochrane’s ships to either so demoralize the Americans that they surrendered, or cause so much damage that the the fort could not effectively resist. Cochrane believed Key would be useful to negotiate the fort’s surrender so he allowed him to reboard the sloop that brought him to the admiral’s flagship and join the fleet that was bombarding McHenry.
Key had a birdseye view of the bombardment. By all accounts an emotional man, Key watched and fretted while the fort took a pounding for more than 24 hours, as nearly 2000 shells and 1000 rockets pummeled the works. Toward morning, the fort’s defenders replaced the storm flag that had flown throughout the battle with the huge 46′ by 32′ flag that now resides in the Smithsonian.
But Key couldn’t see in the dim light and because smoke obscured his view. Finally, as dawn broke, Key caught sight of the huge flag and was so filled with gratitude and patriotism, that he wrote the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” which was later put to music — “Anacreon in Heaven” – and the rest is history. The “Star Spangled Banner” become the official anthem of the US in 1931.
There have been numerous complaints through the years about the anthem; it’s too “martial”; it’s hard to sing; the song is inappropriate because it was originally a drinking song (not true, but it’s a good story); the lyrics are overwrought.
Steve Vogel, author of “Through the Perilous Fight: From the Burning of Washington to the Star-Spangled Banner: The Six Weeks That Saved the Nation”, debunks several myths about the anthem in a recent column for the Washington Post:
Rather than martial chest-thumping, Key’s first verse is a long question, wondering not just whether the flag still flew over the fort but whether the young nation would survive. In the dark hours before dawn, the guns fell quiet. For Key, the silence was dreadful, a sign that the fort may have fallen. The second verse captures Key’s relief at spotting the American flag “in full glory reflected” at first light.
The rarely sung third verse is angry and vengeful, rejoicing that the enemy’s “blood has washed out their foul footstep’s pollution.” Perhaps the lyrics reflect Key’s emotion after watching the British attempt to incinerate Baltimore. Key takes a more pious tone in the fourth and final verse, celebrating the return of peace and the end of “war’s desolation.”
The man who wrote this most patriotic of American songs in fact deeply opposed the war. Key had been dismayed by the U.S. declaration of war in 1812, considering it foolhardy for the young nation to take on one of the most powerful militaries on Earth.
Politico’s Ted Widmer wonders if it isn’t time to replace the “Star Spangled Banner” with a song that’s easier to sing, and with a less problematic history. Apparently, Key owned slaves and was a vigorous defender of the abomination. Should this disqualify him and his creation?
Two hundred years after that long night in Baltimore, is it time to rethink the Star-Spangled Banner? It has its merits—to drown out bad news with bluster, brass and percussion worked in 1814, and the song continues to radiate personality, even as most of us try and fail to sing along with its awkward leaps over one-and-half octaves. It feels right that the city that gave us Hairspray also surrendered this essential bit of national theater. The music has entered so deeply into our consciousness that even its parodies can seem beautiful—much as the Jimi Hendrix version, inflammatory at the time, has acquired a great dignity of its own.
But the story of Key’s nearness to slavery cannot easily be forgotten, especially in an era that demands more accountability, and offers to tools to find it. Critics over the years—I am hardly the first—have been brutal about the Star-Spangled Banner’s many shortcomings. The New York Herald Tribune dismissed it as “words that nobody can remember [set] to a tune that nobody can sing.” In 1918, a woman named Kitty Cheatham denounced the words as “German propaganda” (because they undermined the Anglo-American alliance), and saw the music as a product of “darkness,” “degeneracy,” and “the carnal mind.” Christian Science leader Augusta Stetson called it a “barroom ballad composed by a foreigner.” A 1965 writer thought it “as singable as Die Walkure, as American as ‘God Save the Queen’”; the columnist Michael Kinsley has ripped its “empty bravado” and “mindless nonsense about rockets and bombs.”
Perhaps—like Old Glory herself—the unsingable song is here to stay. But if not, we have a worthy contender waiting in the wings: “America the Beautiful,” a stirring piece of music, easily sung and irrefutably composed by U.S. citizens.
Like all of us, Key was a product of his times. The fact that he supported slavery is only one aspect of his character, and to condemn him unmercifully for a sin shared by tens of millions of Americans north and south seems harsh and arbitrary. Using that logic, no American born before 1865 deserves recognition for anything. It cost the US 600,000 lives to wrench the institution of slavery from our midst — a horrible price to pay and illustrative of just how difficult it was to escape the institution’s historical trap.
Certainly Key should be criticized for his views on slavery, especially when you consider the growing abolitionist movement in America during his lifetime. He could have changed but he didn’t. That’s a black mark on his character that history will not wash away.
But why besmirch his heartfelt patriotism and sheer relief that Baltimore was saved and possibly, the war with it? The emotional lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner” are a celebration of American values and a demonstration of the American character. It is as much a part of American history as any icon we possess.
Surely we can find room for Francis Scott Key in the pantheon of American heroes despite his flaws, and celebrate his creation no matter how hard it is to sing. For the sake of our children, we have to.