Star-Spangled Banner at 200

It is, I think, the only national anthem in the world that ends with a question, as President Ronald Reagan once said. “‘O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’

“That is what we must all ask,” said the former president. And each American, each new generation, must ask the question anew. Does the flag still fly as a beacon of freedom, liberty, justice, and equality, a symbol of those ideals for which so many have given their lives?

Francis Scott Key first asked the question 200 years ago next week, as he penned the Star-Spangled Banner, having seen the stars and stripes flying defiantly above Ft McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812.

He was aboard the ship HMS Minden under a flag of truce, and the poem was written on the back of a letter he had with him. He arrived at Ft McHenry on Sept 16, after 13 days aboard the ship, and the rest is history.

The city of Baltimore has an entire week of events planned, but two that stand out for me are the appearance of the Blue Angels on Saturday and Sunday, Sept 13 and 14, and an attempt by thousands of Maryland schoolchildren to break a record as they stand for a few hours in formation, making the biggest “Living Flag” ever, at Ft McHenry on Tuesday morning, Sept 9.

For the full schedule of events, the Baltimore Sun has comprehensive coverage here, and the event itself has a website, here.

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 through 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 through 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?

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?
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, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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.
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.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved 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 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!

How do you think Francis Scott Key would have answered the question he himself asked? Use evidence from the poem, especially his changing of the question into a statement and an exclamation, in your analysis. See Common Core language arts literacy standard RH.11-12.4-6 for more information.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.