Francis Scott Key during the 1812 Battle at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland. (Edward Percy Moran/public domain)
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, protesters took to the streets of American cities. Some demonstrations turned violent and a rash of ongoing vandalism has toppled statues. The national anthem, seen by its enemies as jingoistic and militaristic, is now a possible target of this wave of neo-Puritan iconoclasm.
In fact, “The Star Spangled Banner”—especially the first verse that serves as the de facto and de jure national anthem of the United States—is neither particularly jingoistic nor militarist. It is a measured reflection of the flawed but still principled American republic enduring during a period of hopelessness and discord. Put simply, it is precisely the anthem for the United States in the year 2020.
The national anthem was not composed to record political glories or greatness achieved by military might or idealized ethno-national exceptionalism. It was written in 1814 to record a free republic’s endurance through the darkest night it had yet experienced. There are better reasons to stand and sing than to honor a nationalistic ideal or even to honor the American military. We should sing to remind ourselves that when our politics fail—when the republic encounters dark nights of war, domestic strife, or constitutional dysfunction—a free republican citizenry endowed with God-given liberties must nonetheless endure.
It is important to remember that the national anthem is set in a historical moment, Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” set to John Stafford Smith’s music (from a song he composed for the gentlemen’s music club he was a part of). Because they’re so familiar, we rarely consider the words, and even more rarely the events that surround them. Some anthems talk of a nation’s aspirations. The United States’ speaks of a historical event. Key, a prominent attorney, composed the poem after witnessing the Royal Navy’s massive bombardment of Fort McHenry on the night and early morning of September 13 and 14, 1814, from the deck of a British ship anchored in the Patapsco River. On the morning of the 14th, a stunned Key awoke and discovered that after almost 25 hours of continuous shelling, the fort had not surrendered. The massive flag that flew over it—30 by 42 feet, visible from where Key was standing almost eight miles away—was still there too.
The moment is often portrayed as an example of American heroism: brave soldiers valiantly withstood the bombardment and fought for their country. In fact, most of Fort McHenry’s “defenders” did little more than hide in casements and pray that their fortress’s walls would withstand the firepower of the 20 or so British warships. Five thousand British soldiers waited to land. They didn’t. That was in many ways cold comfort to the Americans. They endured, but outlasting the shelling did not mean that all was well. Three weeks earlier, a British army had burned the federal capital of the United States and President James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, had fled the city. The American army proved to be inept and poorly led. The soldiers’ tendency to flee also caused some observers to question whether the people of the United States thought their government worth defending. The only person to gain a reputation for courage during the episode was Dolley Madison, who famously waited in the White House until the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington was safely removed.
The War of 1812 exhibited routine failures of the government, military, and citizenry of the United States. In fact, the rationale for the war seems specious at best from the distance of two centuries. Western War Hawks, supporters of an ideological conflict with Great Britain, clamored for combat throughout the first decade of the 19th century. They blamed the British for Indian attacks and saw Britain’s historic sympathy with Native Americans as an obstacle to acquiring cheap lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. James Madison allowed himself to be forced into supporting the foolish conflict largely over reelection concerns. In order to win a second term, Madison caved to the War Hawks’ demands. Even after the British government granted concessions that the United States had requested in the summer of 1812, the War Hawks still clamored.
Like many ideological wars, the War of 1812 ripped apart the relative political unity in the United States. The war proved so unpopular in New England that northeastern merchants actively colluded with Britain. The American army lost most of its battles. The British military outclassed the unprepared and imprudent leaders of the United States strategically and tactically. Even as Britain fought Napoleon in European waters, the Royal Navy routinely defeated its American counterpart. The only major land battles the American army managed to win were against overmatched Native Americans. The best known American victory—Andrew Jackson’s at New Orleans—occurred after the American peace commissioners signed a treaty with British diplomats. The United States gained nothing other than continued independence, which, while certainly good, would have been achieved without the war’s ensuing political disunity and loss of life. The war was the darkest night yet in the young history of the United States. And Key knew it.
Key’s poem was about a flawed but still noble republic fighting an irresponsible and unpopular war. The more perfect Union created in 1789 remained imperfect. Two hundred and fourteen years later, it is still imperfect. Yet the point of the national anthem is not that we extol some ephemeral, ever-honorable “nation,” but that we understand that the very goodness of the American republic lies in the fact that its government, its military, even its people, will fail and also endure and eventually become the “more perfect union” the Founders envisioned. The United States has not always been an ideal “land of the free and the home of the brave.” The reason why we stand and sing is not that that we are perfect, but that we know who we are supposed to be. The Constitution works, even if at times the people fail it. There have been dark nights in the history of the United States. When Queen Elizabeth ordered the Coldstream Guards to play “The Star Spangled Banner” on September 12, 2001, the mood was not one of joyful celebration, but of somber recognition that the United States would endure despite the terrorist attacks that had occurred previous day in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
In 2020, the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic and the debates and protests over race splash across our screens. They reveal broad societal disunity, urban violence, racial disparities and inequalities, and a general malaise. Suggestions that the United States is a failed state appear in telemedia. Yet in the darkest moments of our history, endurance, rather than self-congratulation, is the most important virtue Americans can display. Our national anthem is an homage to endurance, and for that reason alone, we should still sing, so that those who come after us may know that in our dark moment, we “gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there.”
Miles Smith IV is a visiting assistant professor at Hillsdale College and a historian of the Old South and Atlantic World