Francis Scott Key wrote the words of the national anthem on the morning of September 14, 1814 after witnessing the bombardment of Ft McHenry by the British.
On the morning of September 14, 1814, a young Georgetown lawyer aboard a British-held ship looked up at Fort McHenry, which had endured over twenty-four hours of relentless bombardment in the effort to protect Baltimore. In the “dawn’s early light,” Francis Scott Key could see Mary Young Pickersgill’s massive flag “gallantly streaming.” Inspired and proud, Key wrote a poem on the back side of a letter. His four stanza poem became The Star Spangled Banner, officially deemed the national anthem by Congress in 1931.
The British Attack on Fort McHenry in the War of 1812
By mid-1814, the British government decided to “chastise” the United States by conducting numerous raids and attacks on coastal cities. This culminated in the burning of Washington City and a follow-up attack on Baltimore. The Baltimore attack was to pursue the same strategy that had led to the taking of Washington: a direct land attack by veteran British troops supported by the navy.
Baltimore, however, was strongly defended. Under the command of Major General Samuel Smith, every available citizen was drafted into the effort to improve fortifications and defend the city. Fort McHenry, commanded by Major George Armistead, was defended by 1,000 men. Their intention was to stop Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane from taking Baltimore.
The Rocket’s Red Glare, The Bombs Bursting in Air But the Star Spangled Banner was Still There
Francis Scott Key had arrived aboard a British ship four days earlier to negotiate the release of an elderly captured doctor. The British commander detained Key so that British plans would not be disclosed. Key was treated with civility, although he later noted the arrogance and vulgarity of the officers.
Cochrane kept his ships out of range of Fort McHenry’s heavy guns, but ordered smaller boats to approach the fort and bombard the structure with Congreve rockets. No always accurate, these bombs frequently exploded in the air before hitting their targets. Additionally, their bursting gave off a red glow. Key would have noticed this through the “perilous fight,” which lasted throughout the night.
The Star Spangled Banner Recalls American Freedom and Liberty
The British viewed their actions against the Americans as punitive. The United States had declared war at a crucial moment in European history. Englishmen saw the war declaration as patricide, a betrayal that could only assist the French “tyrant,” Napoleon.
Following Napoleon’s disastrous foray into Russia, however, European powers were on the verge of finally ending Napoleon’s rule. This allowed Britain to turn full attention to North America. It also meant that a poorly equipped American militia would face seasoned British regulars.
For Americans, the War of 1812 was, as some historians have called it, a second war of independence. It would mean an end to the British policy of impressment and the evacuation of British garrisons from the American frontier. All four stanzas of Key’s poem end with the same line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
Only in the first stanza is this distinctive line phrased as a question. Does the flag still wave? The question was not only pertinent to the morning of September 14th, 1814, but was applied, by the other stanzas, to the entire American experiment in self-government. Stanza four, for example, begins, “Oh! Thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand, between their loved home and the war’s desolation!”
This was also a hope that future generations would react similarly. “Thus be it ever…” refers to the standing of freemen in defense of their homes. Home refers both to the individual homes men left to defend as well as the national home. These men were the only line between survival and “desolation.”
The Fourth Stanza of the Star Spangled Banner
Ever since John Winthrop’s characterization of the Puritan community as a “City on a Hill,” Americans had viewed their national mission through the lens of divine providence. According to Key, America’s victory was achieved by the “Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.” Key also writes that our “motto” is “In God is our trust.”
The divine “Power” is linked to situations when Americans must conquer, but only in a just cause. This notion fit well with Key’s own religious convictions, arising out of his Episcopalian beliefs. Key, a slave owner, also actively advocated for the American Colonization Society. Key’s sister was married to Roger B. Taney who would become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and rule that blacks were not citizens in the 1857 Dred Scott Decision.
The meaning of Key’s final stanza must therefore be analyzed carefully in regard to religious application, because the language does not equate with, for example, the views of God arising out of the Second Great Awakening. Nonetheless, the Star Spangled Banner continues to be the best expression of American resolve of freedom and independence.