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United States National Anthem: A Star Spangled Debate

Updated on March 16, 2016

Old Glory

(vintage postcard/ public domain)
(vintage postcard/ public domain) | Source

September 13th to 14th 2014 was the 200th anniversary of the penning of the words to The Star Spangled Banner, which was officially named the country's national anthem in 1931. (prior to that year, there was no recognized national anthem - both God Bless America and My Country 'tis of Thee were songs that were used at important occasions and national celebrations) The history surrounding the writing of the anthem's lyrics is a fascinating one, but even more so is the debate that has ensued over whether or not The Star Spangled Banner should remain our national anthem at all!

Francis Scott Key (public domain image)
Francis Scott Key (public domain image) | Source

Who Was Francis Scott Key?

Francis Scott Key was born 1 August 1779, just three years after the Declaration of Independence, in Frederick County, Maryland. His family was very well off, owning a large plantation named Terra Rubra. He was educated at home until he was 10 years of age, then was sent to attend grammar school in Annapolis, MD. Francis excelled at his studies and went on to matriculate from St John's College, also in Annapolis.

Upon his graduation he headed home to Frederick Cty where he set himself up in a law practice. He married Mary Taylor Lloyd (called "Polly"), and the two of them began to raise a family which would eventually include eleven children. In about 1805 he moved his law practice to Georgetown, a section of Washington D.C. where he practiced until the start of the War of 1812.

Naval Battle 1812

(public domain image)
(public domain image) | Source

What Was the War of 1812?

The war of 1812 was fought for 2 and a half years between the United States of America, then only 36 years old, and the British, their colonies in North America (Canada) and their native American allies. The cause of the war was rather a set of circumstances which converged to erupt into military action. May of the issues involved were unfinished business left over from the American Revolution.

For example, the United States had wanted to claim portions of Canada under their flag, but could not convince the British to include this in the settlement which ended the Revolution. So part of the war of 1812 was fought with Naval battles on the St Lawrence River and Lake Champlain which were located (and still are) on the northern border with Canada.

Another conflict was caused by the British crown's fear of an ever-expanding United States, as they could see that the economic and military strength of this new nation was rapidly approaching its own. The British made allies of several native American tribes with the aim of preventing the United States from expanding into their territory. They even promised the native Americans their own country in the mid-west of the continent if they would fight with the British and prevail over the United States.

Excellent DVD on the War of 1812

Still another factor in the war of 1812 was centered around Naval conflicts in the Atlantic. The British had restricted trade with the United States due to its own war with France, and the United States also objected to the forced impressment of American merchant sailors into the British Navy. During this phase of the war, the British blockaded ports up and down the Atlantic coast and, in the latter stages of the war, mounted bombardments and raids on these ports, fortifications and harbors. These three were among the factors that caused the United States to declare war on Great Britain in 1812.

How Did Francis Scott Key Write The Star Spangled Banner?

When the war of 1812 broke out, Key reluctantly signed up to serve. He had strong religious convictions against war, but his patriotism won out and he joined the Georgetown Light Field Artillery. The British invaded Washington D.C. in 1814 and set to burning the White House, Capitol and Library of Congress. During this attack a man by the name of Dr. William Beanes was captured by the British. Beanes was a friend of Francis Scott Key and, being that Key was a lawyer, he was more than willing when asked to open negotiations with the British for the release of his friend. He traveled to Baltimore to meet with the British who were anchored along the Chesapeake Bay.

F. Scott Key Watching Battle of Baltimore

(public domain image)
(public domain image) | Source

Exactly what was the deal that he struck is not entirely known, but he was able to secure Beanes freedom. However, the British were about to attack Fort McHenry and would not allow Key and his party to return to land until the bombardment was over. As Key spent the night on board the British ship, he had a clear view of the battle unfolding before him. He witnessed the bombs flying, rockets soaring and guns blasting all through that terrible night. He feared the worst for his country, but when morning broke he was happily surprised to see that the British had not managed to take the Fort. The image that stuck in his head was the sight of one lone American flag, a bit tattered and singed, but fluttering bravely in front of Fort McHenry.

It was the night of battle and that beautiful sight the next morning that prompted Key to pen the poem which would eventually be set to music and known as The Star Spangled Banner. Few people realize that there were more than one verse to this poem! In fact there were four. The title of the poem was The Defense of Fort McHenry and it was widely printed in newspapers after the bombardment. Below is the poem in its entirety, though the national anthem is normally sung with just the first verse.

(vintage postcard/ public domain)
(vintage postcard/ public domain) | Source

The Star Spangled Banner

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 rocket’s red glare, the bomb’s 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 that 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, now conceals, now discloses?
Now it catches the beam, of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on 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 where freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven 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!

Spangled Banner Trivia

Even for those who knew of the other three verses, few realize that a fifth verse was composed during the Civil War! None other than Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a fifth verse in 1861 in protest of the start of the war. Although this verse does appear in versions of the song published during the Civil War period, it seems to have been dropped once that conflict was resolved. Here is Holmes's stanza:

When our land is illumined with liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

LIsten to the Star Spangled Bannner

So What's the Debate?

Almost since its being chosen as the national anthem and proclaimed so by President Herbert Hoover in 1931, there have been those who have disparaged it as a national song. Through the ensuing decades, this debate has waxed and waned, but no successful motion to change the anthem has as yet been achieved.

Many feel that the theme of war should not dominate the lyrics of a national anthem. They feel that the virtues of the nation should be extolled, rather than the glory of victory in war. In other words, people who object to The Star Spangled Banner claim that its focus is war and violence rather than the country itself and its people. The other side counters that the national anthem's setting of war and victory emphasizes the struggle that was fought and sacrifices made for freedom, and that it is a reminder that "freedom isn't free".

The song that is most commonly put forth as an alternative is America the Beautiful, written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates. This song, dissenters say, is simple, emotional and talks about the country's beautiful land and its people. They think it is a more peaceful, sincere song than The Star Spangled Banner and would better represent the United States as a nation.

(public domain photo)
(public domain photo) | Source

Katharine Lee Bates

Katharine Lee Bates was an English professor, author and poet. She wrote her poem America the Beautiful on a trip from her home in Massachusetts to Colorado for a summer teaching position. When she saw the fields of waving wheat from the train going through Kansas, the breathtaking views from the heights of the Rocky Mountains and the sheer beauty of her native land, she was inspired to write her poem America the Beautiful.

Bates had her poem published in a church bulletin in 1895, and an organist, Samuel Augustus Ward, composed the music. When poem and music met, it was as if meant to be. The gentle melody and words of reverence and gratitude combined to create a beautiful anthem indeed, and one that many people feel should represent the United States as its national anthem.

Listen to America the Beautiful

Should the National Anthem Be Changed?

So the question remains... which song best represents the United States as a country? Should the national anthem be changed to America the Beautiful? Or should we stay with tradition and honor the sacrifices of our forefathers who secured our freedom at their great peril? Listen to both songs and make a choice below!

America the Beautiful or The Star Spangled Banner?

Should the United States National Anthem be Changed?

See results

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