O Say Does that Star-Spangled Banner Yet Wave
Two hundred years ago today, September 14, the sight of the U.S. flag’s broad stripes and stars inspired Francis Scott Key to write lyrics for The Star-Spangled Banner, our beloved national anthem.
Yet, it was a different set of broad stripes that initially worried Mr. Key. As an attorney from Georgetown, a Maryland hamlet next door to Washington DC, he saw first-hand the ashes left behind after the British military burned the U.S. Capitol and White House on August 24, 1814. Setting fire to the nation’s capital city on a hill was the most devastating blow of the War of 1812. But it also ignited a fresh patriotic spirit among Americans.
A few days later, Key learned that British soldiers had captured his friend, Dr. William Beanes. Desperately wanting to rescue Dr. Beanes, Key gained permission from President James Madison to join John Skinner, the U.S. prisoner of war negotiator, and search for the British fleet in the rivers outside of Baltimore.
The broad stripes that first greeted Key and Skinner on September 7, 1814, were hardly glorious. When they came upon the British ships, they likely saw the Union Jack, Britain’s national flag.
By combining the crosses of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, this banner showed centralized royal power. Running across the center was a broad red stripe, which represented the single sovereign reigning over them. Another bold red stripe ran vertically to form a cross, suggesting Christianity as the crown’s authority.
Key was obviously loyal to a different set of broad stripes, ones that symbolized representation, not royalty. Years earlier on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress issued America’s first symbol: “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white.”
After stepping aboard the British flagship of Admiral Alexander Cochrane on September 7, 1814, Key and Skinner were invited to dine with the admiral and other officers. Soon Key and Skinner accomplished their mission. Admiral Cochrane and another British officer agreed to free Dr. Beanes. But there was a hitch. Cochrane wouldn’t let Key, Skinner, or Beanes depart until after the British forces attacked Baltimore. “Ah, Mr. Skinner, after discussing so freely our preparation and plans, you could hardly expect us to let you go on shore in advance of us?” Cochrane explained.
Hence, surrounded by the broad stripes of Union Jacks for days, Key, Skinner, and Beanes stayed with the British fleet. Key was deeply worried about Baltimore. “To make my feelings still more acute, the admiral had intimated his fears that the town [Baltimore] must be burned, and I was sure that if taken it would have been given up to plunder . . . It was filled with women and children.”
Starting on September 13, for more than twenty-four hours, Key watched and listened as the British Navy bombarded Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore’s harbor. The staccato sound of rockets and bombs suddenly stopped the morning of September 14. Gone from the fort was its small storm flag. What would replace it?
Through his spyglass three miles away, Key must have held his breath during the silence as he wondered what would happen next. Would a white flag of surrender or, worse, the Union Jack appear at the top of Fort McHenry? Relief swept through him as he saw a giant, thirty by forty-two foot U.S. flag soar to the top of Fort McHenry that morning. Broad stripes of glory greeted him at the dawn’s early light.
While the men at the fort played Yankee Doodle, Key’s emotions took flight to create another song. Phrases such as “O say can you see” and “what so proudly we hail’d” pulsed through his heart and pen. By the time he returned to Baltimore two days later, he had written lyrics for a poem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Key’s genius is that his words were so inspirational that they could be applied to many generations and situations, not only to Fort McHenry and Baltimore.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Key had given us, the land of the free, our anthem for the ages. That is something to celebrate today, 200 years after the broad stripes of the U.S. flag inspired a little-known lawyer from Maryland to write the song that became our national anthem.
Award-winning writer and presidential historian, Jane Hampton Cook is a national media commentator and the author of eight books, including her newest, America’s Star-Spangled Story (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, June 2014), and American Phoenix (Thomas Nelson, 2013), featuring the international side of the War of 1812 and John Quincy and Louisa Adams. Also the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War, Jane is a former White House webmaster to President George W. Bush (www.janecook.com).