What does the United States national anthem mean?

Our poor national anthem. It has a bad reputation for being very hard to sing, and for arcane language that comics love to make fun of. When I was growing up it was also chastised for being militaristic–“America the Beautiful” would have been a better choice of anthem, according to some (of course, we’ve got nothing on “La Marseillaise” for blood-thirstiness in anthems).

But here at the HP we like our anthem. It pinpoints a distinct historical moment, being an inspired first-hand account of the moment of national anxiety we experienced during the War of 1812 at the Battle of Fort McHenry (see more on that here). Here’s how we tell it in our post “The Burning of Washington and the Battle of New Orleans”:

“The British navy had been terrorizing the Atlantic coast, particularly the Chesapeake Bay area, from the start of the war. The U.S. had few warships with which to challenge the British, who sometimes sent detachments to coastal towns offering them the choice of paying a fine or being bombarded. The British moved up the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1814, heading not really toward Washington but toward Baltimore.

…The attack [on Baltimore] was two-pronged: a land attack on North Point and a siege of Fort McHenry in the harbor. Major General Samuel Smith stopped the British at North Point, in an unexpected and certainly unusual American victory. All now waited to see how the siege would go at the important fort. Major George Armistead was in charge of U.S. defenses there. Bombardment of the fort by British ships began on September 13th. Nearly 2,000 cannonballs were launched at the fort over 24 hours, but damage was light.

The British commander decided to land troops west of Fort McHenry, hoping to lure the U.S. army away from North Point, but Armistead discovered them and opened fire, scattering the landing party of British soldiers. Early on the morning of September 14, the giant American flag that local seamstress Mary Pickersgill and her daughter had made was raised over the fort, to replace the one torn apart the night before. Seeing that the fort still stood in American hands, British land forces withdrew and returned to the ships. British General Cochrane then withdrew the fleet to prepare for the attack on New Orleans.

Francis Scott Key was an American lawyer who had gone on a mercy mission to the British to gain the release of an American doctor who had been captured but had previously tended British soldiers. Key was on a truce ship in Baltimore Harbor during the bombardment. When morning dawned on the 14th, and Key saw his country’s flag still flying over Fort McHenry, he wrote the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter in a paroxysm of joy. It became the U.S. national anthem in 1931.”

This is the dramatic moment that gave birth to our anthem. The first stanza, which is all we ever sing, is a question. It can be boiled down to this: Tell me, can you see our flag still flying after the bombardment, or have we been defeated?

Let’s go over it in pieces:

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,/What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming: As the sun is rising after a long night of British bombardment of our fort, can you see the flag that was flying last night as the sun set, which, as Americans, we had proudly hailed (saluted) as the light faded and the attack began?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,/O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?: We could see the flag at the ramparts, or defensive wall, of the fort, flying high during the battle.

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,/Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there: All through the night, the exploding British missiles periodically lit up the flag; every so often we could see that it was still flying, and we had hope that the fort had not surrendered.

O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?: Tell me, is the flag still flying, meaning we have not lost the war, and our nation is still free? (Or is the very different flag of Britain flying over Fort McHenry?)

It is an anguished question about the fate of the nation, that first stanza. It’s odd that we don’t sing the other stanzas, which are just as dramatic but more victorious. Stanza 2 reveals that the flag is indeed there: “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.”

Stanza 3 vents some fury at the British: “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”.

Stanza 4 is fully triumphant:

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!

One has to wonder why we don’t sing this final stanza, in which the U.S. is a “Heaven-rescued land” with a special place in God’s plan. Is it simply because songs are usually shortened to just the first stanza? It’s odd that the verse of our anthem that we sing at moments of national triumph is the verse that is fraught with terror and uncertainty, and not the verse bursting with self-confidence.

But we like that first stanza, with its breathless anticipation; it catches a moment of great importance in our nation’s history and reminds us just how many millions of Americans over the centuries have burned with anxiety for this country, and seen it through very difficult times. It’s not a blood-thirsty, militaristic song, but a narrative of military triumph allowing for the continued moral victory of democracy.