What does the United States national anthem mean?

Posted on June 29, 2011. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , |

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.


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20 Responses to “What does the United States national anthem mean?”

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what does it represent


Hello Chris; can you tell us more about what you’d like to know?


When was the song written and what message is being conveyed by the lyrics?


Hello Madison; a reading of the post tells you it was written in September 1814, and the final paragraph gives you our sense of what it means.


Fantastic description. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.


What does the national Anthem mean to us.


how does the national anthem relate to you? how do it make u feel? :-0


Good question! I hope many people will respond. I myself take the meaning from the words of that first stanza, and sing it as a statement that despite any and all troubles, our flag, our nation, our founding principles, are still here, and as such, it is powerfully affirming.


Wat does it represent doe damm


Hello Rosemary–check out the last paragraph (after reading the whole story of how it captures a moment in our real history).


I am almost 60 years old. I feel as if our country has never been so divided. Reading the words Francis Scott Key filled our hearts with gives me the inspiration to reach out and have others share their thoughts with me. If everyone would do the same maybe things would change, or maybe not. Some people are so bitter and feel someone else is responsible for their welfare.
Our national anthem gives us good sound bases for our country to survive. In Gods name we must triumph over our personal and moral battles. As long as our flag flies we have not lost the war and the only one that can give us restrictions is ourselves.


Sara Buck Just WOW I’m going to copy your words because you put it so PERFECT!!! Thank you


Who are the “hireling” and the “slave”:

This is not an insult to black people or even to American slaves. The British Army almost exclusively used Hessian (German) mercenaries to fight the War of 1812. In rare instances they used units comprised of escaped bondsmen or freeman (but for the purposes–mercenary) African-American troops, as well. The words “hirelings and slaves” is a dismissive reference to the British forces as a whole–not to any individual black unit. And to wish an invading army “the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave” and to use violent imagery in the midst of war is perfectly understandable -especially after they just burned and looted down your country’s capital to the ground (Washington DC) and beat you in battle and have imprisoned you.


This doesn’t alter the fact that Francis Sott Key was not only a slave owner himself, but he also fought legal battles against members of the Abolitionist movement. So perhaps his reference to slaves is a double entendre–“no refuge can save the hireling and slave…” Additionally, one of his sisters, Anne Key, married Justice Roger B. Taney who wrote the infamous ruling against Dred Scott, in which he said, “the negro had no rights which the white man is bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” So support of the “Peculiar Institution” was a family affair.

Woodrow Wilson, who, in 1916, signed an executive order formally designating the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem for most branches of the U.S. Armed forces and other groups; also reinstated segregation in federal government agencies in Washington, DC. When he became president. He also supported his former classmate, Thomas Dixon, who wrote “The Klansman” which was made into a film by D.W. Griffith called “Birth of a Nation.” The film featured scholarly writings from Wilson in its subtitles and hailed the rise of the KKK among other things. Wilson is said to have celebrated the film as “history written in lightening.”

So, the National Anthem ‘s history and legacy is tainted with the support of racist individuals and ideologies. Perhaps, “My Country Tis of Thee” or America the Beautiful” would be more fitting as symbols of national pride, unity and democracy, with their references to the beauty of the land, freedom and brotherhood.. At least they are not celebrations of war, bombs and rockets, “bursting in air.”


Hello No Linda; thanks for writing. It seems clear from the context of its use in the song that “hirelings and slaves” describes the mercenaries in the British army. The anthem does not celebrate war, as we make clear in our post. It describes a war that, if lost, might have spelled the end of the United States; it celebrates the American victory that prevented that.

Key’s slaveholding and Wilson’s racism do not taint the national anthem. No work of art can control who uses it, who assigns meaning to it, who decides that it means something it doesn’t. Key was a racist, but he did not write the Star-Spangled Banner about race. It is a celebration of the American victory over the British in the War of 1812. Its celebration of that victory, and its hope that American might always be free from hostile invasion and subjection, made it an easy choice for our anthem. “America the Beautiful” is protested by some Native Americans whg say it describes lands they were forced out of, lands that were then ruined by reckless development and pollution by the whites who took them over.

It’s important to point out instances where Americans restricted “liberty and justice for all” to one group and tried to take it away from others, whether that attempt was based on race, sex, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, or anything else. But it’s also important not to say that everything Americans have created is tainted by those attempts. When Americans sing the anthem today they don’t think, “I’m celebrating war and black slavery.” There’s no reason why they should—that’s not what the song is about. We don’t discard positive messages about our country because they were created by people who did not fulfill our founding principles; we treasure positive messages about our country because they inspire us to live up to them.


In my mind Key’s and Wilson’s virulent racism do taint this song.

Those hirelings and slaves referred not only to German Hessian mercenaries, but also to escaped Africans who fought alongside the British because they were promised safe haven from slavery. Is it so surprising that they preferred freedom to slavery? Their unit was a part of the British forces called the Colonial Marines. So, no he did not write a song about race, but he is definitely referring to enslaved Blacks who took advantage of the prospect of freedom, in spite of the fact that it was the British military they were joining. They could not commit anything towards America as treasonous as the Enslavement visited on them and the idea that they were somehow, less than human. Maybe Key was still smarting from the defeat at Bladensburg, in August of 1814, a month before he wrote his poem; when he witnessed some of the African members of the Colonial Marines fighting on the British side, defeating the American forces and capturing a Dr. Beade, whose freedom Key was negotiating when the attack on Fort McHenry took place.

And yes, it is a militaristic song about a battle. Everytime I hear the “rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air,” I think of war. It’s a song about war and bombs- not the beauty of our country and its people, which, for me would be a more inspiring message for a national anthem.

I have visited Fort McHenry, so I am aware of the “official” history of Francis Scott Key’s poem which was put to the tune of a British bar song. I also grew up in Philadelphia, where I received a healthy dose of early American history. So, I am aware. Sorry, but, I am not convinced. If you truly believe that as Americans, we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and if this is truly the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, then Mr. Kapernick has every right to exercise that bravery and freedom. By the way, he is not the first to do so, and I promise you, he won’t be the last. This is not discarding the positive messages about our country, but at some point historic honesty has to be noted. I love America, but I don’t think Francis Scott Key’s poem/ song represents everything good about America. That includes the first and third stanzas. Maybe the argument can be made that Key’s poem represents the time it came from, but it does not play as well today for all Americans. By the way, it’s only been the official national anthem since 1931-just 85 years. Perhaps it’s time for a reevaluation. if My Country Tis of Thee or America the Beautiful are offensive to some, perhaps it’s time to write a new national anthem that truly celebrates the greatness and beauty of our nation and all of its people, not just a few.


If only the British had made good on their promises of new lives in freedom for the enslaved black Americans who took them up on their offer. That’s one of the great shames of the Revolutionary War (on the British side).

A song can describe a battle without being militaristic. In the anthem, the battle at Fort McHenry is the backdrop for a moment of patriotism. War is not celebrated as a great thing in the song. Of course a song celebrating natural beauty is also good anthem material, but it’s not the only option.

To take up your last thought, it’s a good one—if you don’t like something, work to change it. Write a new anthem. Or, in Kaepernick’s case, actually do something to fight injustice. Sitting out the anthem might inspire some people to fight racism, but registering a complaint is not the same as working for change. If he follows this up with some real action, we’ll be inspired.


“No Linda” I think your comments were right on! Beautifully written, polite, and needed! Thank you!


[…] Thank you for giving parents a new reason to talk to their children about the greatness of the United States of America and the sacrificial meaning of our National Anthem. […]


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