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The Star Spangled Banner

Goshen College in Indiana has banned the National Anthem at its sporting events because they see it as too violent in nature.  Perhaps this is a great time to reflect on the origins of our nation’s anthem. 

After the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, Sir Francis Scott Key wrote a poem after seeing the flag still standing.  We’ve all sung the lyrics numerous times with pride.  Many of us, however, know so little about this song deemed the “Star Spangled Banner”. 

Almost all of us know the lyrics to our national anthem, but few of us know that the lyrics we sing are only the first stanza of the original.  When Francis Scott Key was held on the British ship, it is said, that the morning after the 25 hour bombing of Fort McHenry, he was able to see the giant flag flying over the fort.  He was immediately inspired to write his poem originally titled “Defense of Fort McHenry” and so he did, ironically, upon the British flag ship HMS Tonnant.  It was from this gigantic flag that the national anthem gets its name “Star Spangled Banner”. 

In 1814 the national flag’s characteristics were very unspecific.  At that time, the only requirements were that it had red and white stripes and it could have stars to represent states.  The design was usually left to the commissioner or the designer.  In this case, the designer, Mary Pickersgill, was given free reign as to how she devised the flag.  The only condition she was given was the size of the flags she made.  Gen. John S. Stricker commissioned two flags to be made; one smaller storm flag which flew through the bombardment, and the larger “Great Garrison Flag” which was flown the morning after.  The flag that Key would have seen would be the latter.  It measured 30 feet high by 42 feet wide. 

The day after Key returned he had many prints made of the poem and handed them out in the streets of Baltimore, but in Baltimore it did not stay.  Newspapers in Boston and Philadelphia soon picked it up and printed it as well with Keys’ addition that it should be sung to the popular drinking tune, “The Aacreontic Song”.  It quickly became popular across state lines and was being sung throughout the young nation with great pride and celebration.  It was still a new idea for the states to unite, but this song did just that.  Whether it was sung on New York fairgrounds, or in Kentucky tavern, the anthem meant the same thing – that we were both formidable and united states.  Yet, it was not our national anthem.

In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy Benjamine F. Tracy made “The Star Spangled Banner” the official song for raising the flag.  In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at military events and that the military stand at attention while it was being played.  The song was popular at baseball games and other sporting events; most notably during the seventh-inning stretch during the 1918 World Series.  Famous American composer John Philip Sousa traveled the country having his band play the tune, and later petitioned that the song become our national anthem.  Retractors argued that it was too hard to sing, that many of the words were forgotten, and that few even knew what Fort McHenry was.  Nevertheless, in 1931, after years of congressional debate, Hebert Hoover’s signature made “The Star Spangled Banner” our official national anthem. 

There’s something about the anthem that transcends Key’s inspiring moment, Sousa’s symphonic rendition, or the flag being raised at Iwo Jima.  It’s special to each of us in a different way.  It is what gets us angry when someone doesn’t stand for it being played, when the lyrics are butchered, or when it is just blatantly disrespected.  We have fond memories of standing in school before to its playing.  We’re proud when we see our kids responding to that familiar music with their hand over their heart without even being told to.  We tear up when we see someone else moved by the song’s melody. 

When our anthem plays, we might not reflect on the lyrics.  Perhaps we don’t consider “the bombs bursting in air” literally.  Few even know that ramparts are defensive fortifications, above which the banner was “gallantly streaming”.  The anthem is beyond lyrics now.  It is a unifying tune that brings America together in song, forgetting the boundaries that set us apart.  When our anthem is played we ascend into a higher state with eyes gazed upon our flag, that by G-d’s grace is still there. 

Read all of the original lyrics here.


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  • rjjrdq June 8, 2011 at 4:22 AM

    they’ll be hearing it at every road game. Kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it? And they knew there would be a backlash. They admit that on their website.

    • RightHandMan
      RightHandMan June 8, 2011 at 7:25 AM

      I’m not terribly offended by their stance, but I do find fault in their idea of it condoning violence. The song is more about surviving the violence of an agressor. There’s nothing about killing Brits, or shooting cannonballs at their ships. If someone doesn’t want to sing the song, so be it.

  • Steve Dennis June 8, 2011 at 5:14 AM

    Great post RHM, too often people listen to or sing the national anthem without thinking about what it actually means, and I admit that I am guilty of that myself. Thank you for reminding us what the national anthem is really all about.
    Steve Dennis recently posted..Barack Obama’s “Red Right Hand”My Profile

    • RightHandMan
      RightHandMan June 8, 2011 at 7:27 AM

      The truth is that I didn’t write this in resonse to the school’s decision…that story broke a few minutes after I finished this.

      I know that a lot of people don’t know what the anthem means, but I think that is okay. As I said, I think it trascends the original meaning anyway. We have an anthem that, when it plays, usually brings us all together as Americans…whether we know who Key was or not.

  • Infidel de Manahatta June 8, 2011 at 10:38 AM

    Ban the national anthem? Another great idea from higher education. Now we know why they are called “higher” education.
    Infidel de Manahatta recently posted..An Apology from Manhattan InfidelMy Profile

  • Bunkerville June 8, 2011 at 7:22 PM

    I have to admit I prefer God Bless America. Having said that, I honor those who were willing to give so much so I may have so much.
    Bunkerville recently posted..Energy Czar Stephen Chu implements indoctrination program for our children on Global WarmingMy Profile

  • Matt June 8, 2011 at 9:08 PM

    Well, it’s another sign of the complete unreality that is liberalism. I would write it off as moonbattery, but what if there is, one day, enough people thinking like that to make this more widespread? It can be scary.
    Matt recently posted..And From the Cheap Seats- a Desperate Cry for AttentionMy Profile

  • TexasFred June 9, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    Moonbattery indeed… If they don’t like America and all for which it stands, pack up and leave…

    Problem solved…
    TexasFred recently posted..US Officers- Drug Runners Involved In Shootout On Texas-Mexico BorderMy Profile

    • John Carey June 9, 2011 at 10:45 PM

      I agree. If they find the national anthem that offensive then perhaps it is time to leave.