In Defense of the National Anthem

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Today, Sept. 14, is the 202nd anniversary of the song that would become our national anthem.

“Defence of Fort McHenry,” the original title of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” became a hit after the Battle of Baltimore, when the Royal Navy withdrew. The fort took many mortar bombs and cannonballs, but the British could not pass.

Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key had sailed earlier with a federal official to meet the top British officers — Admiral George Cockburn and General Robert Ross — on their ship, seeking release of an American prisoner. They had to stay on their truce ship as the enemy launched the attack.

An opponent of the War of 1812, Key saw through the morning haze of Sept. 14 the flag still waving above Fort McHenry — an incredible, emotional revelation to him — in sight of the conquerors of Napoleon.

This is what is so powerful about the song: it captures how Americans felt about their 38-year-old nation. Its impact cannot be underestimated. To most people, the hand of God was at work.

Weeks before, on Aug. 24, 1814, troops of Ross and Cockburn burned the official buildings of fledgling Washington, D.C., after defeating the Americans at Bladensburg. The Brits entered the nation’s capital unopposed. All of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria were in panic. President James Madison fled to Virginia and then to Maryland. It was a national humiliation we can only imagine through the lenses of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, let us briefly respond to the likes of Colin Kaepernick, who refuse to stand for the flag, contending that this nation is racist — and a few who say the anthem is, too. They are within their rights as Americans to protest.

Some cite the third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for its use of the word “slave” as proof of racism. Key wrote the stanza as an invective against the arrogant British. Yes, runaway American slaves fought with the British, but free blacks and runaway slaves fought with the Americans’ Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.   Key, a slave owner, was conflicted about slavery. As D.C. attorney general, he prosecuted slaves, but also represented them in lawsuits — including one against Georgetown College. He was highly respected in the city and in the government. For his time, he ought to be perceived as progressive.

The accusation that the poem itself is racist is off the mark and lacks historical context. Such an opinion seems ironic during this month, when Georgetown University strives to atone for its slavery past and the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens for all Americans.

On this day, let us recall that unity we had for a moment 15 years ago and take to heart the fourth stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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.

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