By Leah S. Dunaief
O! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Yes, that is the first stanza of our national anthem, the star-spangled banner. It has been my experience, at ballgames and other public gatherings (remember those?) where the anthem has played, that many Americans do not know all the words. In fact, not a lot of the words. In truth, not any of the words beyond the first two sentences. Confess: that’s you or your spouse or your children.
Now there is always a story behind every creation. In honor of our nation’s upcoming birthday, I thought I would tell you some of the controversial story and remind you of the words of at least the first and last of the four stanzas written by Francis Scott Key.
So who was Francis Scott Key and how did he come to write these words?
Key was a good-looking, rich American lawyer, author and amateur poet who was from Frederick, Maryland. Born August 1, 1779, three years after the start of the Revolutionary War, he lived to be 63, dying at the beginning of 1843. He was married to Mary (“Polly”) Tayloe Lloyd and they had eleven children. Incidentally, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a distant relative.
We remember that we learned of Key viewing the attack by the British on Fort McHenry from a ship outside Baltimore during the brief War of 1812, and how he could not tell, through the dark night, if the fort had fallen to the enemy. But at dawn, when he saw the flag still flying, he was inspired to write the poem in 1814 that was to become our national song.
His friends called him “Frank,” which often blended with Key to come out “Frankie.” He had a high profile, having been part of Andrew Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet, the unofficial advisers who were so influential. He defended a young Sam Houston in court on the latter’s trial over beating up an Ohio congressman. He was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and he prosecuted the would-be assassin of President Jackson, who by the way was a Southern slaveholder.
Key, as a youth, had almost become an Episcopal priest, helped found two seminaries and wrote about poetry’s influence on religion. He also had a complicated and contradictory relationship with slavery. He personally owned six slaves, though he allegedly opposed the practice and eventually set them all free. Yet he did not do so for the many slaves his wife inherited and who worked the farm that provided much of the family’s income. He represented slaves for free in court who were trying to win their freedom, yet he was bitterly opposed to the abolitionist movement, and as U.S. district attorney, challenged its efforts. He strongly supported the colonization of former slaves in Africa, helping to found the colony of Liberia.
It is no surprise, then, that in the recent rush to tear down statues, his was toppled on Friday, June 19, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Today we have come to recognize that the imperfect Key is inseparably linked with slavery and pride in our nation.
O thus be it ever when free men shall stand
Between their lov’d homes and the war’s desolation!
Bless’d with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserv’d 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.