How appropriate is our national anthem?

Occasionally we hear the complaint that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an inappropriate national anthem for the USA. During the ’60s I heard it especially, most likely because war wasn’t, um, a hugely popular concept at the time. Francis Scott Key’s verse should be deep-sixed, we were urged, in favor of something like “America the Beautiful.”

Nowadays the question is worth revisiting. How appropriate is the song?

Before answering, read Key’s lyrics below — all four stanzas — and recall, first, that the “rockets” and “bombs” were British, flung at Fort McHenry one night during the War of 1812, and second, that Key was watching that action from the deck of a British ship. When the bombardment was over, the next morning, he and his fellow Americans were asking the question found in the first stanza: Can you see it? Is the flag ours or theirs? Do we still have the fort, or did they overcome?

What the song says, boiled down to its essentials, is this: “We were relentlessly attacked — and, praise God, the attack failed.”

Read that way, “The Star-Spangled Banner” seems not only appropriate today, but especially so. (Even though the “praise God” in stanza four is under considerable debate.)

Until the day the attack doesn’t fail.


Oh 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 thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched 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.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
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! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory 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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