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Rediscovering ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’—in Its Entirety

We hear the national anthem before sporting events every day. It is central to political controversies. But it remains deeply unfamiliar.
July 3, 2022
Rediscovering ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’—in Its Entirety
(Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

When it is time to honor their homelands, the Hungarians sing an epic poem of ancestors crossing the Carpathian Mountains, the Mongolians of the impressive ancestry of their people, and the Japanese of best wishes for their emperor. The national anthems of most countries are drawn from broad themes with many common elements: God’s blessings, past glories and bright futures, and lots of geography lessons.

Ours could have been like theirs had our national anthem been “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” or “America the Beautiful”—two of the contenders for that honor before Congress settled the question in 1931. Instead our anthem is a poetic front-line account of the darkest moment of one long night of war, with all the melancholy and insecurity an existential crisis could muster.

The poetic syntax of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not how people speak and the words are put to music, an eighteenth-century English drinking song. The first sheet music combining the tune and lyrics, published in 1814, called for the song to be performed con spirito—with spirit—but over time we have slowed the tune down to, at best, a solid maestoso and at worst, a dirge. The tune is notoriously difficult, requiring a vocal range of an octave and a fifth, so singers typically begin quietly in the notes at the bottom of their vocal range then build to the high notes in the middle and finally that soaring conclusion.

The tune and the language of the anthem have the effect of obscuring for today’s listeners the powerful story Francis Scott Key was telling. The problem is compounded by the fact that most Americans only ever hear the first stanza. But a close reading of the text of all four stanzas reveals the poignance of America’s song, and can help us more deeply understand our country’s history and character.

Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light

The familiar first stanza is one long question. The sun rose behind Francis Scott Key on the morning of September 14, 1814, following a 24-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in Baltimore Harbor. The 35-year-old Georgetown lawyer was on a merchant ship, having completed a mission to negotiate the release of William Beanes, a 65-year-old doctor from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, who had refused to give food and drink to British troops and so had been sentenced to be hanged. With Beanes’s liberty secured, Key would have returned to shore, but because the party had been privy to the locations of British warships and upcoming troop movements, the British would not permit the merchant ship to leave.

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming

The night before, amid the waning streaks of sunlight and through the thick, acrid smoke of cannon fire, Key, Beanes, and the other Americans on HMS Minden saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Today, we are used to seeing our great structures illuminated by electricity after sundown—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Washington Monument, the Empire State building. But there were no spotlights on the flagpole—some 90 feet tall—at Fort McHenry. As dusk fell, the Americans on the merchant ship watched, helpless to do anything but hope the garrison would hold.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars
through the perilous fight

The fort actually had two flags: an enormous “garrison flag,” 30 feet tall by 42 feet wide; and a “storm flag,” smaller—17 feet tall by 25 feet wide—so that when soaked in the rain it would not be too heavy for the huge, 90-foot flagpole. It was the smaller flag that Key and the others saw as darkness enveloped the harbor.

Both flags had 15 stripes and 15 stars—one of each for each state in May 1795, which is when the second Flag Resolution went into effect following the admission to the union of Vermont and Kentucky. (An 1818 law permanently reduced the stripes to 13 for the original colonies and provided a new star would be added to the field of blue on the Fourth of July following the admission of a new state.)

Of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, only 7 were still alive in September 1814, including the second and third presidents, Adams and Jefferson. But this was still a very young nation: Only about three decades had elapsed between the end of the Revolution and the start of the present war. The federal government under the U.S. Constitution had been in effect for only 25 years, and just the previous month, the British—still the world’s great superpower—had burned down the Capitol and the White House and nearly every other government building in Washington.

O’er the ramparts we watch’d
Were so gallantly streaming?

The ramparts are the top of the garrison, brick and mortar and earth that were built to withstand the withering blows of cannon fire, but every defensive position has its limits. Would the fort’s 1,000 defenders, under severe bombardment all day, survive the night? Would they surrender? Key maintained a close watch on the flag flying above the fort.

And the rocket’s red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there

The cannon fire from the British ships was destructive and murderous but also the only way Key could see what was happening ashore. The explosions sent bursts of light, violent glimpses of the fort and the flag. If Fort McHenry fell, then Baltimore—a strategic port and economically important city—would fall. If Baltimore fell, what could Britain not control? If, however, the flag flew, the battle was not lost and neither was the war.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

When sung, this final couplet is long and the operative question word (“does”), coming at the beginning, is lost. Sung in the highest pitches of the tune, a finale that may accompany cheers or a fighter jet flying overhead, the words sound declarative. To Key though, this was the point of maximum darkness. Of uncertainty. He is restating the question from the first, quiet line of the song. Can anyone see it? Does the flag fly?

It seemed as if the very future of America hinged on that question.

Key the poet—as opposed to the lawyer and diplomat—must have understood he was on to something with “land of the free” / “home of the brave,” almost like he could imagine a future of truck commercials and Fourth of July sales. This is the only line of the poem to be repeated, closing each stanza verbatim—although the punctuation at the end of the stanzas varies. The science fiction and science writer Isaac Asimov, in a lecture he frequently delivered, suggests that the first stanza represents Key and Beanes asking one another about the flag, while the second stanza is the answer to the question posed by the first. Here the unfamiliar text makes it easier to imagine the song sung not like the requiem before the Super Bowl but up-tempo, with spirit, by, perhaps, a rowdy crowd gathered for a commemoration. The guns have fallen silent—the 24-hour bombardment is over—and Key and Beanes are glimpsing the flag as the morning breeze lifts the banner and drops it again:

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, now conceals, now discloses?

There was nothing abstract about this flag waving in the dissipating smoke and gathering dawn. Overnight, the fort’s smaller storm flag had been replaced by the enormous garrison flag. It is this larger flag that has come to be remembered as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Made by Mary Young Pickersgill, who ran a flag-making business out of her Baltimore home, the tattered remains of this flag can today be seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. We can imagine the relief of Key and Beanes as they see it.

Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on 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!

The third stanza is a flex. Key asks where the enemy is now, those who bragged (“vauntingly”!) that the American homeland would be no more:

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.

At various points since the adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem, Americans have sung all four verses, but the third was apparently dropped during World War II. Celebrating British blood washing away their own “foul footsteps’ pollution” would have been a needless insult to our close ally.

But the second half of the verse has proven more enduringly controversial:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight and 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!

Although there are different interpretations of Key’s reference to slaves, some commentators have claimed that the poem is racist, an assertion that adds a layer of messy complication to our own era’s fights about race and kneeling rather than standing for the anthem.

A longstanding interpretation of the phrase “hireling and slave” is as a rhetorical insult—a pejorative directed at the British forces. It is possible to read the phrase more literally, however. In the War of 1812, as in the American Revolution, the British forces employed mercenaries; the word “hireling” could be understood to refer to them. And while some commentators suggest that the word “slave” may have been a reference to the British practice of impressment—taking prisoners and forcing them into service in the Royal Navy, which had been one of the causes of the war—another interpretation is that Key literally meant former black slaves who had joined the British cause and were now fighting against the American forces.

In 1814, slavery was practiced in several states, including Maryland, where Key was born and lived until his twenties. And we know that Key was a slave owner: In the 1820 census, he is listed as owning five slaves in Georgetown.

Just as the slaveholder Jefferson paradoxically wrote that “all men are created equal” in the founding document we celebrate on the Fourth of July, the slaveholder Key evokes in the fourth stanza the strength of free men who fight for their homeland. In a foreshadowing of the calamity that would befall his country half a century later, Key even refers to a just cause:

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes 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.

Ours is a nation defined not by history, geography, racial or ethnic composition, or religion but by a commitment to democracy and to equality and equal justice under law. It is that shared commitment that brings us together despite our differences—that makes us, out of many, one.

The Era of Good Feelings that followed the War of 1812 was itself followed by many periods of bad feelings: the Civil War, the turbulence of Reconstruction, a century of Jim Crow, the Great Depression that brought our political and economic system to the brink of collapse, the anxiety of the Cold War, the clashes of the civil rights era, countless political scandals from Watergate on down, the post-9/11 fears of and wars against terror, and most recently, the threat to our democracy exemplified by—but not ended on—January 6th. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a reminder that through the dark night, the promise of our democracy can prevail.

The path from drinking tune to popular poem to national anthem was long and tortuous, and “The Star Spangled Banner” has always had its detractors—people complaining that the words are too martial or the melody too hard to sing, or composing alternative melodies, adding additional verses or substitute lyrics. Certainly the power of the anthem is diminished by familiarity: Hearing the first stanza before every major sporting event, often in not-so-good renditions, has the effect of turning it into a kind of aural wallpaper, and likely contributes to the occasional campaigns to replace it as the national anthem.

If we replaced “The Star Spangled Banner” perhaps we would sing of the land where our fathers died and of pilgrims’ pride, or of amber waves of grain, purple mountains, fruited plains. We would have the geography, the pride, the history. Instead we got the darkest night—and with it, the hope.

Correction (July 5, 2022, 11:00 a.m. EDT): As originally published, this article misstated the number of states that had joined the original thirteen by September 1814. Five new states had been added by then, not two.

Correction (July 6, 2022, 11:30 p.m. EDT): As originally published, this article misquoted a line in the fourth stanza of the song as “for our cause it is just.” While there is no official version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Key’s original version of the line was “when our cause it is just.”

Samuel L. Scheib

Samuel L. Scheib is an urban transit planner, an author, and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.