As dawn broke on the morning of September 14, 1814 a Virginian lawyer and amateur poet caught sight of a large flag flying high above Fort McHenry. This man, Francis Scott Key, was so inspired by the sight that he rushed to copy down the poetic verses that sprang unbidden into his mind. His friend, Dr. William Beanes, asked worriedly, “Can you see it? Is the flag still there?” Key joyfully affirmed that the American flag was indeed still flying, meaning that the Americans had won the battle and driven back the British. On a ship eight miles away from the fort, Key was witness to the end of a momentous battle between the Americans and the British.
Key’s poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry” – and the song that it soon became – reveals the fact that Americans believed it necessary that their country and its people have a strong national identity. At first upon reading the poem, Key’s verses are marked by violent descriptions, such as the “havoc of war,” “the terror of flight,” “the gloom of the grave,” and “war’s desolation.” The poem seems to be passionately supporting war and destruction. But further reading reveals expressions such as “loved home” and “victory and peace.” Each stanza ends with a promise that the American flag is waving “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The two ideas seem to be completely at odds with one another. These contradictions reveal the fact that a national identity will always have incompatible aspects, because each individual defines himself or herself differently. But an examination of the song that was soon popularized by Key, settles these conflicting ideals into one national identity. Key paired the verses in his poem with the tune “Anacreon in Heaven.” At that time in America, the melody was more commonly known as the political song “Adams and Liberty,” the anthem of the Federal Party. Key intentionally took the song of an anti-war political party (the Federalists were adamantly opposed to the War of 1812, to the point of deciding to secede from the nation if the war continued) and made it a hymn to military fortitude and national pride. By putting together his martially themed lyrics with a tune associated back then with pacifism, Key united the two conflicting values of war and peace. The immediate and immense success of Key’s poem in this song form revealed the fact that Americans, who had been divided into pro-war and anti-war sentiments, yearned for the chance to unite the two conflicting identities of their country. Because the country was young and did not have any precedent or history to fall back on, its people were greatly in need of cultural nationalism, in the form of a powerful common identity. Because Key’s work resonated with national opinions, disagreements, and feelings, it transcended its beginnings as a song about one battle, and led the American people to discover their national character. The poem, and through it the national flag, ended up representing a common identity among Americans, one of pride in their “home of the brave.”
The song that Key transformed his poem into held such power that it became an embodiment of our country, representing all the varying values and ideals of the American people. It immediately was heralded as an enduring representation of America, and all that the country stands for. As the theme of our nation, “The Star-Spangled Banner” unites us and illuminates not only our similarities but also our differences. As Judge Joseph H. Nicholson declared upon hearing the piece for the first time, it was “destined long to outlast the occasion.”