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The Story and Meaning of the The Star Spangled Banner (with All Four Verses )

14 Jun

Today is Flag Day, and I thought it good to remember the  meaning of our greatest song about the flag, The Star Spangled Banner (which congress declared in 1931 to be our national anthem).  It is sad that most Americans know only the first verse of this song, for that verse only asks the question that the second verse answers (and the other verses give meaning to).

A little background:  The song was composed during the American-British war of 1812.  Two years into that war, the British Navy was attempting to impose a blockade on Baltimore.  If that city fell, it would split the young country (still mainly along the eastern seaboard), and the fate of the United States itself would be in peril.  To take Baltimore, they would first have to take Fort McHenry with its 1000 men and its large guns which controlled the harbor.

On board one of the British ships that would bombard the fort was an American doctor, William Beanes, who had been arrested in Maryland.  An American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was sent aboard to negotiate Beanes’ release.  The negotiations were successful, but since the bombardment was about to begin, both Americans would have to spend the night on-board.

In the fading twilight, Keys and Beanes saw the U. S. flag standing over the fort. Through the bombardment of the night, they saw that same flag illuminated by the red glare of the rockets and bombs attacking the fort.  But in the early morning hours, the bombs and rockets had ceased.  And the thought running through the mind of the two Americans aboard the English warship, and the thoughts of all Americans everywhere aware of the fight, was the same: which flag, British or American, would be seen towering over the fort in the mornings light?

This, then, is the question of the first verse:

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 watched, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets’ 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?

It is the neglected second verse which actually gives the triumphant answer:

On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist 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 on 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!

The siege has failed, and the English have no choice but to head home. Verse three may seem a bit over the top to us today (and indeed, its verses were never sung in World War II, when England was our faithful ally).  But we must make allowances for the situation of America in the first years of our republic, when it did seem England was threatening us with either endless war or a return to colonization.

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 footstep’s 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.

The last stanza is actually my favorite, because it mixes patriotism (our cause was just in that war, and worth fighting for) with piety, in the best way.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n – rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto–”In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

 

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  1. Daniel

    06/14/2011 at 11:46 am

    Interestingly, Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote a fifth verse to the song duing the Civil War, which was printed in many songbooks of the era:

    When our land is illumined with liberty’s smile,
    If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
    Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
    The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
    By the millions unchained,
    Who their birthright have gained
    We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
    While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

     
  2. chris

    06/14/2011 at 2:52 pm

    There are a few things which must be taken into consideration…
    1.) Baseball season is almost year round.
    2.) Baseball games are slooooooow

    Therefore, if the full song were to be performed…well, you get the idea. [this is a cop-out for "I can't think of a punchline"].

     
    • Daniel

      06/14/2011 at 3:00 pm

      Baseball IS slow, and life is too short to watch more than one game a decade.

       
    • Daniel

      06/14/2011 at 3:07 pm

      How about at least two verses at the Superbowl?

       
      • chris

        06/14/2011 at 3:19 pm

        I say that before singing at the superbowl, they ask everyone in the stadium to raise their hand if they know the definition of a rampart.

         
        • Daniel

          06/14/2011 at 3:22 pm

          I always figured it meant graffiti along the interstate exits…but I could be wrong

           
        • Anonymous

          07/04/2013 at 5:04 pm

          if we had publik school then no one knows the word Rampart but many thinks Socialism is for only Social people another urban myth
          yikes what will they do when voting next year & 2016
          vote for something and find out later and get voters remorse !!

           
      • addison

        01/03/2013 at 6:19 pm

        stop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

         
  3. Bill

    06/19/2011 at 7:55 am

    Mixing patriotism and piety is a good thing?

     
    • Daniel

      06/20/2011 at 11:52 am

      Eh, what I meant was that patriotism is only virtuous when it is tempered by piety. That is, not
      “my country right or wrong” but “America, God mend thy every flaw”.

      Btw, the lines of the last verse,

      “Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
      And this be our motto–”In God is our trust.”

      I have seen written as

      “Then conquer we must, if our cause it is just”

      Which I think better.

       
      • Anonymous

        02/12/2013 at 10:41 am

        yep and thats whats wrong with america we have taken god out so it wont be long till we fall

         
  4. Haughty host | Totheworldvaca

    04/22/2012 at 9:58 am

    [...] The complete Star Spangled Banner, with the story of its meaning …Jun 14, 2011 … 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, … [...]

     
  5. Craig

    06/01/2012 at 4:58 pm

    My copy of the lyrics, verse 4 second stanza reads

    “Then conquer me must, WHEN our cause is just
    And this be out motto, in God is our trust
    And the star-spangled banned in triumph SHALL wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave

    I wonder which is accurate?

     
  6. John

    06/14/2012 at 1:45 pm

    Wasn’t it Fort McHenry? I thought Fort McKinley was WWII.

     
    • Daniel

      06/14/2012 at 2:49 pm

      Good catch. I just fixed it. Thanks.

       
      • siona

        11/19/2013 at 1:42 am

        your welcome

         
  7. Chance Powers

    11/06/2012 at 1:15 pm

    I am going to studio soon,
    I am going to do it, all the verses.
    What do you think…lol

     
  8. Benji

    11/18/2012 at 11:01 pm

    um..rampart is a defensive wall dingaling.

     
  9. addison

    01/03/2013 at 6:18 pm

    this looks like more of the story and not the meaning i have to do a essay on 1/4/13 which is tomorrow!!!

     
  10. Elsie Maholtz

    01/07/2013 at 1:19 pm

    It’s beautiful and I wish I could buy a recording of the
    whole thing like I heard on “The Hound” If you could
    help me please write to me/
    Thank You,
    Elsie

     
  11. Jonathan S. Nowak

    01/18/2013 at 3:33 am

    Wasn’t the song made for Baseball, specifically to be sung in Atlanta…

    You know… The “Land of the Free and the Home of the Braves”

    (drumroll…. Thank you, I’ll be here all week)

     
  12. lottie hickman

    02/10/2013 at 2:42 pm

    Very powerful,educational and heartfelt meaning that took you back where they were and what they were feeling.My eyes filled with tears as my heart beat with admiration for our VALIANTE MEN OF WAR.

     
  13. pbj

    05/22/2013 at 10:09 pm

    Know what i hate? When people do their projects last minute.

     
    • Anonymous

      12/12/2013 at 8:50 pm

      Why

       
  14. KAREN C.

    01/12/2014 at 2:52 pm

    Our forefathers gave up so much for their country – homes and fortunes – and they knew what it meant to be free – They did Priase the Power that made and preserved this nation. And this be our motto “IN GOD IS OURTRUST” so impressed the young congress that they put it on all our coins. We should all learn at least the first and fourth verses.

     
  15. Oh Say, Can You Sing? | Sunday Homilies

    02/18/2014 at 6:35 pm

    [...] American, whether we can sing or not, understands the significance of the words, “Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Oh, say does that star-spangled [...]

     
  16. Danielle

    03/18/2014 at 7:23 pm

    i love the star spangle banner it reminds me of faith ,hope ,and love for the people who fights for are country i really apreciated all the people who fought for are country it really shows that you and oher people care ……THANK YOU SO MUCH

     
 
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