The Star-Spangled Banner belongs to all Americans, but Marylanders get a special thrill when it is played. In many ways, they're playing our song.
The author of the words was a Marylander: Francis Scott Key was born at Terra Rubra in what is now Carroll County, was educated at St. John's College in Annapolis and married in the city as well, died in Baltimore and now reposes at the family plot in Frederick. And the words of the 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet commemorate one of the proudest moments in state history: the defense of Baltimore against British troops and the British fleet in 1814.
Baltimore this week will be marking the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore and the defense of Fort McHenry with an all-flags-flying patriotic festival. There will be tall ships, flyovers by the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and special ceremonies at the fort: a 9/11 ceremony on Thursday, and one set for the early morning of Sept. 14 — the 200th anniversary of the dawn by whose early light Key glimpsed the flag flying over Fort McHenry after a night of British bombardment.
The Battle of Baltimore ended a period of terror in Annapolis and the surrounding countryside. American forces had been routed at the Battle of Bladensburg, the nation's capital had been burned and the most powerful navy in the world had the run of the Chesapeake Bay. It would have surprised no one if Fort McHenry had been destroyed by the fierce British bombardment on the night of Sept. 13-14 — Key had real reason to worry that the flag wouldn't be there the next morning. When he spotted the banner, his pride and relief were genuine.
Key's words were set to a well-known British drinking song by John Stafford Smith. So, let's face it, there are national anthems with more stirring melodies — and ones that are easier to sing. But it's striking that a country sometimes accused of being full of itself has a national anthem that harks back to a time when the nation was small and weak, and there were well-founded fears that it could fall apart or be snuffed out. And the real patriots —we saw it again after 9/11 — are the ones who flock to the nation's banner when the country is in peril and its values are under attack.
Because Key's second, third and fourth verses are virtually never sung, The Star-Spangled Banner has one other oddity for a national song: It ends with a question: Is the flag still there? And perhaps the implicit challenge — the fact that it's up to us to supply an answer — is a good thing for Americans to remember. The night that fell on the nation with the destruction of Washington and the attack on Baltimore wasn't the first or the last for our country. The flag will still be there in the morning — as long as we are still the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Key may not have been a great poet, but he — and the brave men who defended Baltimore 200 years ago — gave us a great song, one whose 200th birthday is well worth celebrating.