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The Star-Spangled Banner
The Making of an American Icon
The Star-Spangled Banner—Artifact and Icon
This Star-Spangled Banner and all its successors have come to embody our country, what we think of as America. . . . You can neither honor the past, nor imagine the future, without the kind of citizenship embodied by all our memories of this flag.
—President William J. Clinton, July 13, 1998
On the morning of September 14, 1814, jubilant U.S. soldiers raised a huge American flag over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, to signal a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet who had witnessed the intense battle from a truce ship several miles downriver, glimpsed the broad stripes and bright stars waving over the fort. The sight inspired him to write a patriotic tribute to "that Star-Spangled Banner" and those who had defended it, creating a popular song that eventually became America's national anthem.
Today, when Americans hear "The Star-Spangled Banner," few think of Francis Scott Key or the War of 1812. Although such phrases as the "rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air" refer to the events of a specifi c battle, the lyrics as a whole evoke universal feelings of patriotism, courage, and resilience. The song's reassuring message that "our flag was still there" has resonated throughout history in other times of national crisis—from the Civil War, to World War II, to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Its concluding refrain—"O say does that Star-Spangled Banneryet wave / O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"—is a question that every generation has continued to ask and struggled to affirm, in diverse and often contested ways.
By the time the United States Congress designated it as the official national anthem in 1931, "The Star-Spangled Banner" had outgrown the historical moment that inspired it and taken on a broader cultural significance. Likewise, the actual flag that Key saw that September morning in 1814, preserved today by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, has come to represent something much greater to the nation than the victory of a single battle. It embodies not only the memories of Francis Scott Key and the defenders of Fort McHenry, but also the story of how one symbol came to define and inspire an entire nation.
The meanings and memories embodied by the Star-Spangled Banner, both the flag and the song, reflect the evolving role of the American flag in American life. From its practical origins during the Revolution as a tool for identifying U.S. ships and forts, the flag eventually became the primary emblem of American identity, ideals, and aspirations. This change did not happen overnight, however; rather, it was the result of an accumulation of meaningful encounters with the flag, dramatic moments that evoked strong patriotic feelings and embedded the Stars and Stripes in popular memory. Today we carry images of such moments from photographs and television—marines hoisting the flag on Iwo Jima, astronauts planting the flag on the moon, firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero. In 1814, Americans experienced a similar kind of shared moment through the words of Francis Scott Key's poem, which was published and broadly circulated in the weeks after the Battle of Baltimore. By giving the flag a starring role in one of the most celebrated victories of the War of 1812, Key established a new prominence for the national emblem. And by naming it the Star-Spangled Banner, he transformed the flag into something familiar and personal that all Americans could claim as their own.
The Star-Spangled Banner, the garrison flag of Fort McHenry, was made in 1813 by Baltimore flagmaker Mary Pickersgill. Originally measuring thirty by forty-two feet, the giant banner had fifteen stars and fi fteen stripes, the standard U.S. flag design from 1795 to 1818. Like all national flags made since 1777, when Congress established the original design of thirteen stars and stripes, the Star-Spangled Banner was first and foremost a utilitarian object. Its primary purpose was to identify an American military installation. Contrary to popular myths that emerged decades later, the national flag did not play a significant cultural role during the Revolution; instead, other symbols like the eagle, Lady Liberty, or George Washington were more popular expressions then of national identity and ideals.
That would start to change, however, during the War of 1812. Although largely forgotten today, the conflict some called the "Second War of Independence" represented a critical moment for the young nation. In declaring war on Great Britain, the United States sought to prove itself in the international arena as a sovereign power to be reckoned with. Fueled by expansionist visions of Republican congressmen known as the War Hawks, it was also one of the most controversial wars in American history, provoking sharp debate and division along political, economic, and regional lines. Among those who opposed the war was Francis Scott Key, who wrote to a friend in 1813 that he would rather see the American flag lowered in disgrace than see it signaling victory in a war he considered immoral and unjust.
By the time British forces launched their attack on Fort McHenry, however, Key's perspective had changed a great deal. Just weeks before, on August 24, 1814, he had witnessed the British invasion and burning of Washington, D.C., following the overwhelming defeat of American troops at Bladensburg, Maryland. When he was later dispatched to Baltimore to negotiate the release of an American prisoner, Key found himself once more an eyewitness to history, detained on a ship during the British bombardment. The exultant song he wrote on the morning of September 14 not only celebrated a military victory but captured a moment of personal revelation and connection to the national symbol. Through his written tribute to that Star-Spangled Banner, Key shared a patriotic vision that would shape how many other Americans looked at their flag for generations to come.The Star-Spangled Banner
The Making of an American Icon. Copyright © by Lonn Taylor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.