Wise Poets, Wise Poets of the Past

Francis Scott Key: On The Fence in Freedom’s Defense

Francis Scott Key: On The Fence in Freedom’s Defense

Francis Scott Key: On The Fence in Freedom’s Defense

Some poets are famous for only one poem, and Francis Scott Key, a Fredrick, Maryland lawyer is the amateur poet who was famous for writing the immortal words of America’s national anthem; The Star Spangled Banner.

He had boarded an English warship during the War of 1812 to secure the release of one prisoner of war by the name of Dr. William Beans. The War of 1812 was a naval war over maritime rights between the two nations on the high seas and the British bad habit of impressing American merchant seamen into into service in the British Navy. And it was in the morning after one especially fierce battle on September 14, 1814 that Key felt inspired to write the words of the poem originally entitled the “Defense of Fort M’ Henry”as he beheld the sight of a tattered American flag still flying high over Baltimore’s own fort, Fort M’ Henry. And the words are truly stirring.

The Star-Spangled Banner
Oh, 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 thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
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, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in 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!
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.
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!
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home 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!
But unfortunately this ‘ home of the free and land of the brave’ as expressed in the first stanza of this four stanza poem was not a totally free country; America in 1814 was still half slave and half free, and the poet himself was on the fence between the two opinions on the issue.

Key himself was a slave owner by the year of 1800, and for this, both he and his poem received bad reviews in abolitionist circles, but in Key’s defense, he was also a man who was experiencing a measure of personal growth in his morals and values, so he freed most of his slaves in the 1830’s and hired one man back and paid him wages to manage his farm. However Key was also a lawyer who played both sides by representing slaves who were trying to gain their freedom at no charge to them, but also he represented slave owners who were trying to recover their runaway slaves. So this man was definitely on the fence regarding freedom and liberty for all and still had a lot of growing to do in his views by his death in the year of 1843 (as did the rest of the nation).

And grow the nation did, but slowly, and it took the growing pains involved in fighting a bloody Civil War to bring civil liberty to everyone which was beautifully expressed in a fifth stanza added to the “Star Spangled Banner’” by poet Oliver Wendell Holmes eighteen years after Key’s death during the Civil War.

When our land is illum’d with Liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchain’d who our 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.

There were many patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “My Country Tis of Thee” being considered for the honor of being named America’s National Anthem, but on March 3, 1931 ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, now the anthem of the US Navy, was declared to be the National Anthem by the Congress of the United States and was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.

And America has been experiencing intense social justice growing pains ever since the Civil War and the penning of those poignant words and continues to struggle in the American quest for equality and freedom to this very day.

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