“ ... O’er the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Just!”
A pacifist in this modern day and age and so complex a society is truly conflicted. I get a lump in my throat when I sing the Star Spangled Banner. Moi, the Pacifist?! Yeah, me. Well, I know where the song was coming from. It's a moving and stirring story which has more to do with the human spirit than with rockets and bombs.
Why include this in Pacifist Nation? Well, the flag has to be one of the most loaded icons in Americana. Patriots worship it and protesters burn it. I think that perhaps the biggest trap we can fall into is the “Us vs. Them”. If folk of radically differing minds are to embrace each other in fellowship then we must find common ground. And so I say first, “I can feel your emotional bond with the American flag and I, a pacifist, can explain just why and how I can respect your feelings.
“But I ask you to understand why someone who feels just as strongly a love for America as you can look on that same symbol with horror and disgust. Think of the crusades and the inquisition and imagine how a devout Christian can feel horror at what has been done in the name of Christianity. And then imagine how we, as devout Americans, feel about the slaughter of Native Americans, the incineration of citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the training and graduation of torturers and assassins of nuns and priests and the thousands of Iraqi infant deaths per month to this day, all at our hands, under the very same flag you so revere.
“Can we find a common ground, perform a ritual cleansing and vow that never again will evil be done in its name? Can we work towards a society of compassion and understanding and of respect for all humankind and the planet which clothes and shelters and feeds us? Then may we regard and honor the flag and the essential goodness it comes to represent.”
That being said, regard the Star-Spangled Banner, as Key so poetically immortalized it, in its historical perspective, divested of baggage past and future, and live, for a time, in the moment....
In the midst of the War of 1812, a Washington D.C. lawyer named Francis Scott Key has just secured the release of a prisoner from the British and is waiting out the battle of Ft. McHenry in a British sloop off the coast. Guarding the entrance to Baltimore harbor via the Patapsco River during the War of 1812, Fort McHenry had faced almost certain attack by British forces. It was, in fact, the most strategically vital point of the three-pronged attack launched. Victory over Ft. McHenry would be tantamount to America's defeat.
At the dawn of the new day, Key trains field glasses on the fort to see of he can ascertain the outcome of the battle. What he regards prompts him to set pen to the back of a letter: “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, 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?”
What can I say. I'm a sucker for a great lyric, a sentimental story. In her heart of hearts, would not even a pacifist, under those circumstances, rather see the American flag flying than the Union Jack?
Key was not, after all, there as a fighting man, but as a negotiator. Indeed, although he served for a brief period in the Georgetown Light Field Artillery, Key, a successful lawyer with an established a law practice in Georgetown, who had appeared many times before the U.S. Supreme Court, and was the brother-in-law of Roger Brooke Taney who served as Chief Justice and would administer the oath of office to Lincoln in 1861, was religiously opposed to the war.
A fellow named Tom Cavanaugh, in an delightfully written epilogue (“What You Don't Know about the Writing of The Star-Spangled Banner”) to his treatise, “The Road to Washington – British Army Style”, writes:
During the Revolutionary War, the British forces had, on rare occasions, burned government administration buildings in their sweeps through the rebellious colonies, destroying all the public records for the locality. During this war and the War of 1812, the government of the State of Maryland considered itself a likely target for British aggression, and so both times it had the state records transported from Annapolis to Upper Marlboro for safe keeping. As it turned out, Annapolis was spared during both campaigns, but, during the War of 1812, the town of Upper Marlboro was invaded by British forces, not once, not twice, but three times!
During the time that the British forces were in Prince George's County, they were so taken by the beauty of the towns and the countryside, that they tried to have as small an impact on the area as any invading army could. As the army passed through Upper Marlboro on their way to Bladensburg and Washington, and on their return, they caused no damage to the community (with the singular exception of butchering a large quantity of livestock.)
During the War of 1812 Dr. William Beanes, a local government official, was responsible for the safety of the state records while they were stored in Upper Marlboro.
As the British forces were withdrawing from the town of Upper Marlboro, two drunken stragglers were arrested by Dr. Beanes, and thrown into jail. One escaped, caught up to his unit and reported what had happened. A detachment of British soldiers returned to Upper Marlboro to free the imprisoned soldier and to arrest Dr. Beanes. This detachment, again, preserved the beauty of the area, and the state and county records survived.
In order to obtain the release of Dr. Beanes, the townspeople of Upper Marlboro enlisted the help of Mr. Francis Scott Key of Georgetown, and Colonel John Stuart Skinner of Croom. The two men traveled to Baltimore to meet with Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn to request the release of Dr. Beanes. After he was released, the three men witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and Mr. Key was inspired to write The Star-Spangled Banner.
No doubt, Dr. Beanes was a true patriot, and the sight of an invading army marching through his community on its way to invade his nation's capital gave him great pain. No doubt, seeing two of its soldiers drunk on the streets of his community was more than he could stand, so, without much thought to the possible reaction of the invading army, he placed them under arrest. No doubt, it hadn't occurred to him that he was exposing the records of the Maryland State Government, not to mention the records of Prince George's County, to the wrath of an unopposed force with a penchant for leaving flames in its wake. The fact remains that the writing of our national anthem is a direct result of the ill-conceived acts of an over-zealous public official.
© 1997 Tom Cavanaugh excerpted by permission [Thank you, sir!]
“... Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song? ...”
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, now conceals, now 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! O 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 wiped 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.
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner forever shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
If I may be so boldly presumptuous as to augment the inspired musings of Counselor Key, ...
By the new m'llennium's light may we inwardly strive,
Now, with all of our might for the peace that's within us
For the fighting is past, and a hope still alive
That we one day may see a great land built on justice.
Now we peacefully fight so that all have the right
To bask in the warmth of equality's light.
So now cleanse and purify that great banner we must
For the land of the free and the home of the just!
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