Editor’s note: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked national outrage by refusing to stand for the national anthem at any NFL game. With that in mind, here is a report on little-known facts about the song.
On Sept. 13, 1814, just weeks after they burned the U.S. Capitol, the British attacked Baltimore, Maryland – the third largest city in America.
On their way, they caught an elderly physician of Upper Marlboro, Dr. William Beanes. The town feared Dr. Beanes would be hanged, so they asked attorney Francis Scott Key to sail with Colonel John Skinner under a flag of truce to the British flagship Tonnant and arrange a prisoner exchange.
Concerned their plans of attacking Baltimore would be discovered, the British placed Francis Scott Key and Colonel Skinner under armed guard aboard the H.M.S. Surprise. They were transferred to a sloop where they watched 19 British ships fire continuously for 25 hours over 1,800 cannon balls, rockets and mortar shells at the earthen Fort McHenry.
Fort McHenry was named for Secretary of War James McHenry, who had signed the Declaration of Independence. His son, John McHenry, fought in the battle.
President James Madison, who is known as the “Chief Architect of the Constitution,” had previously declared a national day of prayer, July 9, 1812, stating: “I do therefore recommend … rendering the Sovereign of the Universe … public homage … acknowledging the transgressions which might justly provoke His divine displeasure … seeking His merciful forgiveness … and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them.”
On July 23, 1813, Madison issued another day of prayer, referring to: “religion, that gift of Heaven for the good of man.”
During the battle of Fort McHenry, the citizens of Baltimore extinguished every light in every window so that the British would not be able to use them to get their aim. A thunderstorm providentially blew in and rained so hard the ground was softened, allowing most of the cannon balls to sink in the mud.
With the darkness broken by lightning and the new exploding cannon balls, Francis Scott Key saw the dramatic scene of “bombs bursting in air.” On the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, “through the dawn’s early light,” Key saw the flag still flying.
Elated, Key reworked the words from a previous poem he had written nine years earlier to celebrate the American victory over the Muslim Barbary pirates titled “When the Warrior Returns from Battle Afar,” 1805:
In the conflict resistless, each toil they endured,
Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation,
And pale beam’d the Crescent, its splendour obscured
By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.
Where, each radiant star gleam’d a meteor of war,
And the turban’d heads bow’d to the terrible glare;
Then mix’d with the olive the laurel did wave,
And form’d a bright wreath for the brows of the brave.
Francis Scott Key’s new song, “The Defense of Ft. McHenry,” was printed shortly after the battle of Fort McHenry in the Analectic Magazine (Vol. 4, 1814). The song’s name was later changed to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and it became the United States national anthem.
The first verse is well-known, but the fourth verse had an even more enduring affect, as it contained a phrase which became the United States’ National Motto:
O thus be it ever when free men shall stand,
Between their loved home 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, 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,
Over the land of the free and the home of the brave!
After the battle of Fort McHenry, President James Madison proclaimed, Nov. 16, 1814: “The National Legislature having by a Joint Resolution expressed their desire that in the present time of public calamity and war a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States as a day of public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessing on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace. … I … recommend … offering … humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance … that He would be graciously pleased to pardon all their offenses against Him … that He would in a special manner preside over the nation … giving success to its arms.”
Francis Scott Key was a board member of the American Sunday School Union and the American Bible Society. He told the Washington Society of Alexandria, March 22, 1814: “The patriot who feels himself in the service of God, who acknowledges Him in all his ways, has the promise of Almighty direction, and will find His Word in his greatest darkness, ‘a lantern to his feet and a lamp unto his paths.’ … He will therefore seek to establish for his country in the eyes of the world, such a character as shall make her not unworthy of the name of a Christian nation.”
Francis Scott Key wrote a detailed account of the battle of Fort McHenry to Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, John Randolph, Oct. 5, 1814. John Randolph was a U.S. Congressman from Virginia who went on to become a U.S. Senator, 1825-1828. President Andrew Jackson appointed John Randolph as U.S. Minister to Russia, 1830.
Francis Scott Key shared his faith with John Randolph: “May I always hear that you are following the guidance of that blessed Spirit that will ‘lead you into all truth,’ leaning on that Almighty arm that has been extended to deliver you, trusting only in the only Savior, and ‘going on’ in your way to Him ‘rejoicing.'”
Rep. John Randolph wrote to Francis Scott Key, Sept. 7, 1818 (Hugh A. Garland, “The Life of John Randolph of Roanoke,” New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1853, Vol. II, p. 99): “I am at last reconciled to my God and have assurance of His pardon through faith in Christ, against which the very gates of hell cannot prevail. Fear hath been driven out by perfect love.”
In 1817, John Randolph was one of the founders of the “The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America” which helped found the country of Liberia, West Africa, in 1821-22.
John Randolph wrote to Francis Scott Key, May 3, 1819, (Hugh A. Garland, “The Life of John Randolph of Roanoke,” New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1853, Vol. II, p. 106): “I still cling to the cross of my Redeemer, and with God’s aid firmly resolve to lead a life less unworthy of one who calls himself the humble follower of Jesus Christ.”
Rep. John Randolph made Francis Scott Key the executor of his will. In his will of 1819, John Randolph arranged for all his slaves to be freed after his death, writing: “I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one.”
In his will of 1822, John Randolph also provided money for transportation, supplies and the purchase of land for his freed slaves to settle in the free state of Ohio. Each slave above the age of 40 was to receive 10 acres of land. Randolph’s Will was challenged in court but after a lengthy battle it was upheld.
The 383 former “Randolph Slaves” arrived in Cincinnati in 1846. They overcame many difficulties and local prejudices, and eventually settled Rossville, Ohio, near the town of Piqua. In Rossville and Piqua, they established Cyrene African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1853, Second Baptist Church in 1857, an African Baptist Church in 1869 and a Jackson African Cemetery in 1866.
From this settlement came some of the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. military during the Civil War. In their Jackson African Cemetery, founded in 1866, one of the gravestones has engraved on it: “Born A Slave – Died Free.”
Rep. John Randolph wrote to John Brockenbrough, Aug. 25, 1818 (“Collected Letters of John Randolph of Roanoke to Dr. John Brockenbrough,” Kenneth Shorey, editor, New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988, p. 17): “I have thrown myself, reeking with sin, on the mercy of God, through Jesus Christ His blessed Son and our (yes, my friend, our) precious Redeemer; and I have assurances as strong as that I now owe nothing to your rank that the debt is paid and now I love God – and with reason. I once hated him – and with reason, too, for I knew not Christ. The only cause why I should love God is His goodness and mercy to me through Christ.”
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