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Update: Following research on the account of the Attack on Fort McHenry presented below, I as the author feel it necessary to announce that I had some things wrong. The following is based off of a since debunked account of the attack, but I think that the slight embellishments do not take away from the overall message, especially given the fact that Key and the doctor he was sent to negotiate for would have been unaware of the full details of the situation around them. The circumstances and emotions under which the poem was written are what we should be thinking of, not the detailed historical account to which we are privy.
“The thing that sets the American Christian apart from the rest of the world, is that he will die on his feet before he lives on his knees.”
Francis Scott Key
September 14th, 1814
In the midst of this argument about free speech and Kaepernick and kneeling during the anthem, I think we’ve forgotten what that song, what that flag truly mean.
On the night of September 13th, 1814, the United States of America faced the full might of the British Navy. Our great nation, our independence, forged in the fires of a war our ancestors never imagined they could win, was at stake as thousands upon thousands of cannon blasted into the walls of Fort McHenry. Women and Children, as well as men and the courageous soldiers of the United States Army, endured the hellfire and fury of the oppressors from whom we had only so recently won our freedom.
The British Admiral was certain we’d surrender, and as he observed with bewilderment the unwavering spirit of the American people standing ashore, he asked Francis how their resolve could stand so firm under the barrage. Francis Scott Key turned to him and said those words. For hours upon hours, the British kept trying to take down that flag.
The American prisoners held below decks sat, in chains, listening to the battle for the fate of their homeland. They prayed and eagerly awaited news from Francis. Time and again he told them that the flag still flew. As the dawn broke, our nation’s fighting men held their ground. We had come through hell, and that piece of cloth, that glorious symbol of our people, our land, and our freedom, waved in the first rays of light which pierced the gunsmoke and fog.
Mr. Key was so moved, so inspired by the resilience and unbreakable resolve of his people, that he penned the poem that would one day become the anthem of this great nation. The song that would play to honor the country that tore itself in two and was made whole again, the men who went off to fight in two world wars far from their homes and families, the pilots who air dropped supplies into Berlin when it was occupied by the Soviets, the firefighters who risked life and limb to save strangers as the World Trade Center collapsed on our nation’s darkest day in many years.
He wrote an anthem, not only for our military or our emergency services, not just for free men and the rich, not exclusively for the politicians who manage our country, but for all of us. From the Walmart Greeter to the self made Billionaire, from the EMT school student to the Four Star General. From the little league baseball player to the Super Bowl MVP.
That song represents so much more than we understand in our day to day lives, and that flag is the symbol of a people unchained. So while yes, you have the freedom to disrespect it, you must first understand why it means so much to so many people. When you take a knee during that song, remember the word’s of our nation’s poet; “[The American] will die on his feet, before he lives on his knees.”
God bless the Flag, God bless the Anthem, God bless the people, and God bless America.