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Opinion | The most important word in ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

Like the others in the crowd at Baltimore’s historic Fort McHenry, I was held in rapt attention. It was clear that Ranger McFarland had polished his impassioned script at hundreds of these morning flag-raising ceremonies. His words inspired a deep, thoughtful, and passionate patriotism.

Mark Clague headshot
Mark Clague is a professor of music and American culture at the University of Michigan and the author of, “O Say Can You Hear? A Cultural Biography of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”

The ranger stood at the base of an 87-foot bright white, wooden flagpole. At this very spot, U.S. Major George Armistead had dared the British enemy to attack during the War of 1812. The ranger explained that Major Armistead had commissioned a giant American flag for a specific purpose. Flying over McHenry, the flag sent a message of defiance far and wide to the British Navy—then the world’s most potent seaborne force. The enemy answered his challenge. After a 25-hour bombardment by superior British bomb ships, that 30-by-42-foot flag — soon to be known as The Star-Spangled Banner — caught the eye of poet Francis Scott Key, signaled victory, and inspired the lyric that is now the National Anthem of the United States.

Ranger McFarland asked us to shout out a word that captured what the flag meant to each of us. The words rang true: “Liberty,” “freedom,” “heroism,” “protest,” “commitment,” “sacrifice,” “hope,” “devotion,” “democracy.” His question created a welcoming vision for the nation that was capacious enough to hold us all. As a historian and teacher myself, I admired his skill.

A few hours later, I was wrapping up my own talk at Fort McHenry. I had spent ten years researching and writing a book about the U.S. National Anthem — “O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” It began as a single lecture for my first-year class on American music at the University of Michigan. My students knew little about the song. Their questions inspired a full-blown research project into what turned out to be a fascinating story, why the anthem was written, how it became so famous, and what it means today.

Borrowing Ranger McFarland’s trick, I asked my audience, what single word from our National Anthem was most important to them? “Brave” was the first reply. “Free,” “rockets and bombs,” “proof,” “perilous,” and “proudly” followed.

I think about the anthem a lot. What does it mean? Why do we sing it? Do we need an anthem at all? For me, anthems play a vital role in a democratic nation. To sing it together is to breathe life into the idea of the nation itself, to reaffirm the promise that the whole is more than its parts, that divided we fail but together we can thrive.

For me “The Star-Spangled Banner” works well as an anthem. To sing it together is a civic ritual of citizenship, a call to service. This is no accident. The words Francis Scott Key chose for his lyric reinforce the song’s call.

“Land of the free.”

The word “free” highlights the guiding principle of the nation. Democracy requires liberty. The freedom to speak your mind, to worship, to assemble. It is the freedom to live as equals with an equal vote and equal access to opportunity.

“Home of the brave.”

Democracy requires one to be “brave.” It takes courage to get involved, to stand up for what you believe and to share one’s opinion as a voter, as a protestor, as an elected official. The challenges we face as a nation can be terrifying. It takes courage to confront big problems. Courage to change. Courage to triumph. Maybe even more courage to fail trying and accept defeat. It takes courage to compromise and courage to be compassionate.

Proudly we hailed.”

Patriotism is central to a democracy. To serve others requires devotion, to one’s neighbors and community, to the idea of the nation itself. Throughout American history, however, no less than today, patriotism has been weaponized as a partisan cudgel. One tribe sees the other not merely as unpatriotic, but as un-American. Yet the point of patriotism is to discover a collective strength through national community. Patriotism must transcend difference, be it race or gender, politics or creed.

“O say can you see?”

Ultimately, I think that the most important word of “The Star-Spangled Banner” may be the word “you.” It is typically overlooked, but with this word, the anthem invites every American to be part of the story, to make “you” be part of the “we.”

On one hand, Key’s question is literal. It gives witness to the heroism of those who defended Fort McHenry in 1814. Outgunned by long-range British cannon against which they were powerless to respond, American defenders remained at their posts, protecting family and friends. They prevented the British fleet from entering Baltimore and routing the city’s defense from behind. Their devotion saved the nation.

On the other hand, Key’s question is also more personal.

What surprises folks most when I talk about the anthem is its concluding punctuation mark. We typically sing the anthem as a proclamation of greatness with an exclamation mark at the end. But this is not what Francis Scott Key wrote. 

His lyric ends more humbly with a question mark. 

His lyric does not broadcast jingoistic pride or shout down our foes. It is a song by an American for Americans. It asks each of us as Americans to respond, to give our own answer to friends and neighbors. Do you see what it takes to make a nation? Do you have the courage not just to be a citizen, but to answer the call and get involved?

To sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is to renew its fundamental question again and again. As a song, it can never be a passive symbol. The anthem must be sung, it must be brought to life and given voice. It is an ongoing act of commitment, a question that requests an answer.

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