Tomorrow is the 238th anniversary of our declaration of independence from British rule, and it is hard to believe that for 155 years the U.S. did not have a national anthem. There were two patriotic songs that were frequently sung as an unofficial anthems.
The words of one of them were inspiring, easy to remember and sing, so it was quite popular: “My country ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrim’s pride, From every mountain side, Let freedom ring.” Containing four verses, it was written in half an hour as an assignment, by an Amherst Theological Seminary student in 1831, and first performed on July 4. The problem, of course, was that it was set to the British national anthem, “God Save the King (Queen)”.
The second was a poem written by Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, inspired in 1893 by the view from the summit of Pikes Peak and the wonders of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Combined with a hymn composed in 1882 by Samuel A. Ward, it was first published in 1910 as “America, the Beautiful,” and immediately became very popular and widely regarded as our national anthem. “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed his grace on thee, And crown the good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea!”
As inspiring as these words are, the fourth verse contains a claim that was certainly untrue at the time, and remains unfulfilled to this day — which would be an embarrassment.
“O, beautiful for patriot dream, That sees beyond the years. Thine alabaster cities gleam, Undimmed by human tears!”
In 1931, the “Star Spangled Banner” became our national anthem despite its range and convoluted syntax (which makes it hard to sing and remember the words to), primarily because the music was popular with and regularly played by military bands. Those words were written by a lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, on the day after an unsuccessful 24-hour British naval bombardment of Fort Henry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor on Sept. 13, 1814.
What is unusual about it becoming our national anthem is that it commemorates a single event in a war that was certainly not an illustrious part of our history. Responding to the British navy’s interference with our trade with its enemy, France, and the impressment of American sailors on the high seas, the U.S. declared war on Britain on June 8, 1812, despite having no standing army and a very small navy.
The war started with an invasion of Canada by untrained volunteers led by incompetent officers. Despite their great superiority in numbers, they were routed by a handful of British regulars supported by Canadian militia and Indian allies, and forced to surrender, opening Ohio to enemy occupation. Results at sea were somewhat better, but had little effect on the course of the war. However, Commodore Perry’s victory on Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813, and Commodore MacDonough’s on Lake Champlain a year later, did remove any further threat of invasion from Canada.
The defeat of Napoleon early in 1814, freed up British military and naval forces for the war with the U.S. Britain tightened its blockade of American seaports and sent forces ashore, who entered the virtually undefended city of Washington and burned many of its public buildings, and went on to attack Baltimore, which ended in a stalemate. The only real American military victory was the lopsided Battle of New Orleans which took place on Jan. 8, 1815, two weeks after a peace treaty had been signed in Europe, but before the news reached America. Unsurprisingly, the War of 1812 was unpopular with many, particularly in the New England states, which refused to send troops, and even threatened to secede.
There are two other unusual facts about our national anthem. First, it is sung to the tune of a somewhat bawdy tavern drinking song imported from — you guessed it — Britain, and it both begins and ends with a question. The latter question is “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?” The answer to that question is up to us. Think about the freedoms we are in serious danger of losing — tomorrow and whenever you sing our national anthem.
— “As I See It” appears on the first Thursday of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.