Broad stripes, bright stars
We’re veering off-topic today. This is a Baltimore blog, and last Wednesday was Defenders’ Day in Baltimore.
Defenders’ Day marks the Battle of Baltimore over Sept. 12-14, 1814, the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the Royal Navy and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The official celebration fell on the weekend before, and it is echt Baltimore.
My wife and I have been only once — management scum I may be during the week, but on Friday and Saturday nights I do honest work on the copy desk — when I was able to get free on a Saturday evening. These are the elements of a Defenders’ Day observance:
* Baltimoreans gathering with blankets and folding chairs on the grass outside the fort as the sun goes down and the breeze comes up from the harbor.
* A short concert by a military band.
* A drill by War of 1812 re-enactors in period uniforms, with the smoke of black powder from their muskets drifting over the crowd.
* A patriotic address by some notable.
* Fireworks, of course.
* The singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
And above the whole event flies a replica of the huge flag, its sewing overseen by Mary Pickersgill, the original now resting in the Smithsonian, that the fort displayed in 1814. (Never mind that the flag Francis Scott Key glimpsed through the night of the bombardment may have been a smaller “storm flag.”)
It seems particularly appropriate today that “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be the national anthem. “God Save the Queen” is more stately, despite its silly lyrics, and the “Marseillaise” is more stirring. Its superiority to the native competitors that have been proposed — “American the Beautiful” (treacly tune) or “God Bless America” (banal lyrics) — lies not in its difficult vocal range but in its words.
Written at a time when the young nation was under attack, invaded, the American militias trounced by the British regulars at Bladensburg, the Capitol and the White House burned, it expresses no cheap triumphalism. The first verse, the one that people sing and remember, ends with a question, a challenge to those who sing it. Are we still the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Though reading the first verse as a perennial question is not how Francis Scott Key intended his poem to be understood, it echoes a concern much on the minds of the Founders. When the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin was asked at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 what it had produced, he answered, the story goes, “A republic, if you can keep it.”