Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Land of the Free

It was Francis Scott Key, as most of you know, who penned the words to “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. What you may not know is that it was eighty years ago this week, on March 3, 1931, that Key’s composition officially became the national anthem.
Key (1779-1843) was a lawyer and amateur poet, and his poem written in 1814 was first titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” (It is interesting to note that the British spelling of defense was still used.)
During the War of 1812, which did not end until February 1815, Key watched the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The next morning, September 14, 1814, Key was able to see a large American flag still flying above the besieged fort. That was his inspiration for the poem. (It is also interesting to note that Key’s poem was set to the tune of a British drinking song, which was popular in the United States at the time.)
It was on March 3, 1931, then, that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Key’s re-named poem, was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution and subsequently signed by President Herbert Hoover.
Although we don’t usually hear more than the first verse of the national anthem, all four verses end with the words about the flag flying “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Those are words that most Americans like, and for good reason.
It recently dawned on me, however, that at the time Key wrote those words, there was a large segment of the people living in the United States who were not free. In 1810 there were more than one million (!) slaves in the United States and more than 110,000 in Maryland where Key wrote his famous words about the “land of the free.”
At that time in American history, women did not have complete political freedom either, as they did not have the right to vote. And even though Key extolled the “land of the free” it was more than a century later before women were free to vote.
Of course, by 1931, thankfully, slavery had become a thing of the past (even though racism was still deeply embedded in the country) and women had gained the right to vote (a whole 10½ years earlier).
But is this the land of the free now? Certainly, for most of us. But still there are problems.
The well-known words on the Statue of Liberty contain this appealing invitation, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Probably most of those who came to this country from Europe, as did the ancestors of many of us, came for economic freedom rather than for political or religious freedom. That was the case for the Neigers and the Abplanalps from Switzerland, my ancestors who most recently came to this country.
But now within our society there is considerable animosity toward people who recently came to this country for economic reasons, especially, of course, toward those who came "without papers." But that animosity extends even to their children who had no choice in the matter, as seen in the defeat of the DREAM act in the U.S. Senate last December. 
The next time we sing about the land of the free, perhaps that should help us to be more sympathetic towards others who now want to enjoy the same freedom that so many of our ancestors came to this country to have. 


  1. It's such an odd contradiction in the American soul--this openness to and embrace of the disempowered, dispirited, and vulnerable, on the one hand, and our jingoistic-America-first-xenophobic self, on the other.

    Thanks for the information on "The Star-Spangled Banner."

  2. "Free" is definitely a relative term. For many in our country, they are free, but also discriminated against. I can easily think of those who are gay and lesbian who are not free to share with their life partner the same benefits of marriage that Carolyn and I enjoy...from the act of marriage, visiting rights in a hospital, to tax benefits.

    Others may argue that they are not free to make their own choices because the government decides for them...seat belts, helmets, speed limits, paying taxes, some exterior home improvements if you live in a historic district, health care, and the list goes on.

    It might be good to have a deeper discussion on the definition of freedom. Many would say Key was talking about the freedom that comes without tyrrany and being subjected to unjust laws when you have no say in the matter. And still others would say that tyrrany is still alive and well today.

    Why do we romanticize the idea of freedom that gave birth to our nation, yet we want to withhold some freedoms from our citizens.

    Which "freedom(s)" are we singing of when we sing that last phrase of our national anthem?

  3. At least since the days when Socrates was confusing people by asking them to define critical terms like justice, or freedom, we have had to live with the embarrassing confession that our intellectual foundations are a jumbled mess. Voyages of inner discovery are worthwhile endeavors, but we should be humble in our expectations. We may learn more about our ignorance than our knowledge.

    Freedom is a work in progress. I hope and pray that our grandchildren and their grandchildren can do it better than we do.

  4. Yesterday I received the following comment from David McIntosh, a Thinking Friend in Canada, whom I was happy to hear from. He asked me to post what he wrote which, for some reason, he was unable to do directly. (I also was unsuccessful doing this yesterday for unknown reasons.)

    "According to some, a rival candidate for official adoption as national anthem was 'Battle Hymn of the Republic,' whose lyrics were written by Julia Ward Howe, also of 'Mother's Day Proclamation' fame.

    "If a nation's behaviour is affected by the beacon words of its anthem, selection of the God's-justice-centred Battle Hymn (even more so Mother's Day Proclamation) might have helped the US to avoid its long and continuing march of imperial aggression against peoples of darker skin."

  5. I am new to this blog, and I have some catching up to do. But this particular comment/thought resonates with me. I don't sing our national anthem, except for the last line...ever...and I am a huge UConn Basketball fan, and sports fan in general, so you can imagine the pain I feel to hear this 'war song' being sung so often. Do you know that it is one of the few national anthems that does not mention the nation? Just the flag. Nationalism frightens me.

    I realize that the 'freedom' in the last line is a hope...a dream...a work in progress, but how many wars are we going to wage in the name of freedom?...we, as a nation, mark history by our 'freedom wars'. Read "The Missing Peace", Carol Hunter.

    On the bright side, thinking people continue to strive for truth, keep working to find another way, continue challenging conversation about freedom....not license...trying to remember the partnering with responsibility.