What would life be like without symbols? We often use simple pictures to show complex ideas, with something small representing something big. Wedding rings mean marriage. Mobile phone icons lead to us take action. Flags represent nations.
Americans observe Flag Day each year on June 14, the day when the Continental Congress first issued the U.S. Flag in 1777. This year’s Flag Day is extra special because 2014 also the 200th anniversary year of The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem written by Francis Scott Key, a Maryland attorney. The U.S. Flag, America’s most recognizable symbol, inspired Key to write his famous song’s lyrics.
But it was another set of broad stripes that initially worried him. The British military had burned the U.S. Capitol and White House on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812. Americans, both pro and anti-war, feared that British forces would try conquer other cities and force America to become part of England again. The editors of the Federal Republican-Georgetown, Key’s hometown anti-war newspaper, issued a call to action on September 1, 1814: “Unless the country is to be abandoned by the people . . . that every man should awake, arouse, and prepare for action.”
That same day Key learned that the British military had captured his friend, Dr. William Beanes. While Key had opposed the War of 1812, he desperately wanted to rescue his friend. Gaining permission from President James Madison, he set out by boat with John Skinner, the US prisoner of war negotiator, from Baltimore to find the British fleet and negotiate for Dr. Beanes.
The broad stripes that first greeted Key on September 7, 1814, however, were hardly glorious to him. When he came upon the British fleet, he likely saw the Union Jack, Britain’s national flag.
By combining the crosses of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, this banner showed centralized royal power. Running across the center was a broad red stripe, which represented the single sovereign reigning over them. Another bold red stripe ran vertically to form a cross, suggesting Christianity as the crown’s authority.
Key was loyal to a different set of broad stripes, ones that symbolized representation, not royalty. Years earlier on June 14, 1777, the first Flag Day, the Continental Congress created America’s first symbol, depicting the union of thirteen colonies turned into states. Congress wrote: “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white.”
A few years later in 1782, Congress defined the colors when it created the symbolic US seal, which features an eagle. They defined red as hardiness and valor. White stood for innocence and purity, while blue meant vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
Key knew that his flag held deep symbolic meaning as he stepped aboard the British flagship of Admiral Alexander Cochrane on September 7, 1814. Cochrane invited Key and Skinner to dine with him. Though he and another British officer agreed to free Dr. Beanes, they wouldn’t let Key, Skinner, or Beanes depart until after the British attacked Baltimore. “Ah, Mr. Skinner, after discussing so freely our preparation and plans, you could hardly expect us to let you go on shore in advance of us?” Cochrane explained.
Surrounded by Union Jacks for days, Key, Skinner, and Beanes stayed with the British fleet. Key was worried about Baltimore. “To make my feelings still more acute, the admiral had intimated his fears that the town [Baltimore] must be burned, and I was sure that if taken it would have been given up to plunder . . . It was filled with women and children.”
Starting on September 13, for more than twenty-four hours, Key watched the British Navy bombard Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore’s harbor. The staccato sound of rockets and bombs suddenly stopped the morning of September 14. Gone from the fort was its small storm flag.
Through his spyglass, Key must have held his breath during the silence as he wondered what would happen next. Would the Union Jack or a white flag of surrender appear at the top of Fort McHenry? Relief swept through him as he saw the giant thirty by forty-two foot U.S. flag soar to the top of Fort McHenry. While the men at the fort played Yankee Doodle, Key’s emotions took flight. Phrases such as “O say can you see” and “by the dawn’s early light” pulsed through his heart and pen. By the time he returned to Baltimore two days later, he’d written lyrics for a poem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Key’s genius is that his words were so inspirational, they could be applied to many generations and situations, not only to Fort McHenry and Baltimore. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Key had given the land of the free its anthem for the ages.
Flag Day special because it gives us a chance to fly our flag, which is not only our nation’s top symbol but also the inspiration for our official top song. Life would be less meaningful without symbols like our flag and songs like our national anthem to inspire us.
Jane Hampton Cook is an award-winning author and a former White House webmaster. The author of nine books her latest is "The Burning of the White House: James & Dolley Madison and the War of 1812." For more, visit her website, janecook.com.