Our National Anthem’s Two Questions

As we celebrate our nation’s independence, it might be worth recalling that the first stanza {{1}} of our National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” poses two questions but answers only the first, leaving the second for each generation to wrestle with.

Some of you may now be singing the song to yourselves, figuring out just what the anthem poses. Let me save you the trouble. The first question is presented in the song’s opening lines:

O, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”

In other words, did our flag survive the bombardment of Fort McHenry in what is known as the Battle of Baltimore in 1814? It was still flying, the lyrics assure us:

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

However, Francis Scott Key poses a second question–which he does not answer–in the last two lines of the first stanza:

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

I suspect that most of us do not think of it as a question. We sing it, loudly and proudly, telling the world that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave. But Key wrote it as a question, not an exclamation. So let’s ask Key’s question–about the America we live in now.

Can we describe America as ‘the land of the free’ when one quarter of our children are growing up in poverty, when the richest one-tenth of one percent of our population controls more wealth than the bottom half, when politicians in dozens of states are maneuvering to keep groups of people from voting, and when millions of college graduates are in debt and millions more leave college without a diploma but with a heavy debt burden? {{2}}

Can we call America ‘the land of the brave’ when we no longer call on our young people to serve but rely instead on a professional military–which our leaders send, over and over and over, to serve tours of duty in hostile environments and then fail to provide for when they return home?

This Independence Day we might want to think about how easily we can lose what we prize. We might ask if the America envisioned in ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is slipping away because we lack the lift of a driving dream and because we ask almost nothing of our young people…and very little of ourselves.

Could it be time to revive the idea of national service and reinstitute the military draft? What if all young people were obligated to give two years of their lives in service to our country? Serving in the military could be one choice, but it should be just one of a menu of options that we could come up with. In return, we taxpayers would commit to paying for two years of post-secondary education or training for young people after they serve..

Living in the land of the free should not be a free ride, nor should patriotism be an empty word.

What is your answer to Francis Scott Key’s second question?


[[1]]1. Who knew that Francis Scott Key wrote four stanzas? I did not. http://www.usa-flag-site.org/song-lyrics/star-spangled-banner.shtml[[1]]

[[2]]2. Each of these issues can be addressed (and is being addressed by good and earnest people), but I think this is akin to repairing lifeboats at a time when the ship of state may be off course.  We need to debate bigger changes.[[2]]

21 thoughts on “Our National Anthem’s Two Questions

  1. I tend to believe the words of Emma Lazarus, which were adopted by many in the civil rights movement: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” I tend to be skeptical of unbridled patriotism, jingoism, and American exceptionalism in all of its forms; maybe this is more a reflection of being a Jew, and growing up in a household in the 60s where acknowledgement of others’ civil rights informed the daily discourse. I choose not to stand up at sporting events where the anthem is played, nor do I sing it.

    You bring up an interesting point about the draft, and it’s one I have been discussing among my friends. Could this possibly be the answer to all the gun-toting nuts screaming about their freedoms and Second Amendment rights? Why is this movement, which often features seditious talk, so strong now? It’s not only due to racism regarding the citizen in the White House; it’s about something more. What is it these people think they are owed in a democracy?


    • John & Andrea –

      John, your post, and Andrea, your comment, are both right on point, and represent my ongoing discussions with family and friends.

      It’s also difficult for many of us to stand in a crowd with a straight face, hand over heart, and repeat the words in the Pledge of Alligence “…one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”. Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge, (except for the words “under God”), was not asking a question, but was rather making an assertion. But to many of us, the assertion was, and remains, patently untrue. But at least it remains a dream.

      Happy Fourth.


  2. What a important question for us to ask ourselves today. I will not hear or sing that song in the same way again.

    Because implementers of the Common Core State Standards are pushing for study of important primary documents of our country, inquiry into the intent of this section of “The Star Spangled Banner” could bring up introspection about how we have chosen to interpret our nation’s principles. Also it illustrates that a mark of punctuation can make a significant difference in meaning, an important lesson in itself.


  3. I agree with putting the draft back in place, but I don’t think it should just be young men. Two years of service for all citizens, male and female, up to retirement age would help all of us to serve, not just talk.


  4. This would certainly be an improvement over putting huge numbers of men in jail for minor offenses. The only winners there are the for-profit prison businesses.

    Great piece.


  5. Sadly, the powers that be seem to prefer putting huge numbers of men from poverty areas in jail enriching the livelihoods of the one percent who own equities that profit from high rates of incarceration.

    Two years of service would be wonderful.


  6. Great and timely column, John. Thanks for asking the right questions as we think about the direction of the nation. I too would introduce national service for all. it is a great leveler, and no one would get to avoid dealing with people different from themselves. My time in the military certainly exposed me to a huge range of people from literally all over the country, [including an African American and a white lad who were from so deep in the south that when they spoke with one another none of the rest of us could understand a word] and I feel I am the better for it.

    Thanks for once again challenging us.


  7. Pointing fingers will accomplish nothing. The issues are no one group’s responsibility to solve in my thinking, no matter what the issue is… It’s OUR (everyone’s) responsibility to identify what needs to be better, to put them on a community’s (small as a neighborhood, larger than a country…) list of issues, AND be willing to join with others on addressing one of the issues! Will everyone join; not initially, some likely never! But some will from the start and others will see the progress and join later. Will resources become available? For sure – good causes. Will we find great diversity in the groups? Absolutely.

    We don’t need rich people for their money (that’s their decision). We don’t need people to make big changes in their values (unless done willingly). What we need is for everyone to GIVE OF THEIR TIME AND EFFORT!!! As A. J. Juliani said in a very recent blog, we don’t need engagement or involvement; WE NEED BUY-IN!!! These issues need broad acceptance that things can and should be better!!! Only then can we answer in the affirmative for that second question!!! Then, the broad service will happen – AND for all the right reasons.


  8. John, I like the questions you raise and believe we could do well to consider what seems to be Key’s unanswered query. But in fact, Key did answer the 2nd question. The reason we think he did not is because our tradition is to only sing the first stanza of the song and the answer comes in the fourth.

    “Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
    Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
    Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
    Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
    Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
    And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph SHALL wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

    Key tells us that the banner does, indeed, ‘wave o’er the land.’ What is in question is whether or not it wafts over free and brave people. To answer that, I think that we would do well to consider the questions you ask.

    Thanks for posting this. Happy 4th!


    • I read all four verses and decided not to delve into Key’s beliefs. He’s not really much of a poet, but I love the ambiguity of the first verse.


  9. My answer is that we have a corrupt IRS, a corrupt Justice Department, a corrupt Veterans Administration, a Department of Education which presides over ever downward spiraling SAT scores (but they have their own SWAT team), a feckless President, a Congress on the take and 47 million people on food stamps, half of which probably shouldn’t be there, but it has become a vote buying scheme. So we’ve lost it.


  10. John, You are confusing political freedom with economics. People who are “in poverty” in the USA are still free. People who make a ton of money (and there’s nothing wrong with that. Plus think of all the others they employ.) are free. People who owe student loans are still free, etc. Free enterprise is the best way to gain prosperity for all. People in the USA are politically equal according to our constitution. How they make their living and spend their money is totally different. Why should all people be economically equal when they make bad economic decisions. Or don’t have the intelligence to stay in school. Stop the whining!
    As for being brave – I am a former naval officer. I had to go in the military and cheated to get in at a time when others (sorry SOBs) were escaping to Canada. Don’t give me the BS about our troops not being brave. They volunteer for today’s military with their eyes wide open. Their job is to fight our enemies when their superiors tell them to go. They volunteered for that! Don’t ever go into a VFW or VA with that sorry attitude of our military volunteers not being brave. You and all other Americans are damn lucky to have our brave men and women out there protecting your freedom and rights that others around the world do not enjoy, for instance North Korea, China, Iran, much of Africa, Venezuela etc.
    Remember that the definition of a conservative is a liberal who is in a foxhole protecting your rights.

    Dave Schaefer


    • I am at a bit of loss as to how to respond. Has someone taken over your email and sent this nonsense out under your name? The 25% of children born into and growing up in poverty did not make a decision to live this way, and perhaps their parents did not either. Have you compared the educational opportunities afforded kids in, say, Greenwich or Palo Alto with those offered in East Saint Louis? The housing, health care, public safety et cetera in those communities?
      Whoever wrote this puts quotes around “in poverty,” as if that is some phony construct. Perhaps the writer ought to try living on $12,000 a year.
      There’s nothing in my prose to suggest that I believe in or am arguing for ‘economic equality.’ Bringing up our current economic inequality–the greatest since the Depression–does not mean the solution is equal shares for all. It just means that I think we need to look at the reality and ask if it’s healthy for our society.
      After World War II and during LBJ’s effort to create a “Great Society”, America invested in the higher education of its citizens, reasoning that if they got an education and a good job, they would repay society in taxes, good citizenship, et cetera. Then we made a social shift (from grants to loans) in education, shifting the burden to ‘you you you,’ which I think is one marker for the beginning of today’s ‘me me me’ society and the consequent loss of community.
      I am thoroughly dismayed that the writer believes that I was impugning the bravery of our military. That could not be further from the truth. What I said was that we, as a country, need to ask more of our citizens, so they give back as much as they get from the privilege of being Americans.
      There was a guy named “Dave Schaefer” in my class at Dartmouth, but he had the benefit of a liberal arts education, and so I cannot believe that he would resort to such fallacious reasoning. If I had his email, I would warn him about the impostor who wrote the claptrap above.


      • John, thanks for your decades long efforts to highlight outstanding efforts, and challenge corruption and complacency.
        Some of us have worked for more than 4 decades to promote service as part of learning. We’ve helped create public schools that combine classroom work & community service. We’ve helped some students learn they could accomplish far more than they thought possible.
        But clearly, we have not accomplished nearly enough.

        Here’s a modest newspaper column that encourage families to help service part of the summer:


  11. There are a number of countries that still require mandatory service including Cuba. It doesn’t have to be military service. But everyone should be required to contribute something.
    In my day National Defense paid for graduate studies in exchange for teaching in poverty schools.
    Unfortunately in this day and age the focus doesn’t seem to be on others.


  12. Thank you for your thoughtful comments re the meaning of Independence Day, July 4.
    I appreciated your expressed concerns, calling our attention to Key’s questions.

    “Living in the land of the free should not be a free ride, nor should patriotism be an empty word.”
    Your words prompt me to yearn for all Americans to participate in an on-going conversation about
    the meaning of patriotism; what being patriotic would look and sound like, along with how and why.


  13. It is a great day to celebrate the vision of rights and freedom that infused the Declaration of Independence but to remember that it was written by a brilliant Virginian whose wealth was all in the slaves he owned, who hated the slave system but never did anything serious politically or personally to change it. It very sad to reflect that 238 years later we still are far from resolving the original sins of slavery and its lasting impacts, of genocide against many Indian communities and of failure to extend full rights to the people whose nation was cut in half by the Mexican-American war. It makes me angry to see our courts interpreting away many of the rights achieved in the civil rights revolution, which often used the language of the Declaration of Independence in urging the nation to make its promise real for all. I had the profoundly moving experience of listening many times to Martin Luther King speaking in African America churches and elsewhere in Chicago, weaving together the language of the Declaration, which says we are all endowed by our creator with rights more fundamental than the policies of unjust governments with the language of the Bible its stories of struggle against injustice. Now we seem to be adrift, with a Court ending policies against segregation and inequality but which sees corporations, gun owners, and whites opposed to civil rights laws as groups needing its special protection. There is too much passivity as an almost all-white party pushes us further and further in narrowing the vision of the Declaration and moderates and progressive seem too passive. We need to enjoy the celebration, the fireworks and cookouts, but also think about what is truly worth celebrating and seriously rededicate ourselves to creating true and “inalienable” rights for all in a changed society where true freedom for too many of our people is shrinking.


  14. John, I don’t know what you’ll think of this poem, but after reading your piece and being put off by the music in the grocery store, I wrote it. Can’t not send it. Frank

    I see Native Americans driven from their homes
    In the hundreds of thousands, thousands of miles
    Into country that is not a land of the free, but
    A land of the arid, the destitute, of inopportunity
    Moved for the advantage of Euro-Americans
    Pushed aside, isolated for decades and decades
    Ignored today as they hitchhike to reservations
    From employment along broken, dusty roads

    I see African Americans working in whose fields
    As sharecroppers and in factories as day laborers
    Forced into housing developments which no one
    Would choose for family if they were free to choose
    Freedom foisted on them a hundred-fifty years ago
    After a century without their home, without salary
    Without being allowed to read or write, or be free
    Of structure built around them by Euro-Americans

    I see Latino Americans arrive in the land of the free
    A land conceived and created by Euro immigrants
    To work in the homes of the brave white collars
    To picking blueberries and cotton and to slaughter
    Livestock beneath the veil of virtual slavery afraid
    To lift it for fear of removal and a return to their
    Homeland, security-less for their family and children
    While Euro-America dance like frightened lemming

    I see the Land of the free & the Home of the brave
    Shipping hundreds, thousands, millions, billions
    In support of leaders of countries Euro gamblers
    Divided like poker chips among each other’s free
    World market slicing and dicing without regard
    Borders skewed like bad weather chasing the wind
    Euro-America continues blinded by dust created
    To confuse, twist, cajole us in a blatant history


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