An Anthem with a Question Mark
We began the 4th of July in Winter Park where — along with watching kids ride decorated bikes (I remember doing that!) and eating hot dogs and watermelon — we heard the Bach Festival Choral sing the national anthem.
We ended the day hearing it again while we watched the fireworks over Washington and New York on television. I was struck again by the surprising realization that our national anthem begins and ends with a question:
“O say, can you see…?
“O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave?”
A Real Question
That was a real question for Francis Scott Key on the night of September 13, 1812. British troops had taken Washington and set fire to the White House. U.S. soldiers at Fort McHenry endured 25 hours of bombing. It was a “perilous fight.” Key watched in “the dawn’s early light” with anxious concern until he caught a glimpse of the “broad stripes and bright stars…so gallantly streaming.”
One of his verses we never sing repeats the question and answers it with a bold affirmation for the future.
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
The Question Remains
Every time we sing (or attempt to sing!) the national anthem, we are reminded that the vision of freedom the founders of this nation dared to proclaim and the values the flag represents are always up for grabs. The project in self-government they began is never completed. We are always on our way to forming “a more perfect union.”
Every generation is confronted with Lincoln’s question that haunts the rolling hills at Gettysburg, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
If you only read one book this summer, I hope it will be The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels.”
One of our finest historians helps us see our current political polarization in the light of the long history of our struggle to live up to the hope Lincoln described in his First Inaugural Address:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Meacham explores “several eras in which a politics of fear seemed to triumph, at least temporarily, over hope. That tension is a defining one in American history.”
I found it to be both disturbing and reassuring to remember that there has always been a dark undertow beneath our highest hopes for “liberty and justice for all.” The forces of racism, extreme nationalism, and fear have always been at work, tugging against the expansion of our nation’s vision of freedom and justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr., often said, “there is a moral arc in the universe that bends toward justice.” I believe that. Our history also shows us that there are always darker forces within and around us that would pull the arc back in a more repressive direction. But Meacham reminds us that across the years we have managed “to survive the crises and vicissitudes of history.”
The Battle for the Better Angels
Meacham brings history into the present when he answers this question:
How, then, in an hour of anxiety about the future of the country, at a time when president of the United States appears determined to undermine the rule of law, a free press, and the sense of hope essential to American life, can those with deep concerns about the nation’s future enlist on the side of the angels?
His answers deserve our attention:
Enter the Arena.
Respect Facts and Deploy Reason.
Find a Critical Balance.
Keep History in Mind.
O, Long May It Wave!
In his last words, written on the fiftieth anniversary of 4th of July, Thomas Jefferson called us to “let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
In spite of the “perilous fight” in which our nations appears to be engaged, the 4th of July lifts our eyes to see “the better angels” of our history and strengthens within me the confidence Jefferson expressed:
“I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on a steady advance…In, short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these and all who work for them.”
O, long may it wave!