I remember the fear, uncertainty, and horror I felt on September 11, 2001 when I watched the World Trade Towers collapse on TV. I know all of you share that memory and those feelings with me. Now imagine how you would feel if this country was being invaded by an entire force of a foreign power.
In 1814, the British had captured Washington and torched the Capitol Building and the White House. In order to get a firm foothold on the American mainland, however, the British needed to take a major port. So they turned their guns on Baltimore. A young American lawyer was witness to that battle. He had been captured by the British and was being held in a British ship in the harbor. As dusk turned to twilight and then to night, he witnessed wave after wave of shells and rockets barrage Fort McHenry. He knew that if Fort McHenry fell, Baltimore would fall, and then the very survival of the United States of America would be in danger. A large American flag – fifteen stars on a field of blue and fifteen red and white stripes, flew over the fort. When the battle finally ended in the middle of the night, he did not know if it was because the British had been repulsed or if the Americans had been defeated. He stayed awake all night filled with worry and doubt and with the first light of dawn he strained to see through the early gloom and finally with certainty was able to make out the shape, and then with the advance of dawn, the red, white and blue of the American flag. The flag still flew and America still stood. Young Mr. Key was so relieved and so filled with hope and joy that he found a piece of parchment and a pen and quickly composed a poem that he entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” The opening lines are “Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?”
You may know the words to this poem. It became our national anthem. We all mouth them before baseball games while we’re mentally comparing the ERA’s of the starting pitchers. I suggest that if you have occasion to sing the national anthem today that you think about the situation that inspired the creation of the anthem. And think about what our country stands for – of the beauty of the land, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, from the purple mountains to the fruited plain; think of our history; how we fought for our freedom and then how we fought to expand that freedom for all who live here and all who come here; think of our people, a diverse group, who often don’t agree on much, but who all agree in the American principles of freedom and democracy and living together peacefully in spite of our differences. Every once-in-a-while we need to think about all of this and just sort of get worked up about it and allow ourselves to be filled with pride.
I had occasion to visit the Star Spangled Banner – the actual flag that flew above Fort McHenry – when I was at the Smithsonian last year. The flag is still there. It is battle-scarred and it’s showing its age, but there it is. The flag is still there. I left the exhibit with a lump in my throat.
The United States of America is also battle scarred and also showing its age. But there it is. Our country is still there. And I’m proud of it and glad that it is there for each of us.
Happy Fourth of July.