Reflecting on the Star Spangled Banner and the U.S. Constitution

Reflecting on the Star Spangled Banner and the U.S. Constitution

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SAN JOSE – September 17, 2014 – 200 years ago, in September of 1814 as the United States of America fought with Great Britain during the War of 1812, the survival of the United States seemed quite uncertain.

It is not usually looked upon as a crisis of the Constitution of the United States, but without the survival of the United States, there would not have been the survival of the Constitution. In many respects, that conflict with Britain can be understood as originally precipitated by ignoring the letter of the Law of the Land. Within the impending doom that had descended upon America from across the Atlantic, a segment of the population remained steadfast and faithful to the vision of the Founding Fathers.

Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” expresses such enduring faith.

Today, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” is recognized as the “Star Spangled Banner,” and except for the first verse, his words are essentially unrecognizable. Yet, Francis Scott Key expressed in his poem what he witnessed “by the “dawn’s early light” – that the Stars and Stripes were still flying above the fort that protected the city of Baltimore from assault.

In genuine foresight, Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, had instructed Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore to create the largest battle flag that could be sewn. He stated that, “It is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” The flag had to be sewn on the floor of a brewery and took 350,000 stitches to complete the 30 feet by 42 feet flag.

To most, the city of Baltimore was doomed by the onslaught of the Royal British Navy. Major Armistead was not hopeful and had evacuated the civilians including his pregnant wife to a pleasant country town inland called Gettysburg. Francis Scott Key had sailed out to the British flagship under a flag of truce to help the American prisoner exchange agent secure the release of his acquaintance, an elderly physician named Dr. Beanes. The admiral agreed to release the doctor, but the British fleet had unfinished business and the three Americans were ordered to remain on a British sloop until their business was finished. That business was to bomb Fort McHenry to dust.

The British fleet opened up a massive bombardment of the American fortress on September 13 and bombed the fort all day long. The British used heavy bombs and they had one advanced technology “rocket ship” that launched bright rockets with flaming tails to light up the darkening sky, and as night fell it began to rain. As the night drew on, the weather grew worse. Armistead replaced his battle flag with a storm flag, but from the British sloop. Key and Beanes could not see well during the ongoing bombardment through the darkness, the rain, and the smoke from the rockets and bombs. Once in a while they could make out the flag in a flash of light. Beanes had poor eyesight and kept asking Key whether the flag was still there. Unfortunately, Key could not make it out through the rest of the night.

The British bombardment of Fort McHenry lasted for 25 straight hours and it seemed as if all had been lost when the guns ceased firing somewhere between four and five in the morning of September 14 and it was not clear through the darkness whether the flag was flying was a flag of truce or the Stars and Stripes. Slowly in the light of the dawning sun, from around eight miles away, Key and Dr. Beanes could make out the enormous flag that Armistead had especially commissioned. Even the British were amazed that the American flag still flew above the shattered mud-brick ramparts. Francis Scott Key could not hold back his emotion and pulled an envelope from his pocket and began a rough draft of his poem.

Key went to an inn that night and finished writing the “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” He married his words to a familiar tune from a song he knew as “Adams and Liberty,” which was the anthem of the Federalist Party and one that had been used at political rallies. His words transformed the melody into a song of courage and national pride and unity. On September 17, he had the new song printed as a handbill and published in the Baltimore Patriot. By October of that year, the name had been changed to the “Star Spangled Banner” and was performed in public concerts. The irony was that the melody was from a British song titled “Anacreon in Heaven,” and Americans had stolen the melody — twice.       

This scene and sentiment as recorded by Key represents a poetic eyewitness account of a dramatic moment in American history. This single event in U.S. history, captured in the words of Key gave proof not only that the “flag was still there,” but that American resolve was still alive. The British Admiral ordered his armada to withdraw. The Royal Navy had flung everything they had at the Americans and they would not surrender. It earned them respect from many on the other side of the Atlantic. But the British had reason to hold the government of the United States responsible for helping to unleash the menace Napoleon upon Europe.

This conflict with Britain can be viewed in numerous ways, but from the British vantage point, President Thomas Jefferson provided Napoleon Bonaparte with 15 million dollars for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France with serious ambitions of taking control of all of Europe, and the cash helped him to eventually amass an army of 600,000 troops. He terrorized most of Europe and took control of one nation after another. During this time the British felt the U.S. government was aiding a tyrant by such a purchase, and by continually shipping goods to France. From such a view, it could be comparable to F.D.R. buying Korea from Imperial Japan for billions of U.S. dollars to expand U.S. interests in Asia.

From another vantage point, it is ironic that the U.S. Constitution had contained no provision to purchase foreign territory and incorporate it into U.S. territory. Initially, Jefferson believed he would need a constitutional amendment to authorize a president to do such a thing. However, even though he was concerned about the legality of such action, he was also concerned that Napoleon would change his mind before a constitutional amendment could be ratified. The intent had originally only been the purchase of New Orleans to protect American interests at the mouth of the Mississippi. Napoleon wanted to sell the entire territory and threatened to sell it to other interests, if the U.S. wouldn’t buy all of the territory.

Jefferson eventually seized the moment, bypassed the Constitution, and bought the entire chunk of land from the west of the Mississippi to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Although initially considered unconstitutional, the purchase was ‘viewed’ by Jefferson’s advisors that his capacity to enter into treaties with foreign governments authorized him to make a hasty purchase. This purchase was authorized by a Congress that was controlled by his party without much discussion. When challenged about the purchase by someone later, Jefferson claimed that it was such a good deal he couldn’t pass it up. Yet, deliberately bypassing constitutional limitations on the president, led to serious consequences.

One president’s bypass of the Constitution is another president’s crisis. Madison inherited the British naval assaults and tried to continue with Jefferson’s solution to the problem: an embargo of all U.S. commercial shipping. Today, Americans tend to think that the current administration is adverse to business, but when the truth is understood, Jefferson and then Madison significantly undermined American commercial interests as chief executives in the early 1800s – again acting outside the bounds of the U.S. Constitution. However, even worse circumstances unfolded as the nation entered unprepared into war with Great Britain. There was no navy of any significance, and the military was not ready for another war with the most powerful nation on earth. It turned out to be an incredibly dangerous war, although today it is a war that is practically forgotten.

It did not escape the British that the Jefferson’s purchase had helped to bolster Napoleon, and they took the actions on the high seas to curtail American support of the French tyranny. Eventually, the British had played a major role in the defeat of Napoleon after he had terrorized Europe. Under the Duke of Wellington, British forces had marched across the Pyrenees, and as military forces from Austria, Prussia, and Russia converged upon Paris from the east, the combined forces took control of the city in March of 1814. With the surrender of Napoleon, the British could turn attention to the impertinent United States. The British effort could have been aimed at re-conquering in less than 40 years from the time of the Revolution. It could have been disastrous.

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