Like many Americans, I like to spend this holiday relaxing, getting some sunshine, eating a veggie burger, and enjoying fireworks. The 58th annual Vancouver Fireworks Spectacular at Fort Vancouver is canceled this year. Still, this town loves fireworks, and I’ve heard them the last several nights.
I also plan to spend some time thinking about what this holiday means. I invite you to join me. What, exactly, are we celebrating? Why do we fly the flag? Why do we wear red, white, and blue? Why do we send loud sticks of fire into the air?
I really enjoy watching fireworks. I appreciate their beauty and the awe they inspire. But, there’s a much deeper reason why I enjoy those glittering streams in the night sky.
I’m sort of a patriotic nerd. If I’m sitting on the sofa while “The Star-Spangled Banner” comes up in the music playlist, I stand up and put my hand over my heart. It is stirring to hear that music and those lyrics.
A Dangerous Mission of Mercy
These days, when fireworks are a fun way to celebrate, it’s difficult to put ourselves in the mindset of the man who wrote those words. Francis Scott Key was a lawyer and an amateur poet. In September 1814, as the United States was fighting a war that began two years earlier, Key was on a mission of mercy.
An American doctor who had treated wounded British troops had been taken prisoner by enemy forces. Key was sent to negotiate his release. The doctor’s freedom was granted, but he and Key had to stay with the British until the attack on Baltimore was over.
Key had a view of the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a truce ship in the Patapsco River. Nineteen ships pummeled the fort with rockets and cannonballs for over 25 hours. The smallish storm flag that flew over the fort became tattered.
The Answer to the Only Question that Mattered
During the night, rain and rockets fell. The glare of the bursting rockets and bombs was the only way that Key could see whether the flag still flew. Once the barrage stopped, he had no way of knowing the result of the battle. As the sun rose the next morning, he had only one question on his mind.
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the morning of September 14, the storm flag no longer flew over Fort McHenry. It had been taken down. The small, tattered flag had been replaced by a huge American flag — measuring 30 feet by 42 feet. This is what Key could see by the dawn’s early light.
It wasn’t a huge piece of cloth that heartened Key. It was what it represented. Immediately, it represented victory. The flag was still there. Ultimately, it represented the land of the free and the home of the brave. Granted, not all were free (and not all were brave), but it was an ideal in which America was conceived. It was a proposition to which America was dedicated, as President Lincoln would emphasize on yet another battlefield.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written 38 years after America declared its independence. The Gettysburg Address was given 87 years after the United States was born. As Key and Lincoln saw firsthand, the labor of liberty was not yet done. The labor of liberty is never done.
While we enjoy sparklers and potato salad, let us consider what this holiday truly means — and what it fully requires. May each of us dedicate ourselves — in whatever way we are called — to the labor of liberty.