A time to recommit to rule of law
Independence Day festivities are almost always associated with fireworks, picnics, and concerts. Celebrations of the nation’s Constitution in September, meanwhile, are usually more cerebral and muted. Those outside of public colleges and universities, which are mandated to commemorate the occasion, might not even know that the U.S. Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787.
An even more overlooked date is Sept. 14, which marks Francis Scott Key’s writing in 1814 of what would become known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The poem, later set to music, served unofficially as the national anthem long before Congress declared it to be such in 1931.
Key wrote the poem after the gallant defenders of Fort McHenry prevented the capture of Baltimore by the British in the ongoing War of 1812, which is often regarded as the second American Revolution. Although it accomplished almost no changes in the British policies against which the U.S. was fighting, the fledgling nation had demonstrated once again that it could stand up to the world’s greatest empire.
As Francis Scott Key anxiously watched the fiery British bombardment of Fort
McHenry from a ship, where he had come to negotiate the release of a doctor the British had captured, he had no way of knowing what the morning would bring. The first stanza of the song of joy that the dawn inspired appropriately opened and ended with a question: Was the flag, the star-spangled banner of a new American constellation of states, still waving? If so, was it still waving over “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” or was it waving over a people who were once again subject to a foreign king?
In his fourth stanza, Key attributed the victory (which depended in part on a piece of unexploded ordinance that was lodged in the roof of Fort McHenry’s powder magazine) to a higher power that “hath made and preserved us a nation.” He helped father an American motto when he concluded that “conquer we must when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’ ”
Our flag is an object of veneration, but, like other symbols, it remains capable of being utilized for propaganda and manipulation. Knowing that individuals are carrying a flag or flying a flag from the back of a pickup truck or shouting “under God” as they repeat the Pledge of Allegiance, tells us very little about the justice of their cause.
An iconic photograph entitled “The Soiling of Old Glory,” which was taken in 1976, the year of the U.S. Bicentennial, depicts an angry white teen in Boston attacking a defenseless African American man with the finial on the pole of the U.S. flag in his hand serving as a spear. More recently, protesters brought Confederate flags into the U.S. Capitol Building after they attempted to overturn the results of a valid presidential election and threatened to hang the vice president and murder the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
It feels great to “conquer” our enemies, but prevailing in internal party contests is unavailing and unrewarding unless the causes for which we are fighting are just.
As we celebrate the signing of our Constitution, we should recommit ourselves to the rule of law. As we sing our national anthem, we should similarly pledge to see that our nation remains free, that we remain brave enough to defend it, and that our cause remains just.
John R. Vile ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of political science, dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University, and author of “America’s national anthem: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ In U.S. History, Culture and Law.”