Everybody knows that “The Star-Spangled Banner” boldly proclaims that our flag flies over the land of the free and the home of the brave. But in Francis Scott Key’s original 1814 manuscript for our national anthem, there are surprisingly more question marks than you might guess — including after the phrase “home of the brave?”
We only sing the first stanza of Key’s four stanza song. And it might surprise some people to learn that there are question marks after both “o’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming” and the “home of the brave” in the first stanza.
The National Museum of American History explains that the question marks are there to express a sense of fear and anxiety during the time it was written. It was during the War of 1812 and there were real questions about the future of our nation in the heat of battle. The question “does that star spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” made sense.
It’s easy to forget that the words to the national anthem describe a real battle during the War of 1812. The rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air aren’t just poetic flourishes — they were actual bombs and rockets being fired upon Baltimore’s Fort McHenry on the night of September 13, 1814, as the fate of a young nation hung in the balance. Francis Scott Key had secured the release of an American prisoner of war, but was held behind the British fleet arrayed in Baltimore harbour until after the attack on the Fort. He was powerless to do anything but watch as the British bombarded the American forces. The first stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner captures the mix of fear, patriotism, and anxiety that Key felt throughout the long rainy night of the battle. Does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave? Would he have a country to return home to?
All four stanzas to Francis Scott Key’s song end in the words “home of the brave”. But it should be noted that the other three have alternate punctuation, including an exclamation point (stanza two) and periods (stanzas three and four).
Americans, of course, have dropped the questioning nature of the first stanza and proudly declare our great nation to be the home of the brave. In fact, we should probably toss a few more exclamation points in there for good measure.
Pictures: American flag at Game Five of the World Series in San Francisco on October 26, 2014, via Getty; 1814 manuscript for the Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key via Smithsonian
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