NATIONAL MALL, WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, you can see the original Star-Spangled Banner. They keep it under low light in a tightly controlled environment. Way back, they used to haul it out and fly it on the Fourth of July. But after all these years, the threads are bare, the colors washed. It’s the same with the Declaration of Independence at the National Archive — the words are fading from sight. Still, young and old alike press their faces down closer to catch a glimpse of where this all began.
Up the road in Baltimore, at Fort McHenry, you can stand just under where our broad stripes and bright stars waved on that September night of 1814. Only three weeks before, British troops burned down Washington. They struck so fast, they found food on the table in the White House — still warm — so they had a meal before setting it ablaze, too.
It was looking like our young Republic wouldn’t survive childhood, as the mighty British Navy sailed north to take Baltimore, control Chesapeake Bay and win the War of 1812. As you walk that provident spit of geography and imagine the men dug in behind the thin battlements, the improbability of it all becomes obvious. Francis Scott Key, out in the harbor during that long night of bombardment, was on a deathwatch. He would witness the end of America. But, at dawn’s early light … well, we all know what happened next.
Flash forward to the Fourth of July, 2011, on the West Lawn of the Capitol, where my family joined the sea of humanity to watch the concert and fireworks.
John Adams wrote that this day ought to be a “great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”
Adams would have liked this party.
At the end came “The 1812 Overture,” with rockets glaring red over the Washington Monument, and U.S. Army cannons blasting away. Smoke from the fireworks obscured some of the show, reminding me of that long, desperate night outside Baltimore, the fading colors of the Star-Spangled Banner and Thomas Jefferson’s slowly vanishing words. Each successive cannon blast provided the punctuation, reminding us how much we need to keep these things alive in our hearts.
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.