“Lest we forget”


Fort McHenry


I would like to wish all of the Americans out there a very happy Independence Day.  (For that matter, I hope that you non-Americans have a nice 4 July, too.  Even you folks in the United Kingdom.)


There have been fireworks going off around our neighborhood for the past several days, and tonight, of course, will be absolutely ablaze — though not, I hope, out of control.


Fort McHenry from the air


In the meantime, I thought I would post the entire Francis Scott Key lyrics for the national anthem of the United States, which we seldom hear but which, I believe, are worthy of reflection.


The setting, of course, is the British ship HMS Tonnant, situated in Baltimore Harbor on the night of 13-14 September 1814.  The War of 1812 between the British and their American former subjects was still underway, and Francis Scott Key, a lawyer, was aboard the Tonnant as the guest of three British officers during negotiations for a prisoner exchange.  He had seen and heard too much, though, and they kept him aboard the ship while British forces launched an attack on Baltimore.  All that he could do was watch, as British guns pounded Fort McHenry overnight.  Would American forces be able to hold out?  Would control of the city’s harbor be lost?  Would the flag of the United States still be flying over the fort at sunrise, or would it have been replaced by the Union Jack?


The British siege of Fort McHenry in 1814


O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs 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 shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


I’m not sure that I would have chosen “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.  It’s fairly difficult to sing, its lyrics relatively complex and its language somewhat archaic.  There are other pieces of music that I might frankly have preferred.  It was actually only declared the national anthem by an executive order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, which had little practical effect beyond requiring that military bands play it, and then by a congressional resolution that President Herbert Hoover signed in 1931.


But I’m not unhappy with the choice.  The lyrics, marked by Francis Scott Key’s deep religious faith, merit consideration.  (It’s far more than just a traditional opening — first verse only — for baseball games.)  Is this still “the land of the free”?  Are we as zealous in defending our liberties against external threats and internal encroachments as we ought to be?


The United States of America is — older usage would have said “are,” which was both grammatically correct and a healthy reminder of our now almost-forgotten federalism — the first nation in the world to have been founded not on the basis of trivial loyalty or sheer geographical proximity, let alone as the result of the territorial ambitions of kings.  It was explicitly founded on the basis of ideas and principles.  Do we remember those ideas and principles clearly enough?


“Washington at Valley Forge,” by LDS artist Arnold Friberg


In a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in December 1833, the Lord speaks of “the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established,” saying that they


should be maintained for therights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.  Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.  And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.  (Doctrine and Covenants 101:77-80)

Of course, the setting of “The Star Spangled Banner” amid cannons and explosions and its full-throated praise of military action (albeit in defense, rather than on the offense) give it a martial tone.


I don’t share the belief of some of my libertarian friends that the United States has become an imperialistic power.  That’s one of the reasons I cannot quite call myself a libertarian in the full, contemporary, ideological sense of that term.  But American leaders have flirted with the possibility more than a few times, have sometimes erred in that direction, and I do understand the concern.


Rudyard Kipling, ca. 1924


For this and other reasons, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional,” which has long been a favorite of mine, provides a helpful corrective or reminder:


God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!


“Lest we forget” has become a familiar phrase, though probably few remember its source, and the first three verses are familiar to Latter-day Saints as lyrics in the LDS hymnal.  I wish the hymn itself were sung more frequently.


Rudyard Kipling (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1907) was himself a supporter of what we now denigrate and condemn as British imperialism.  But “Recessional,” written in the form of a prayer for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, went directly counter to the celebratory and self-satisfied mood of many in that year, which was near the very high point of the British Empire.


As I write, I’m listening on KBYU-FM to Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” another very fitting piece of music for America’s Independence Day, and another opportunity for reflection.  There are many fine recordings of it.  Here is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, with narration from the great Gregory Peck:





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