These are the closing words of each stanza of our national anthem. The Star-Spangled Banner was written as a poem originally titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry” on September 14, 1814, by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 (June 18, 1812 - February 16, 1815). The war was a conflict between the United States and its allies and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and its colonies in North America and its allies. During the war, British forces took a prisoner named William Beans of Upper Marlborough, Maryland. and held him aboard a warship in Chesapeake Bay. With permission from President James Madison, two Americans communicated with the British for Beans’ release. The two Americans were Francis Scott Key, a lawyer, and John S. Skinner. Key and Skinner boarded the warship just as it was preparing to bombard Fort McHenry, which protected the city of Baltimore. The British agreed to release Beans but held all three Americans on a US vessel at the rear of the British fleet until after the battle ended.1
The British attack started on September 13, 1814 and continued all day and most of the night. The three Americans paced the deck all night, and even when dawn came, they did not know who had won the battle because of the smoke and haze. Then suddenly at 7:00 am on the 14th a break in the haze cleared the view for a moment, and they saw the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry. Key was so excited that he pulled out a letter from his pocket and started writing verses to what became our national anthem. He wrote most of the words in a few minutes. Later that day, the Americas were released, and Francis Key returned to Baltimore, where he finished the rest of the stanzas.2
Key’s poem was eventually put to music composed by John Stafford Smith and immediately rose in popularity. President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order in 1916 designating it as the national anthem of the United States. In March 1931, Congress officially approved the song as our national anthem. The Army and Navy had recognized The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem long before Congress adopted it.3
We typically sing only the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner. Mr. Key wrote four stanzas and all four conclude with the same last line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Many Americans do not know there are four official verses to the Star-Spangled Banner — and even fewer know about a little-known, unofficial fifth verse, written a half century later by poet Oliver Wendell Holmes in support of the Union cause in the Civil War:
“When our land is illum'd with Liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchain'd who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.”4
Holmes wrote this extra verse long after Francis Scott Key wrote the original. The U.S. was in the grip of civil war, and unlike the familiar verse, it is not about a foreign enemy. It is about the foe from within: “Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!”
Stanza five is especially relevant to America’s current political situation. Current events are like the political events at the time of the Civil War. We must remember and take to heart the words of the 4th and 5th stanzas. Our “land of the free” will survive only as Americans trust in God and stand bravely against enemies without and within.
In God I trust,