What the Star Spangled Banner Means to an American

I’ll answer your question with another. Why isn’t America the Beautiful our National Anthem, or America (My Country Tis of Thee)?

It’s a good question. America the Beautiful has all the hallmarks of a good national Anthem. It speaks with joy of a bountiful land, rich in beauty and touched by the grace of God. It speaks of happy people and gleaming cities.  The song also cries out to the vast diversity of wealth, the vastness and the grandeur of the American landscape from sea to shining to sea. That makes for a really good anthem, and for most countries, that would be the national song.

America the Beautiful is, pointedly, a beautiful song which speaks on much of why America is a wonderful place to live and why so many have found happiness in it. It doesn’t, however, capture the American identity. The Star Spangled Banner, does.

If you travel to any other part of the world, you will find people proud of their land, proud of their history, and proud of who they are. The same is true for Americans, but what is different about Americans, is that they are not defined by that land. Most countries of the world define who they are by the land beneath their feet. America isn’t a commonality of ethnicities. It isn’t a fortune born from geographic chance. Being American is a set of ideals and has little to do with the beauty and bounty of our land.

Consider this, what does it take to be an American? It’s a lot easier than becoming a German, an Englishman, or Chinese. No matter where you came from, if you move to those lands, you will never be one of them. They may grant you citizenship, and that may even be easier than for us, but they will never grant you membership into their tribe. The word “nation”, by the way, originally meant an ethnically linked collection of tribes. Throughout most of the world, Nationalism, still means exactly this. In most nations of the world, you are who you were forever born to be. If you move from India to Cairo, you may be given rights as a citizen of Egypt, but no one will ever say that you now and forever more a real Egyptian. If you move to Japan, you will never be Japanese. If you move to Brazil, you will never be Brazilian.

America is different. All of us came from somewhere else. The only thing we actually have in common is an ancestry with a shared sense of drive, independence, a common desire to pursue prosperity, and to live freely. At one point, each of our ancestors made the choice to make great sacrifice and come to a distant country, work hard, and make something of yourself for the betterment of you and your family. So long as you are willing to do that, so long as you are willing to join our “nation” with the goal of improving it with a hardworking spirit, and defend it with an equal sense of pride and loyalty – You are an American.

Daniel Kamakura‘s answer to this same question sums this mentality well talking about his mother when she took the Oath of Allegiance.

What mattered is what the Oath meant to them: that they were now Americans–full stop. No ifs, ands, or buts. U.S. citizens, free and clear, without caveat or reservation, and entitled to all rights, privileges, and obligations thereof.

So one might agree, at this point, that America the Beautiful isn’t the greatest choice for an American anthem, as it doesn’t really describe the American experience and what makes an American. Perhaps another, perhaps, America (My Country ‘Tis Of Thee) would have been better? This one is also a beautiful hymn, lyrically masterful, and delivers both the moral virtues Americans hold dear, as well as pay homage to the land itself. Poetically, most would agree that it is superior to the current anthem, so what is missing?

For this, only a true understanding of the Star Spangled Banner can communicate what makes it stand out from all other songs about America, and any other national anthem in the world.

The Story Behind the Star Spangled Banner

The Star Spangled Banner commemorates an event, but more importantly, it commemorates a struggle. In the poem, the flag of the United States flying over a fort on some night during the war of 1812, wasn’t just a battle standard. It was more, still, than just a flag representing a nation weak, young, and learning how it might stand against an old empire with world-wide strength. That night, as we later discovered, it was a symbol of the American Experiment. The American Experiment was this ridiculous idea that people from around the world, people wanting to seek opportunity, to seek equality, to seek freedom of faith and freedom of opinion, and finally seeking freedom from oppression, may form a nation, a collective of tribes, tribes not born of race and geography, but of ideas and ethics. The American Experiment was audacious enough to suggest that people would fight for these flimsy self-evident truths, without the slightest command from the aristocracy; their moral and intellectual betters, the feudal lords or great emperors. It was foolish enough to believe it could endure against an old world so vast and powerful, that the sun never set on its reach.

The flag mentioned in The Star Spangled Banner has little to do with a piece of cloth waving in the percussion beats of bomb blasts. It just took such an event to show us what we were. My nation is a collective of tribes, bound only in a moral commonality, baptised in a joining together of wills, and tempered in a battle that tested it’s true value, and the value of its first champions. The Star Spangled Banner represents us. This hymn tells the story of an idea that stood little chance of hope, but still remained aloft. It reminds us that we often only only will see the virtues of our American Experiment, in the lights of its us of terrible struggle. More so, than this, The Star Spangled Banner reminds us that the ideas pioneered by the American Experiment are those worth fighting for, those worth enduring for, and which we may fearfully doubt in our darkest hours, but that, in the end, are themselves unstoppable, unyielding, and impossible to overcome.

The Star Spangled Banner serves as the eternal symbol of the American Experiment with no equal. No other anthem can capture this idea by just listing the virtues of a nation or the beauty of it’s land. No other anthem could capture a spirit of a people like a victorious battle hymn of a desperate time. Most of all, no other anthem could remind Americans, and the world itself, of what is required to maintain what that spirit stands for, and the inevitable legacy that struggle has given to all of us.

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