America has faced and triumphed over tough times before

November 23, 2020

by Jeffrey Sikkenga, Ashbrook Executive Director

Originally published in the Washington Times.

It’s been a tough year. Some people even say it’s among the worst years in American history. But the truth is: America has faced and triumphed over tough times before.

A powerful reminder of that can be found at the new National Museum of the United States Army, which opened on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, on the grounds of Fort Belvoir, just south of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

According to military historian Mark Yost, writing in The Wall Street Journal, one of the museum’s “most prized artifacts [is] the sword carried by Capt. John Berry of the Water Battery at Fort McHenry, site of the 1814 battle in Baltimore harbor that inspired ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”

The details are inspiring. In the fall of 1814, at the height of the War of 1812, British forces marched through Washington, D.C., torching the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Treasury and the White House. During this chaotic period, Francis Scott Key, a then-unknown American lawyer, boarded the flagship of the British Fleet harbored in Baltimore in an effort to persuade the British high command to release a friend who recently had been arrested.

While Key was successful in securing his friend’s release, he learned of the planned British attack on Baltimore and was detained by the British. It was under British supervision that Key was provided a front-row seat to the attack on Fort McHenry. There, he penned the poem that would become America’s national anthem

The British assault was unrelenting. Day turned to night, and the hours passed by with “rockets red glare, and bombs bursting in air.” Then, in the first light of dawn, Key saw a beautiful sight: Old Glory flying above the fort. “Our flag was still there.”

The flag is not beautiful because it endured a bombardment, but because it embodies our most fundamental principles — inspiring principles — of equality, liberty, consent of the governed, and rule of law.

Today, that flag has 13 stripes and 50 stars. But above all it remains our one flag, as we are one people, united under a shared U.S. Constitution based on those fundamental principles we inherited from our Founding.

Just as the Stars and Stripes rose above the smoke and debris of Fort McHenry, our country has risen above many crises and dangers. Our experiment in self-government has been tested time and time again, and in each conflict (and even each contentious election), we have continued to prove that government of the people, by the people, for the people, can long endure.

But will it continue to endure? We shouldn’t forget that the first stanza of the “Star-Spangled Banner” actually ends with a question: “O say, does that Star Spangled Banner, yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

The question is not whether the flag still waves, but what kind of country it waves over.

Will we still be the “land of the free and the home of the brave?” Will we have the courage to be free men and women who stay true to our Founding principles and the shared history that unites us as Americans?

We owe it to those who have served and sacrificed under our flag not to fail. We owe it to those patriots to teach the next generation what it means to be an American — to understand and love our principles, to embrace our imperfect but inspiring history and to look up to the “Star-Spangled Banner” for hope, knowing that no matter how hard the times, our flag is still there.