Jul. 4, 2006

The Star Spangled Banner

by Francis Scott Key

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Poem: "The Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key. Public domain. (buy now)

The Star Spangled Banner

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory 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!

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Independence Day, celebrating the day in 1776 that Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, and the United States officially broke from the rule of England.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a second-floor room on Market Street in Philadelphia, on a little lap desk that he had designed himself. Some members of the Continental Congress had hoped that Benjamin Franklin would write the document, but Franklin declined. John Adams was also considered a possible writer of the document, but Adams gave the assignment to Jefferson because he said, "You can write ten times better than I can."

Jefferson finished the first draft after a few days work and sent it to Franklin on the morning of June 21, asking for suggestions. Franklin made just a few changes. In the most famous passage, Jefferson had written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." Franklin changed it to, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

The actual vote for independence came on July 2nd, 1776. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, "The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival." The adoption of the Declaration itself came two days later, on July 4th. At the time, it was considered an afterthought. But copies of the Declaration were printed and distributed throughout the colonies, and since the document was dated July 4th, that became the date that we now celebrate as the birth of our nation.

There were unofficial celebrations of Independence Day from its first anniversary, but it really became a popular holiday after the War of 1812. On the frontier, it was the only time of the year when everyone in the countryside gathered together in one place. There would be parades and speeches, and the prettiest and most wholesome girl in the village would be named the Goddess of Liberty. Politicians would get up and call the King of England a skunk and challenge him to a fight. Drunken men in the streets would get into fights and call each other Englishmen.

It was on this day in 1845 that Henry David Thoreau moved into his cabin on Walden Pond, just outside Concord, Massachusetts. He was not quite twenty-eight years old at the time, and he had decided to try an experiment in simple living. He was inspired, in part, by the memory of a summer trip he took with his beloved brother John. During the summer of 1839, he and John had built a boat and sailed down the Concord River to take a two-week walking tour around Mt. Washington.

Thoreau (books by this author) had a wonderful time on that trip, but it took on a special meaning when his brother cut himself shaving in the winter of 1841 and caught lockjaw. He died in Thoreau's arms. For weeks after his brother's death, Thoreau couldn't write in his journal, or even talk to his family and friends. For a brief period, he even experienced all the symptoms of lockjaw himself.

It was a family friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who suggested that Thoreau get his mind off his grief by writing a review of a bunch of natural history books, and Thoreau took great comfort from the assignment. The essay he wrote about the books begins, "Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading. To him who contemplates a trait of natural beauty no harm nor disappointment can come." The essay was published, and it was one of Thoreau's first literary successes.

He went on writing essays for the next few years, but he kept thinking about that summer trip with his brother, and how it felt to be living out in the wilderness. He decided that he wanted to do that again, but on a greater scale.

Thoreau looked around for someplace where he could build a small cabin, and it was finally Ralph Waldo Emerson who gave him a few acres of land on Walden Pond, a pond that Thoreau had been visiting for most of his life. Thoreau built a tiny cabin on the land, ten feet wide and fifteen feet long, and he moved into the cabin on this day, Independence Day, in 1845.

Thoreau ultimately lived at Walden for two years, two months, and two days. He went on to publish his book about the experience Walden; or Life in the Woods in 1854. It sold only 256 copies in its first year, but it has never gone out of print, and has been translated into virtually every modern language on earth.

On this day in 1855, Walt Whitman (books by this author) published the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

It's the birthday of literary critic Lionel Trilling, (books by this author) born in New York City (1905).

It's the birthday of playwright Neil Simon, (books by this author), born in the Bronx in New York City (1927).

It's the birthday of the first great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, (books by this author) born in Salem, Massachusetts (1804). He's the author of novels such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851).

On this day in 1931, James Joyce married Nora Barnacle at the Kensington Registry Office in London. They had been living together for twenty-six years. She once complained about Joyce's late hours, "I can't sleep anymore ... I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing!"

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