Celebrating the grand experiment

Kai Hagen

June 27, 2003

This Fourth of July we will celebrate the anniversary of the day on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress - July 4, 1776.

In Frederick County and across the nation, it will be a day of picnics and parties and play, culminating in a display of fireworks meant to symbolize the "rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air."

Those words, of course, are from the first verse of "The Star Spangled Banner," our national anthem, which was inspired by the defense of Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the British attack in September, 1814. As all local schoolchildren learn, the anthem was written by Francis Scott Key, who was born in Frederick County, and is buried here. But few know he wrote the words as a poem to match the tune of a drinking song entitled "To Anacreon in Heaven."

The Anacreontic Society was a popular gentlemen's club in London, named in honor of Anacreon, a Greek poet who lived and wrote in the fifth century B.C., and was known as the "convivial bard of Greece." The society was dedicated to "wit, harmony, and the god of wine."

The inauspicious origins of the tune didn't prevent Key from remaking it for his own purpose, and, much later, it didn't prevent the Congress of The United States of America from enacting legislation, in 1931, that made "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official national anthem.

The Fourth of July is full of other familiar rituals and symbols. Perhaps none more meaningful to Americans than the subject of the one verse of our national anthem that most of us know: The "broad stripes and bright stars" of our "star-spangled banner," the American flag.

Although Philadelphia seamstress Elizabeth (Betsy) Griscom Ross has long been credited with designing and making the first Stars and Stripes, and it makes a good story, few historians seem to agree. Most are convinced the first Stars and Stripes was designed by Francis Hopkinson, a popular patriot, lawyer, Congressman from New Jersey, signer of the Declaration of Independence, poet and artist.

What we do know is that on June 14, 1777, in order to establish an official flag for the new nation, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act: "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation." In1818, another Act provided for 13 stripes and one star for each state, to be added to the flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state.

Surprisingly, until an Executive Order in 1912, neither the order of the stars nor the proportions of the flag were prescribed. Before that, some flags show unusual arrangements of the stars and odd proportions, as these features were left to the discretion of the flag maker.

Another familiar and quintessential touchstone of American identity and patriotism came much later. The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, by Francis Bellamy of New York. Bellamy was chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association. As its chairman, he prepared the program for the public schools' celebration for Columbus Day that year. He structured the program around a flag raising ceremony and a flag salute.

His original Pledge read: 'I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.' He considered placing the word, 'equality,' in his Pledge, but knew that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans.

The national anthem, the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, these and other symbols were created to inspire and unite us as citizens of one nation. As the Fourth of July draws near, let us consider them also as living symbols of the dynamic and evolving nature of this great country.

The founding fathers did not create something perfect and immutable. Instead, their gift to us was a new and imperfect country designed and able to change over time, and a process that made it possible. The process included big changes almost from the beginning, including the Bill of Rights in 1789, and another seventeen amendments since then.

The Declaration of Independence did not launch an ideal nation. For more than a third of our Fourth of July celebrations, many among us were slaves. For well more than half, women could not vote.

And so on.

And we are not a perfect or ideal nation now.

For two hundred and twenty-seven years, the United States has been a grand experiment, in which a free people have been given an unprecedented opportunity to struggle toward lofty ideals.

Much has been accomplished, so far. But, on Independence Day, we don't celebrate perfection, but possibilities. No less than we are inspired by the symbols of our nation, we must aspire to achieve our share of the progress that still lies ahead.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at