In the 18th Century, there existed a club in London called the Anacreontic Society, a college of men who promoted and performed music. The Anacreontic Song, whose lyrics were written by Ralph Tomlinson, was set to music written by John Stafford Smith. And that song was really nothing more than a tune of revelry unique to their club. To be sure, neither of these men could have fathomed that this simple song, that spoke of long obsolete Greek gods, would become a symbol of American greatness and fortitude; that it would become a symbol that spoke to the soul of a people that with their hope and dreams could conquer any god that had come before the revelation of their Creator who had endowed them with an ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for every man.
That song, The Anacreontic Song, would later be coupled to a poem written by a man, who having been stalled on a British warship negotiating the surrender of a fellow townsman, saw what you and I can only vaguely perceive. The Defence of Fort McHenry, written by Francis Scott Key, is testimony to the greatness of a young, embattled nation. Our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, was born.
Perhaps, and in all likelihood, Francis Scott Key never intended to be memorialized in the annals of our nation’s history. And so goes the story of thousands of unexceptional Americans.
And perhaps, a poem written by an amateur poet, set to a song sung by amateur musicians who sang of the myrtle of Venus and Bacchus’ wine, is illustrative of the great experiment that continues to be the United States of America.
Francis Scott Key’s poem spoke so clearly of the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, which gave witness through that long night that the flag was still there – flying, tattered, over Fort McHenry. But Key was watching something more… he was watching the hopes and dreams of a young nation, a great experiment in governance, withstand the assault that was being leveled upon it by an old, aristocratic idea that was fighting to stay relevant in the castles, halls, and kingdoms across Europe. Surely, this young nation, this great experiment – embodied in a flag of 15 stars and 13 stripes – could not, and should not, be allowed to survive lest the regimes of Europe fall to the same ideals of self-governance, self-determination, and liberty.
And so it went – as a young nation turned its eyes to adolescence – the 15 stars turned to 20 and 20 turned to 30 as our country grew west. And our western frontier filled with unexceptional Americans, doing unexceptional things.
Because the story of America is the story of millions of unexceptional people doing unexceptional things.
They are indeed unexceptional in that so few, if any, sought recognition for what they certainly saw as necessary. Traveling across the fruited plains, over the purple mountain majesties, from sea to shining sea, Americans then and now, practice and adhere to moral principles that help to shape individual characters, strengthen families, build communities, and improve society overall. And that is not exceptional.
Our unexceptionalism is what makes our nation exceptional; each man and woman doing what is right and necessary in his own interest and the interest of his family and community.
None of these men thought themselves exceptional and did not believe their task of raising the flag over Iwo Jima was exceptional. Their humility is what was exceptional. Their feat was indeed exceptional and they deserve a place in Heaven and our nation’s heart, but they neither desired nor sought such recognition.
By planting that flag at Iwo Jima, forever immortalized in photo, they committed themselves through that act – a mere moment on history’s never-ending march towards its end – to the ideal that Francis Scott Key saw in the fleeting lights over Fort McHenry.
There is a key distinction to be made – that this is not a testament to a system of collectivism, where individual self interest is to be sacrificed on an altar of communal betterment. Rather, it is testimony to ordinary people striving to preserve an ideal of rugged individualism that through each person, each effort, each act, creates a fuller community.
Ronald Reagan, in 1974, in his famous Shining City on a Hill speech, said:
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, “The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.”
We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”
One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
In that moment, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong had done what no other man before him had done.
And the flag he planted – illuminated by the stars of Heaven – bears witness to America, indeed, all of humanity, toiling in its daily exceptionalism carried on by unexceptional people.
The flag, incidentally, would not have “flown” in the reduced gravity of the moon, so it was given a support across the top so as to give the impression of flying.
And consider that for a moment: that during the excitement and planning of our nation’s, nay, our planet’s, first manned mission to the moon, that forethought was given to how our flag would be displayed – that symbol of America, that embodiment of collective pride in the ideals of enterprise and freedom – is remarkable and exceptional. The person who toiled away at the idea and its engineering sought no recognition and at the end of the day, listened to the great happenings occurring hundreds of thousands of miles above his head.
(Ironically, the flag had to be engineered by a team at NASA. While you and I could have figured this out in minutes, it took a team of government scientists to conjure up and build.)
In 2009, a friend traveled to Canada for a long weekend ski trip. He remarked upon his return that he was surprised to see so many Canadians mocking the United States. And the mocking was not limited to our current president, but also the former president.
He continued that their grievance seemed to be that America has appeared to lose its way, that the spirit of individualism was fading; that the great history of the United States has reached its zenith.
Obviously, I was deeply dismayed to hear how, Canada, a nation of rugged collectivism and paternalism, would marvel at what they perceived to be a shift to mediocrity. In their own state run newspaper, the Globe and Mail, they ran a full page graphic of our flag – the Stars and Stripes, the very symbol of American exceptionalism.
But instead of stars, they had hammers and sickles in place of our stars, and various condemnations of socialist tendencies in our public policy in white and red lettering. What I found the most frustrating is the manner in which they mocked my nation and how they conflated our flag to the fleeting policies of our White House.
That that great symbol of American blood, sweat, and tears would be so diminished, so derided, is heartbreaking.
And that was the point. It attacked our pride, our history, and our future; there, in cheap paper and ink, was their scorn and ridicule.
We must always remember – that burned in effigy, flown upside down, or derided in print – our flag is that enduring symbol. The tune by John Stafford Smith and the poem by Francis Scott Key immortalize something larger than each one of us.
Our flag continues to race towards the farthest reaches of space and human imagination and is affixed to every great cause of our will. It is that unique symbol greater than any other that with thread and dye gives witness to so much exceptionalism coupled to a uniquely American humility.