I'll weigh in on this; I've got some strong opinions on the topic and some historical tidbits that haven't been mentioned yet. (I'm pro-status quo, btw; let's get that out of the way first)
So, the way I sing the song, I skip the objectionable third verse. Shortening the text considerably, the first two verses go: 1) Is the flag still there? (i.e. did the fort surrender?) 2) Yes, it is! Yay!
The natural follow-up question, is "what happened overnight?"
The story of that night needs some context, the tone of which will sound familiar to many people who have worked on large projects. When Fort McHenry was built, range for the guns was chosen by how far it would need to shoot in order to reach the shorelines it was protecting. It seemed a logical choice: once you can effectively fire to the opposite shore, what use do you have for longer range? The answer came on the night that F.S. Key was watching the fort get pounded by British warships whose gun budget was tuned for "hit the other guy before he can hit you on the open sea".
A second point of context was that the flag they were flying was possibly the largest U.S. flag ever flown
- the flagpole it flew on was the tallest ship's mast available at the local shipyard, and the Army Corps of Engineers did some math to figure out what dimensions would give it a diagonal length equal to the mast's height above ground. When they hoisted the flag for the first time and discovered that fabric stretches on its bias, the flag was trimmed until it didn't drag on the ground. For the conditions, they literally couldn't make the stars and stripes more visible for the opposing forces. Since the British were firing the contemporary equivalent of flare rounds
at a rate of one every 5 minutes, it's probable that the flag was easily visible for as long as the battle lasted.
So what happened overnight was that whenever the British ships came in range of the Fort's guns they were repelled; however, the Fort was getting pounded non-stop all night. When the Fort's guns fell silent it was impossible to tell whether they were out of ammunition or just conserving while they could. In point of fact, they were out; neither the British nor Key knew that, however. The ships in the harbor and their crews assumed that the Fort would signal surrender when they were our of ammo by lowering the flag.
My favorite historical tidbit from this story is that prior to the battle the garrison commander ordered the flag nailed to the flagpole
. Short of a direct hit on the flagpole, that flag wasn't coming down that day. Out of cannon ammo, the garrison stood ready with rifles and bayonets to repel Marines if needed. If the British wanted the flag to come down they'd have to do it themselves, over the dead bodies of every last American in the Fort.
So, now we're on to the 4th verse:
Francis Scott Key wrote:O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-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!
Thus: this is how it should be.
Ever: throughout history, now, and forever in the future.
Do you really want to change the Anthem? Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, how about we start a tradition of singing just the 4th verse?
I find the entire 4th verse inspiring, the Atheists in the audience can mentally substitute "the strength of our arms" for "the power that hath made . . . us a nation" for all I care. I love that it reminds us of the real reasons to take up arms - our loved homes, and our just cause. Perhaps as a nation we'd be less likely to get into fights if we were reminded at each Baseball and Football game to consider whether our cause is just before picking up our guns. At the same time, we can remind the World what will happen when we do pick them up.