Answering Mr. Key’s Question

Jul 16, 2021. | By Will Hurd

This month’s celebration of our country’s birthday has caused many to reflect on the fragility of our democracy. Today in 2021, it seems inevitable that a democratic government could and would survive. Our founders embarked on an experiment that had been tried in antiquity but not really in modern times. Back in the 18th Century the rest of the world thought this experiment called America would fail, but 245 years later we are still here.

America is the longest running democracy. The next is Switzerland, which followed in our footsteps 65 years later. There are only 14 countries with democratic forms of government that have been in existence for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until 2001 that the number of countries with democratic governments equaled the number of countries with autocratic governments.

We take for granted how novel and special this experiment in self-government is. Since our founding, we have been an idealistic nation. While we haven’t always lived up to our principles, we must never stop striving to do so. Our actions as a government, our actions as a nation, and our actions as individuals must strive to reflect these self-evident truths that are the foundation of our country.

While we haven’t always lived up to our principles, we must never stop striving to do so.

In reflecting on these truths, I’m always reminded of how our national anthem ends in a question. When Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became the “Star-Spangled Banner,” he did it two years into the War of 1812 in response to seeing Fort McHenry in Baltimore bombed by the British.

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave

The original four-stanza poem is on display in the Maryland Historical Society, and you can see Mr. Key ended the stanza with a question mark. For the longest time I never realized our national anthem ended in a question because I had never seen the lyrics ever use a question mark. Additionally, whenever singers ended the song on a high note, I thought it was just a big finish rather than the rising intonation of a question. But when I substituted the synonym ‘still’ for the word ‘yet’ it became clear for me.

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner [still] wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The question mark was intentional because Mr. Key was asking a literal question. He wanted to know whether the British had been successful in trying to take over Fort McHenry. Was the American flag still waving over the citadel or not?

We need to continue to strive, to battle, to believe that we can come together as a nation to get big things done.

The last two lines in our National Anthem have now become a philosophical question. Is America still the land of the free and the home of the brave?

My experiences to this point in my life makes me answer this question with a resounding “yes.” But it’s not inevitable that the answer to this question will always be yes. To ensure we can always answer the query posed by Mr. Key in the affirmative, we need to continue to strive, to battle, to believe that we can come together as a nation to get big things done. I believe that, in some ways now more than ever. If you do too, then I can’t wait to get to work.

Forward to a Friend

American Reboot:

An Idealist’s Guide to Getting Big Things Done

A clear-eyed, forward-thinking playbook for the country, rooted in timeless ideals of bipartisanship, inclusivity, and democratic values.

Sign Up