The Yanks are coming!
By Tim Charlesworth
The American influence has been growing in the Premier League for many years now. Two of Arsenal’s directors are American citizens, and our own Silent Stan is the wealthiest of the Americans to buy a Premiership club. This Americanisation is more than just skin deep – the statistics and techniques of American sport (sometimes derided as ‘Moneyball’) have infiltrated English football to a degree unimaginable even ten years ago.
Famously, Arsenal has paid £3m per annum to Stan Kroenke’s sports company in order to get access to this expertise, although many have feared that this payment was really a disguised dividend. Recently, many fans celebrated (upon the publication of our annual accounts) the fact that in 2015/16, Kroenke’s company waived this payment, but all reports suggest that Arsenal continue to receive its mystical services.
Elsewhere, last week saw the appointment of Bob Bradley as manager of Swansea, and on Saturday he will bring his team to the home of football. He becomes the first American to manage in the Premiership. I’m almost expecting to hear Beyonce sing the Star Spangled Banner and Diana Ross to miss a penalty before we kick off.
This (unlilkely) possibility gives me an excuse to write about an aspect of American sport, that is often dismissed, but occasionally moves me deeply. Before all major sporting events in the USA the national anthem is performed amidst scenes of reverence and jingoistic celebrations, that us cynical Europeans, and Brits in particular, struggle to understand. I would like to write an explanation of this curious American ritual, and hopefully put it into context for those who are less familiar with its origins (spoiler alert – this article really is not about Arsenal). In so doing, perhaps I can do a tiny bit to promote empathy with our distant cousins, and make the world a slightly more understanding place.
The lyrics of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ come from a poem called “Defence of Fort McHenry”. It was written by an amateur poet and lawyer, 35-year-old American, Francis Scott Key. During the ‘War of 1812’, (which confusingly lasted until 1815) between Britain and the USA, Key found himself on a truce ship in Chesapeake Bay, observing a truly horrifying manifestation of modern warfare. From his position, Key witnessed the bombardment of US Fort McHenry by the British Navy, which stood off in the Bay and rained bombs and rockets continuously onto the fort for 25 hours on the 13th and 14th September 1814 (bombs which were almost certainly manufactured at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich). It is the first verse of Key’s poem which is traditionally sung as the USA national anthem:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The words commemorate Key’s feelings as he watched the sunset (twilight’s last gleaming) set upon the doomed fort and its flag, never to see it again. The fort was bombarded throughout the night and Key expected dawn to reveal a scene of death and devastation, not only of the fort, but of the American dream of freedom from oppression.
Instead, what Key saw ‘by the dawn’s early light’ was that the fort had survived the night, and that its flag (‘broad stripes and bright stars’) still flew (‘gallantly streaming’). The final two lines of the verse, often sung with such high emotion by American artists, recall Key’s feelings as the morning revealed, not a scene of destruction, but that the noble proud experiment of US freedom had lived to fight another day.
It is easy to forget today, that in 1814, the USA was a minnow of world affairs and that it was Britain that was the arrogant, violent, imperialistic world power. The USA was a nation born in revolution a mere 38 years before the events of 1814. It was a union of 15 states in the North Eastern corner of North America (compared to 50 across the whole of North America today).
The Britain that America emancipated itself from in the late Eighteenth Century, was not the free speaking pluralistic society that we live in, but an oppressive, religiously intolerant, monarchic oligarchy. Britain had a parliament, but it was not the democratic institution which we understand today, merely a mechanism by which the aristocracy of the day could restrain the power of the monarch. Full civil rights were only granted to wealthy people who followed a strict interpretation of the state religion (the Church of England). The colonies of America were the sanctuary for those people who wished to escape the religious oppression of the British state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Eventually the colonists rebelled against the imperial power of Britain and a new country was born.
It is easy to forget just how extraordinary the US adventure was. The American constitution of 1776 was not a copy of similar existing documents, but a bold experiment inspired by the principles of ancient Athens and ancient Rome. In becoming a democracy, it joined a worldwide club of just one. It seems obvious to us today that people ruled by remote empires will seek to overthrow their oppressors and form free states. In the modern world, the American colonists were the first to do so, the fact that the idea is so commonplace today is largely thanks to their courage and their example. The USA of 1814 was truly ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’
The British arrived in Chesapeake Bay in 1814 with the intention of invading Maryland. The Royal Navy controlled the Seven Seas. Fresh from its defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar, it was confidently conquering the rest of the world, and it was far from clear that the puny USA would be able to resist its might.
The British method of projecting power at the time was not hugely different to the way that the modern US Navy distributes its political influence today. Modern US presidents tend to send their peerless aircraft carriers to places that they wish to influence and then use the carriers as a base from which to launch devastating cruise missile and assault plane attacks. The Royal Navy of the Nineteenth Century used to sail its warships up to a city (remember virtually all cities at the time were either on the coast or on a river) and shell people until they saw the British point of view (this method was known as ‘gunboat diplomacy’).
As the Royal Navy sailed into Chesapeake Bay in 1814, the very future of the infant democracy seemed suddenly in doubt, and Fort McHenry was all that stood between the British and the city of Baltimore. The survival of that flag and the repulsing of the British Navy (who simply ran out of ammunition) was an event of global significance. Like a child standing up to the school bully, it gave the USA confidence on the world stage. The new nation grew from strength to strength and, to this day, its very existence has never been seriously threatened again.
The story of the defiance of Fort Henry is a familiar one to American school children, so the song has a meaning to US citizens beyond just the words of an abstract anthem. The story is less familiar to British people. British historians usually relegate the war of 1812 to a sub-plot of the Napoleonic wars; it is a story of rare defeat for the Royal Navy; and the subtext of ‘Britain as oppressor of the young democratic nation’ hardly appeals to our sense of historical glory.
The song also celebrates the US flag, and goes some way to explain the affectionate relationship which Americans have with their flag, another thing that is a little difficult for us Brits to relate to, living, as we do, in a nation where our flag has been appropriated as a symbol of neo-facism.
Fort McHenry was (and is – it still stands and is open to visitors) built in the shape of a five pointed star. Its name commemorates James McHenry, a Scots-Irish immigrant who was one of the signatories of the original American constitution. The flag which flew over the fort that day is one of the most precious US national treasures and is preserved (albeit slightly charred looking) in the National Museum of American History in Washington.
Of course it is easy to sneer at the modern USA. It certainly can’t be cast as the underdog that it once was, and some of its actions are difficult to reconcile with the principles of freedom and justice. However, we should not lose sight of the bigger historical picture. The USA is a nation bravely founded on freedom and civil rights, and although power always corrupts, it has mostly used that power, however imperfectly, to project those values throughout the world that it now dominates.
Us Brits can also claim a little credit for the good things that the USA has done. Most famously, we played a heroic role in the defeat of the fascist dictators in the Second World War, but we can also claim a supporting role in the defeat of communist oppression and a leading role (during the Nineteenth Century) in teaching our American cousins that slavery was not morally acceptable. The war of 1812 was our last attempt to assert ourselves with our transatlantic offspring, and our two nations have lived in peace and alliance ever since.
We live during only the second period in human history that the world’s greatest superpower has shown such devotion to the principles of democratic freedom. The first such period was Athens of the fifth Century BC. Athens was also an imperfect state where women were repressed and slaves were kept, but the great legacy of that society lives with us still, and is widely celebrated.
Anyway, there it is. I’m not sure if you can get away with writing something that is essentially a bit of poetry criticism on an Arsenal website (even a sophisticated one like Untold). The interlull is nearly over, so I promise to write about football next time, who knows, maybe even about Arsenal!
If you liked this article, you might enjoy Tim’s book “It’s Happened Again”, which is now available on Amazon (print and Kindle versions). Read a sample chapter at www.itshappenedagain.com
 The first revolution inspired by the US example was the 1789 French Revolution. The French people made a gift to the Americans by way of thanks for the inspiration. We know that gift today as the Statue of Liberty.