Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Historic Milestones

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Historic Milestones

September is a momentous month in American history, especially for Alexandrians, because our predecessors, most importantly George Washington, were significantly involved in the pivotal events of Sept. 3, 14 and 17. Sept. 3 (1783) marks the signing of the Treaty of Paris in which the British officially recognized our independence. Francis Scott Key penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the morning of Sept. 14, (1814) in Baltimore while watching from the British ship where he was confined, hoping Fort McHenry would hold. On Sept. 17 (1787) the Constitutional Convention, with Washington presiding, adopted our Constitution, the world’s oldest written constitution still in use. Constitution Week is celebrated nationally Sept. 17-24.

The Treaty of Paris, negotiated by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay, ended Great Britain’s North American colonial empire and expanded our boundaries west to the Mississippi River, north of Florida and south of Canada. It recognized each state (country) separately as free, sovereign and independent. There were other provisions, but these were among the most important. Because of our current discussions about religion’s role in public affairs, it notable that its preamble declares the treaty to be "in the Name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity" (followed by a reference to the Divine Providence). Finally, Gen. Washington could formally disband the army and return to Mount Vernon. Alexandrians held a festive homecoming celebration at Duvall’s Tavern, 305 Cameron St., on New Year’s Eve, with 13 cannon firings.

During America’s second war for independence, the War of 1812, the British attacked our capital, burning public buildings including the Capitol and Executive Mansion, before sailing to Alexandria. With our men gone to Baltimore’s defense, the British encountered no resistance. Mayor Charles Simms, Washington’s close friend and a Revolutionary War colonel, had to surrender our city.

As the British turned to Baltimore, only Fort McHenry blocked their victory. They planned to pound it by sea and use troops to surround and capture that prize.

When Major Armistead took command of Fort McHenry in 1813, he ordered two flags from Baltimorean Mary Pickersgill; she had learned her skills from her mother, who had sewn flags and uniforms for Washington’s Continental Army. Pickersgill, her 13-year old daughter, two teenaged nieces, and an African American indentured servant helped sew the garrison flag by hand, working for about seven weeks, often until midnight. The 30’x42’ flag had 15 stars, eight red and seven white stripes, as provided in the 1794 Flag Act signed by President George Washington. It cost $405.90, more than most Baltimoreans earned in a year.

Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer and amateur poet, overjoyed when he saw that flag flying over the fort at dawn, wrote a four-stanza poem published as “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” He intended it to be sung to the tune of a British popular drinking song. Congress, exercising its Constitutional authority, made it our national anthem in 1931.

Ellen Latane Tabb