Thursday, September 8, 2016

Weather, Climate, History, and an Inquiry into an Interrogatory Anthem

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party's current presidential candidate, recently declaimed that Hurricane Hermine is the result of Global Climate Change, and she predicted future severe hurricanes due to man-made global warming.

Of course, anyone could predict future hurricanes. There have been hurricanes at the end of every summer off the east coast of North America every year since anyone has kept records. Such hurricanes have often been severe, and that leads us to consider the Storm that Saved Washington (DC).

From 1812 until 1814 (actually until early 1815) the United States was at war with the British Empire for the second time in history. For the first two years, the British were too preoccupied with a war against the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France to deal with the United States, but after defeating Napoleon in the spring of 1814 and sending him into exile, Great Britain turned toward the United States with a vengeance.

Indeed, there was reason for revenge. In May 1814, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell led a raid on Port Dover, Ontario, Canada, and not only destroyed British grain supplies but private homes and businesses, as well. Apparently this destruction of private property had not been authorized by Campbell's superiors, but the Canadians and British were incensed, nonetheless, and plans were made to visit retaliation on the American cities of Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. (They were also unmoved by the American claim that Port Dover was itself retaliation for British attacks on Buffalo and Lewiston, New York, in the previous year.)

On 24 August 1814, the British defeated American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland, which bounded the District of Columbia. Everybody who was anyone in Washington evacuated the city. British troops arrived within a day and found government buildings empty. They went to the White House and found that the President, James Madison, had fled. British officers ate Madison's food and drank his wine, disrespectfully toasting the president, whom they called "Jemmy," for his "hospitality." (Paul Jennings, Madison's house servant seems to have still been annoyed fifty years later when he reminisced that he had put dinner on the table for the Madisons only to later learn that uninvited British "guests" ate it.) Then they set about burning the White House and several other government buildings including the Capitol.

What occurred the next day snatched further victories from the reach of the conquering British forces. A powerful seasonal hurricane hit the Chesapeake Bay area and accomplished several remarkable things. First, its rains put out the fires, then a tornado killed some British troops and even picked up a couple of canons and deposited them several miles away. The storm also ravaged the British fleet parked in the bay. (A contrary view is that the storm also killed Americans and further damaged both public and private buildings in the city.)

The point is that the Storm that Saved Washington was more severe and traveled farther north and inland than many more recent annual hurricanes that travel from the Caribbean Sea to American shores. That was long before fears of global warming. It is not Climate Change. It's called weather.

Incidentally, the British next tried to do to Baltimore what they had done to Washington, but their attempts by both land and sea failed equally. One of the British in charge of burning Washington, Major General Robert Ross, was killed at the Battle of North Point while trying to lead his army to Baltimore. Though the Americans retreated from the battlefield, they regrouped and successfully held a line outside of Baltimore.

British Admiral George Cockburn next tried to bring Baltimore to its knees by bombarding Fort McHenry, but this did not result in victory for the British who were never able to capture Baltimore.

Famously, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key had come to the British before the bombardment of the fort to negotiate for the release of an American being held prisoner by the British. During the Battle of Baltimore (13 to 14 September 1814), Key, himself, was held prisoner only to be released after the unsuccessful bombardment.

What makes this incident famous, of course, is that Key subsequently composed a poem based on his experience of watching the bombardment from the HMS Tonnant in Baltimore Harbor. This poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," was subsequently set to music and became the national anthem of the United States.

It has always seemed curious to me that the United States did not settle on its national anthem until several decades after the Founding. In any case, it has been observed that you can tell that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written by a lawyer because its lyrics are so inscrutable. Indeed, it consists of a series of questioning clauses that refer to something that is not named until well into the song and, actually, quite near to its end.

"O say can you see,"

[See what?]

"By the the dawn's early light,"

[What? What is it?]

"What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,"

[What did you hail (salute) when the sun went down? What were you looking at?]

"Whose broad stripes and bright stars,"

[Ah, at last a clue, if we didn't already know what this is about.]

"Through the perilous fight,"

"O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming,"

[How often have you heard such a convoluted sentence? The stripes and stars (or as we more often now say, the Stars and Stripes) were gallantly streaming over the ramparts as we watched through(out) the perilous battle (or fight), but Key has "poetically" obscured the plain meaning by switching the order of these clauses so that they are nearly backwards: "The fur, during the hour we combed it, was shedding all over the place."]

"And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,"

[Unquestionably, this is the most exciting line in the whole song, but notice that Key still hasn't come out and told us directly what he is talking about.]

"Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,"

[At last, we are explicitly told that he is talking about the flag, in case we had not begun to guess. The above two lines are sort of asides, though, adding further detail, but still not getting to the point of the song's main inquiry.]

"O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,"

[OK, I have to admit that this line chokes me up every time.]

"O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

[Did you know that this song mostly amounts to one long question? Only a lawyer could have written it.]

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