4th verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner":

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.

Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n 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

1' How to understand the "shall" in the first line?

Subjunctive mood? Just like the "be" in "it be ever thus" ("thus be it ever").

If so, as regards to the subjunctive mood, what's the difference between "the base form" and "modal verb + infinitive", especially in this context?

2' How to understand the "it" in the fifth line?

According to https://worldwar2collection.com/4th-verse-star-spangle-banner-the-meaning-behind-the-words/, the meaning of the line is "conquest is only necessary when there are just reasons to justify it."

Then why the line isn't "when our cause is just"? Why is there a burdensome "it"?

Since there is "it", shouldn't the line be equal to "Then we must conquer, when it is just our cause"? The "it" refers to the "we must conquer". The "just" is an adverb (meaning "exactly, precisely, simply"), instead of an adjective (meaning "righteous, honorable").

My instinct tells me "conquest is only necessary when there are just reasons to justify it" is the right answer, but I failed to analyze the line grammatically.

Update: So the "shall" in "freemen shall stand ..." is the same as in "the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave" (the seventh line)?

related question: Three questions on "In full glory reflected now shines in the stream"


2 Answers 2


In the English of the nineteenth century, and to some extent today, "shall" in the second or third person expresses determination, obligation or volition.

This was never a subjunctive, Middle English used "shall" for future, and "will" for "want to". Early modern English introduced "will" as future for second or third person, and it has now taken over in most contexts, only being used for emphasis, as "marked" speech.

"It" means "cause", a redundant word to fit the meter. "Just" refers to justice, and doesn't mean "only", "exactly", "precisely" or "simply".

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    So the "shall" in "freemen shall stand ..." is the same as "the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave"?
    – Zhang Jian
    Feb 7, 2023 at 4:33

As JamesK’s answer says, “shall” marks a future tense, nothing more. Well, possibly with a sense of determination (they’re determined to stand up and defend their homes) rather than simply occurring in the future.

But I’d like to expand on the second part, “when our cause it is just”. This is poetic language, and as such, it takes artistic licence, employing English in ways that would not ordinarily be done.

In typical English, it is unusual to follow a noun immediately (or even quite closely) with a pronoun that refers to it, when the noun could simply have held that place. However, it’s not very rare. It might be done by a speaker who is struggling to frame their ideas; by someone making a grammatical error; or intentionally, for effect (perhaps emphasis, or in imitation of one of the other types of speaker).

The dog, it got out, and, and I chased it, but…

My car: it’s old, it’s slow, it’s unreliable, but it’s mine.

The alternative, as you point out, is that the line is an unusual ordering (also done by artistic licence) of “when it is just [simply] our cause”. Certainly, The Star-Spangled Banner does use unusual word order at times (“what so proudly we hailed”). But I think it’s very unlikely in this case.

Splitting up “just [simply] X” is a very awkward thing to do, for reasons I’m not sure I can articulate. Also, “just [simply]” is quite informal, and it carries a sense of diminution or dismissal towards the thing described. The poet doesn’t want to be dismissive of “our cause” here!

So I’m certain that this is an instance of following a noun with a pronoun, deliberately, for effect. What effect? The only one I can see is to make it fit the meter. Personally, I would’ve just stretched another word (“…conquer we must, whe-en our cause is just…”). But I haven’t written any enduringly popular national anthems lately, so what do I know?

  • “…conquer we must, whe-en our cause is just…” sounds better to me. I have a little difficult to sing “…conquer we must, when our cause it is just…”
    – Zhang Jian
    Feb 6, 2023 at 13:35
  • @fectin Because it originated as the Old/Middle English genitive suffix -es. Nothing to do with pronouns. If you’re referring to the idea that -’s abbreviates “his”, that’s a myth… or at best, a rarely attested usage (that probably originated from an etymological myth). Feb 6, 2023 at 16:39
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    @ZhangJian It might sound better to you, but it didn't to Francis Scott Key. If you look at the lyrics, there isn't a single syllable that he extends over two beats like you'd need to do for "whe-en". He does contract some words "Heav'n" and most notably "O'er" to subtract a syllable, but the opposite probably seemed very awkward to him.
    – Mordred
    Feb 6, 2023 at 16:43
  • @TimPederick fair enough!
    – fectin
    Feb 6, 2023 at 16:45
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    @Mordred There are a few syllables stretched over two beats (“yet wa-ave”)… but that’s because of the tune it’s set to, and isn’t required by the poetic meter. I might argue that “O-o say can you see” is two beats in both meter and tune, though, because other lines start with an anapest (“de-de-DA”). Feb 6, 2023 at 17:03

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