The Star Spangled Banner

There are so many aspects of American history and patriotism that we think originated in the revolutionary period of the 1770s, but are actually products of a hundred years later, in the waning decades of the 19th century, and sometimes are products of the 20th century. The national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, is perhaps the most representative example of these. The original poem was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, after he had seen Fort McHenry in Baltimore heavily bombed by the British during the War of 1812. He was inspired when he saw the American flag still flying after the smoke cleared.

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“The original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song that would become our national anthem, is among the most treasured artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.” Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Key’s words were set to the popular tune “To Anacreon in Heaven” (or “The Anacreontic Song”), and it gradually became a well-known patriotic song and sang at public occasions, such as 4th of July celebrations. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the Star Spangled Banner started to gain different degrees of “official” recognition as an anthem. In 1889, 75 years after the song was written, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the Star Spangled Banner to be the official song played while the flag was raised at Navy events. President Wilson followed in 1916, 102 years after the song was written, and ordered that it be played at military occasions.

The first attempt to pass a bill through Congress making the Star Spangled Banner the official national anthem failed to pass in 1918, despite the high degree of patriotism at the time due to World War I. A second bill also failed to pass in 1929. The Veterans of Foreign Wars started a national petition campaign in 1930 to make the song the national anthem. Five million people signed. Congress passed a bill at the end of the year. President Hoover signed it into law on March 4, 1931, making the Star Spangled Banner the official national anthem 117 years after it was written. And, to us, 1931 was less than a hundred years ago. That’s pretty recent in historical terms.

Further Reading:

Marc Ferris, Star Spangled Banner: the Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem (2014)

William Robin, “How the National Anthem has Unfurled,” New York Times, 27 June 2014. 


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