History of the Star-Spangled Banner

It’s played during football games. It’s played during momentous occasions. It’s played anytime we want to express our love for the United States of America. In modern times, it’s known simply as the National Anthem.

It’s none other than “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Played for approximately 1:40, this song personifies the American spirit, regardless if it’s played with an orchestra or backed up with vocals from amazing musicians. With such a prominent role in U.S. culture, many people have assumed that the song originated at or around the 4th of July.

Except...it didn’t. Its history dates back a little beyond that time, with a man named Francis Scott Key.  

The Star-Spangled Poem

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer across Maryland and Washington, D.C. area. Born on August 1st, 1779, he was not alive for the events leading up to the American Revolution, as that took place prior to 1776. He was, however, present for one of America’s significant moments: the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 took place between the fledgling United States and Great Britain over trading, maritime rights violations, and America’s quest for expansion. Where Key’s presence comes into play is that he was a district attorney for the District of Columbia during the 1814 invasion from the British. His best friend, Dr. William Beanes, was captured by British forces, forcing Key to negotiate for his freedom.

Key was successful, except for one condition: neither he nor Dr. Beanes could leave until after the British were finished bombing Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The two watched on from a naval ship almost ten miles away as British troops rained down destruction onto the fort. It was after this bombardment that Key noticed something extraordinary in the aftermath.

The flag was still standing. 

Key was inspired by the sight and what it represented for the growing United States, resulting in him writing lines of poetry to commemorate the events.

From Poem to Song

The poem of “The Star Spangled Banner” is much longer than its musical counterpart. It is an octuplet (eight-lined stanzas) with four stanzas, covering the war’s devastating effects but the resiliency of the United States. The musical rendition is composed of only the first stanza.

It became a popular piece of literature and garnered the attention of soldiers, politicians, and even presidents. Eventually, it was given a cadance and beat similar to “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an English drinking song (ironically). By 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was so enamored by the song (reduced down from eight stanzas to one) that he declared its presence at all official events, including baseball games.

One of its most notable appearances at a sporting event was Game 1 of the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. In the middle of World War I and dealing with the aftershock of a bomb in Chicago the day before the game, the Navy played “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch. It prompted fans and players alike to turn to the flag, place their hands on their hearts, and sing along with the tune.

President Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law on March 3rd, 1931 to declare “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States. The rest, as they say, is history.

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1. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/key-pens-star-spangled-banner
2. https://poets.org/poem/star-spangled-banner
3. https://www.history.com/news/why-the-star-spangled-banner-is-played-at-sporting-events
4. https://time.com/3318644/star-spangled-banner/