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The Song Goes on ‘Til the Break of Dawn

Now gallantly streaming on Spotify and Amazon Prime, America’s national anthem is a relatively new idea that found its legal place in our national identity as late as 1931.

This 1814 copy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the first printed edition to combine the words and sheet music. Currently this is one of only ten copies known to exist, and is housed in the Library of Congress.

Imagine the White House burned to cinder.
The Capitol collapsing into smoke and char.
The lane between the two a soot-choked corridor of smoldering federal buildings.

If you can imagine that scene, then you know exactly what British troops left behind them as they marched from D.C. to Baltimore in the late summer of 1814, as the “War of 1812”—a trade skirmish that escalated into full-blown war—waged into its third year. The young nation, only recently liberated from Britain after the Revolutionary War, found itself on the brink of a royal thrumming by the war powers of England. Bankrupt, obliterated and with its government on the run from advancing British troops, the struggling republic toppled towards dissolution. If Baltimore fell, there would be no hope for America’s survival. With the Brits closing in from Canada, inching warships into the Patapsco River toward Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and marching 4,500 highly-trained soldiers to the city, the nation looked as though it would soon be back under British control.

With these high stakes, the citizens of Baltimore threw their might against the British, banning together to reinforce the harbor and the city. As the 4,500 redcoats advanced on the city, they were met by 15,000 American citizens manning an unexpectedly impressive defensive earthworks. For 25 hours, the formidable British navy lobbed bombs and artillery at Fort McHenry trying to force a surrender that never came. When the sun rose in the morning, American soldiers hoisted a 42-foot-by-30-foot American flag, known as the star-spangled banner, over the fort as the British beat a grudging retreat.

The raising of that enormous flag symbolized the triumph—and the hope—of a new nation that refused to bow to tyranny.

Engraving of the bombardment of Fort McHenry by John Bower.

Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old Maryland barrister and gifted amateur poet, witnessed the attack from the water. He’d been held aboard a British ship negotiating the release of an American POW, Dr. William Beanes. A raging storm added to the drama of the attack during the night, and the sight of an American flag rising with the bright, new dawn so inspired Key to grab the back of a letter and pen a verse of poetry as he and the other Americans were released:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Later that night, Key would write the remaining three verses. The poem, first titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” appeared in two Baltimore papers shortly after the victory along with a melody Key had chosen to accompany the lyrics. The song caught on, and by November 1814, only two months after the Battle of Baltimore, America had “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript copy of his “Star-Spangled Banner” poem, now on display at the Maryland Historical Society.

Ironically or fittingly, depending on your perspective of American history, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is set to the tune of a British drinking song made popular by a London gentlemen’s club called The Anacreontic Society. The club adopted Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet specializing in drinking songs and hymns, as their emblem, and composed their own drinking hymn called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The melody, written by John Stafford Smith, would be almost note-for-note copied by Key for the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Here’s “To Anacreon in Heaven,” nicknamed “The Anacreontic Song” for the club that made it popular. You can sing our national anthem in your head over the rather saucy and now hard-to-make-sense-of original words:

“The Star-Spangled Banner” landed in league with other patriotic songs of the times including “Yankee Doodle,” “Hail, Columbia” and “My Country “Tis of Thee” (whose melody is a repurposed “God Save the Queen,” the British national anthem). The song wasn’t as popular as the other three until the Civil War, when the notion of national unity took on a deeper meaning. A cursory review of history seems to indicate that—despite divisive moments—America’s true hope is to be truly united states. With this current of feeling dashing through a traumatized populace, post-Civil War sentiment embraced “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a statement of American identity.

As often happens with music, dance and other performing arts, they serve an irrevocable purpose of capturing feelings and meanings of enormous social and historical value. So it was for Key’s soaring tribute to a new nation’s fortitude and lofty aspirations for freedom for all people.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. military regularly used “The Star-Spangled Banner” for ceremonies, especially those involving the lowering or raising of the flag. In 1918, during a World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, the military band on hand launched into the song during the seventh-inning stretch. The Chicago Federal Building had been bombed the day before, and America was amidst the turmoil of World War I. At the sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” players and fans joined in an impromptu saluting of the flag in silence.

Photo from a 1918 World Series game at Comiskey Park. (Photo:

Again, the moment took hold of national feeling, and playing the song while saluting—or putting the right hand over the heart—in silence became common practice at sporting events. What’s interesting is that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t even the national anthem in 1918. The song entered the lawbooks on March 3, 1931 thanks to Maryland representative John Linthicum, who lobbied for “a national song to give expression to its patriotism,” which, naturally, was met by much resistance from citizens who did not feel that laws were needed to make people patriotic. However, the bill passed, and Herbert Hoover signed off on it despite common feelings that the song was too hard for normal people to sing. That complaint, to this day, remains valid, as we all know if we’ve ever been to an American sporting event.

Though a drinking song melody of our oppressors, the American national anthem enjoys its big day this week as July 4 marks our 242nd year of independence from British rule. It commemorates a moment when America was hanging onto itself by the skin of its teeth, and we almost lost our republic except for the valiant efforts of everyday people to fight for what we could be.

Happy Fourth of July.

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