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Who Wrote the National Anthem?

United States flag

Francis Scott Key, a Maryland lawyer and slaveholder, composed ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on September 14th, 1814. It was adopted as the United States’ national anthem more than a century later. There’s much more to the story behind the song, though, and many interesting facts that the ordinary American may not be aware of.

How The Star-Spangled Banner Was Written

The War of 1812 was primarily a conflict between the United States and the United Kingdom, although the French also impacted its outcome. A contributing factor to the war was Great Britain’s interference with American trade using its powerful navy. At that time, the British navy was the most powerful globally.

War of 1812 cannons
The United States declared war on Great Britain in June of 1812.

To maintain the manpower to support such a large navy, the British controversially recruited United States navy personnel into their navy. Consequently, the British were impeding the westward expansion of the United States. The United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812.

In the early stages of the war, the American forces had some remarkable victories. The British were already fighting a major war with France, and their forces were spread thin across several fronts. However, in 1814, they had regrouped, and the course of the war was beginning to turn in their favor. They even invaded Washington D.C. and set the White House on fire.

The Battle of Baltimore

Baltimore was a significant seaport and became a target for the British. Things were looking difficult for the American forces, and on the evening of September 14th. The British began their bombardment of Fort McHenry in wet and misty conditions.

Photo of the USS Constitution
The USS Constitution scored several victories over British ships during the War of 1812.

Coincidently, Francis Scott Key, who had previously opposed the war, was also in Baltimore. He was there to try and negotiate the release of a friend who was being held captive. He was on a ship moored in Baltimore harbor and saw the impressive aerial explosions above the city. Many people felt that the British flag would be flying above the fort by morning, but to everyone’s relief, they met the dawn and saw the American flag still flying.

Still aboard the ship, Key composed the song’s verse, capturing this moment on the back of a letter. The piece was created as an emotional response to a battle between the British and Americans, explaining its anti-British references.

On completing four stanzas, he named the song ‘Defense of Fort M’Henry.’ Key’s brother-in-law Joseph Nicholson had the words printed for distribution. Within days the song was picked up by newspapers across the United States.

The True Origins of the Song

Oddly enough, the song was set to a British song, a popular drinking song composed by John Stafford Smith for a London gentleman’s social club. That song had been called ‘To Anacreon in Heaven.’ It had already become a popular number in the United States and was not the first time the Americans had used the music. It had previously been adopted for a song called ‘Adams and Liberty’ by supporters of John Adams.

It took just a few days before the Baltimore Patriot newspaper reprinted the words.

The First American National Anthem

The first national anthem of the United States was (unofficially) ‘Hail Columbia’, written by Joseph Hopkinson in 1798. It was set to music by Philip Phile and used for the first inauguration of George Washington under the name ‘The President’s March.’ The song served as the national anthem for most of the 19th century. It eventually wained in popularity and was replaced by the Star-Spangled Banner in 1931.

Sculpture of George Washington at Mount Rushmore
Hail Columbia was sung at President George Washington’s first inauguration.

However, in 1916, the year before the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order stating that The Star-Spangled Banner should be played whenever the performance of a national anthem was appropriate, thus superseding Hail Columbia.

The American National March

The United States of America has two official pieces of music. The Star-Spangled Banner has served as the official national anthem since 1931, while The Stars and Stripes Forever has served as the official national march since 1987, according to the United States Department of Defense. John Philip Sousa wrote the music.

Objections to the Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner appears to have been derided for various reasons throughout American history. Some music educators and professional vocalists voiced discontent with the song’s dynamic range, arguing that it was almost impossible to perform and teach the piece.

Pacifists criticized it for having an extremely harsh tone and for being a glorification of violence, among other things. The fact that a British composer penned the song enraged many nationalists in the United States.

They also expressed concern that our national song should not be what is essentially a drinking hymn, as it was in the 1920s, extolling the virtues of booze and sexual immorality.

The original poem consisted of four verses, one of which was dedicated to slavery. Something like this would not be considered acceptable in today’s society. Fortunately, the four verses are not usually performed together as a whole.

While fighting for the British army during the War of 1812, hirelings were black slaves lured into fighting for the British with the promise of ultimate freedom if they managed to survive combat. The only other people named in the poem targeted for death or defeat are slaves and hirelings.

People of color were excluded from Francis Scott Key’s vision of America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” which was based on his personal experience as a slaveholder.

According to Jefferson Morley’s book on the racial riots of 1835, Snow-Storm in August, Key is alleged to have remarked publicly that year that “A distinct and inferior race of people” exists. Key is claimed to have declared in 1835 that “A distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

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