Jul 302013

What IS Right with America? Our National Anthem

It is common knowledge that “The Star Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. We learn to sing the song in elementary school, and we begin to appreciate how difficult of a song it is to singcorrectly when we are a bit older. Yet, there are several interesting details behind the creation of the song, as well as its author, with which you may be unfamiliar. For instance, you might think such a complex song with lyrics that paint such a vivid picture were created by a well-seasoned song writer. Well, think again….

In 1814, Francis Scott Key did not initially write a song entitled “The Star Spangled Banner.” He was not a published song writer, nor was he an author. He had written one song before, “When the Warrior Returns,” which had some of the same phrases as our national anthem, but it had not been a successfully received song by any means. Key was a lawyer in Georgetown, and he appeared before the Supreme Court on many occasions. He did, however, write a poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry.” He was moved to do so after he sat helplessly aboard an American ship which had been detained behind the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay. From an eight mile distance, he watched as Fort McHenry was pummeled by the British during their attack on Baltimore in September of that year. What was he doing on a British ship? Why had he been detained? All of those questions popped into my head as well as I first began to learn the story of our national anthem. 

Key, a well known attorney, offered to assist Colonel John Stuart Skinner in negotiating the release of several prisoners including Dr. William Beanies. Key’s father had served in the Continental Army, and Key had briefly served in a Light Field Artillery unit in 1813. He was a religious man who loved his country. He served in the army even though his religious beliefs caused him to oppose the war. On September 5th, Skinner and Key traveled aboard a flag-of-truce ship to meet with Major General Robert Ross, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane for a meal aboard the British vessel the HMS Tonnant. Although they successfully negotiated Dr. Beanies release, their ship was detained behind British lines out of fear that they would pass along information about British plans to attack the city of Baltimore. Over the course of the battle, more than 1,800 bombs would be hurled toward Ford McHenry. Thrilled to observe the American flag still flying on the morning of September 14, Key began to write the poem, and he completed it after returning to Baltimore on September 16. The attached image is of the flag which Key saw flying over Fort McHenry in 1814. 

Interestingly, Key decided to transform the poem into a song by setting it to the British song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The song had been written by amateur song writer John Stafford Smith in the 1760’s. Over time it had become a popular song that was sung in taverns across Britain and America. The poem and tune, together, form the song that we know as “The Star Spangled Banner.” Although the song was often played by military bands, President Hoover did not sign the joint congressional resolution declaring it to be our national anthem until 1931. 

Read the complete lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner:” 

“O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs 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?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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!” 

What else should you know about Francis Scott Key? His practice of law involved him in several notable cases. He unsuccessfully represented Sam Houston when he was tried by the House of Representatives for beating Congressman William Stanbery with a hickory cane. Houston and Stanbery exchanged a lengthy string of politically driven insults prior to Houston’s assault on Stanbery. Stanbery, by the way, attempted to shoot Houston after begin beaten, but his gun misfired. Just another interesting story relating to elected officials behaving badly….but I digress! As a United States District Attorney, Key prosecuted Richard Lawrence for his attempt to assassinate President Andrew Jackson. The jury declared Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity, and Lawrence was institutionalized for the remainder of his life. A year later, Key took part in a more dubious case. He prosecuted Reuben Crandall for sedious libel. Crandall had abolitionist material in his home, and Key charged him with prompting rebellion of slaves in the Georgetown area. Key himself was the owner of several slaves. 

Key was also an author. In 1837, he published The Power of Literature and its Connection With Religion. Posthumously, a collection of his poems were also published. Amongst other honors, Francis Scott Key was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

Please browse through the videos, music clips, and pictures related to “The Star Spangled Banner” onhttp://www.bingoforpatriots.com/promoting-patriotism-project/patriotic-songs/star-spangled-banner/ 

While you think about how our national anthem came to be created, please take a moment to consider the power you have within yourself. Francis Scott Key memorialized his passion of the moment when he created the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry.” He was not a song writer or even a poet…He was merely a patriotic American who worried about the future of his country and reveled in the victory which he witnessed for himself. The sights and sounds of the British attack must have been horrific, but the sight of the flag and Fort McHenry the next the morning obviously stirred feelings deep within Key. He impacted our nation forever because he ventured to communicate his passion and point-of-view with others. Who amongst all of us that share a concern for the future of our country at this time might have prose or songs within us? Perhaps that person, my friend, might be you.


Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.


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