The Star Spangled Banner
The Star-Spangled Banner is a patriotic song written by Francis Scott Key on September 14, 1814, and officially adopted on March 3, 1931, as the national anthem of the United States. For many years before congressional action made its choice official, the song had been popularly considered a national anthem, and Army and Navy regulations in the 1890's specified that it be played by military and naval bands on ceremonial occasions. Key, a lawyer in Washington, D. C., wrote the words of the anthem in a burst of inspiration during the War of 1812, at a time of acute national distress.
The origin of the melody to which the anthem is sung was long a subject of controversy. The tune is now generally attributed to the British composer John Stafford Smith, who wrote it as a musical setting for the words of a poem called To Anacreon in Heaven, written about 1780 by Ralph Tomlinson, a London lawyer, as the official song of a social and musical organization known as the Anacreontic Society. This song had become well known in America by the 1790's. The words of Adams and Liberty, a patriotic song written in 1798 by the younger Robert Treat Paine, had been sung to the Anacreontic tune. Key himself had used it in 1805 as a setting for a poem he wrote honoring Commodore Stephen Decatur. It may have been in his thoughts as he wrote the words that have been immortalized in The Star-Spangled Banner.
There has been a common misconception that Key wrote the anthem while held by the British fleet that attacked Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Md., but he was not a prisoner of war. Early in September 1814 the British fleet was in Chesapeake Bay off Baltimore after the sortie on Washington, D. C., in which British naval and land forces had taken the city, burned public buildings and stores, and taken William Beanes, a physician of Upper Marlboro, Md., as prisoner. Key, an attorney, was persuaded by friends of Beanes to negotiate his release. With Col. J. S. Skinner, a government agent for the exchange of prisoners, Key went down the bay by sloop to meet the fleet. They were courteously received, and the release of Beanes was agreed upon. But because the proposed attack on Baltimore had been discussed in the presence of the Americans, and troops had been landed to march on the city, Key, Skinner, and Beanes were detained on a ship behind the British lines to prevent them from taking news to Baltimore of the impending attack.
During the night of September 13-14, Key remained on deck anxiously watching the bombardment, although mist and drizzle obscured the fort. At daybreak he could see the U. S. flag still flying above the fort, and, intensely moved, he began to write the poem, scribbling die first draft on the back of an envelope. The British fleet withdrew, the American detainees were allowed to go ashore, and Key went to a hotel in Baltimore, where he made a fair copy of his poem. The next day he called at the home of Judge and Mrs. J. H. Nicholson, relatives of his wife, and showed them this copy.
A fairly well established account is that Mrs. Nicholson at once took die poem to a printer and had handbills made, under the title The Defense of Fort McHenry, to be distributed throughout the city. Later in September the poem was printed in Baltimore newspapers. It met with instant popularity and was soon renamed The Star-Spangled Banner. The actor Ferdinand Durang is credited with having first sung it at a public performance, in Baltimore.
Mrs. Nicholson kept Key's fair copy of the poem until her death in 1847, and it subsequently became the property of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. In 1953 ownership was transferred to the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.