National Anthem Day
annually on March 3rd
In the early years of the republic, there were a few popular patriotic songs, such as "Yankee Doodle" and "Hail Columbia," but there was no national anthem. Today we celebrate the "The Star-Spangled Banner," which became the official national anthem of the United States on March 3, 1931. The song was inspired by a real flag and events that took place surrounding it.
The War of 1812 began in June of 1812. The United States achieved some early victories, but after France and Napoleon were defeated at Waterloo in April of 1814, the British were able to focus more on the war in the United States. After invading Washington D.C. and setting fire to The White House and Capitol in August, the British turned their attention to Baltimore, Maryland.
On September 13, Baltimore's Fort McHenry withstood a 25-hour bombardment from the British Royal Navy. Early on the morning of September 14, soldiers hoisted a large (30 x 42 feet) American flag over the fort. At the time, Francis Scott Key, an attorney who worked in Washington D.C., was on a ship in the harbor of Baltimore. He had been working to negotiate the release of Dr. William Beanes, who had been captured in an earlier battle. Although he was able to secure Beanes' release, the Americans were told they could not leave until the bombardment was over. As Key saw the flag wave over the fort, he wrote the first verse of what would become "The Star-Spangled Banner." At the time he named it "Defense of Fort M'Henry."
Sometime shortly thereafter, Key wrote three more verses. (Today just the first verse is commonly sung, with the fourth verse sometimes being used at formal occasions.) The verses were issued on a broadside by a local printer on September 17, and they were printed in two Baltimore newspapers, the Baltimore Patriot and The American, on September 20. The words were then printed by more papers along the East Coast.
Key set the verses to the tune of an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven" (also known as "The Anacreontic Song"), which was written in 1775 by John Stafford Smith and originally performed by the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen's club in England. The song eventually became popular in the United States. Its subject, Anacreon, was an ancient Greek poet known for loving wine. Key had previously used the tune to accompany verses he had written in 1805 about American naval victories in the Barbary War. In fact, some of the wording he had used in the verses for that war were similar in nature to those in "Defense of Fort M'Henry." By one account, it was Key's brother-in-law who noticed the new verses fit the same melody, and convinced him to use it again. In October, Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang gave the first public performance of the song, and the following month the song appeared in print under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the first time.
The song gained in prominence following the Civil War, because it was about the flag and the flag was increasing as a symbol of national unity at the time. It became a staple of Fourth of July celebrations and other patriotic events. In the 1890s, the U.S. military began using it for ceremonies. In particular, it became the song of the Navy's flag raisings.
Woodrow Wilson signed an order in 1916 to make "The Star-Spangled Banner" the national anthem, but it did not become the official anthem until Congress passed a law fifteen years later. Wilson also asked the Bureau of Education to standardize the song, as there were a few different versions at the time. Five musicians worked on the song, including John Philip Sousa. The new version was first performed on December 5, 1917.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" made its major-sporting-event debut on September 5, 1918, at Chicago's Comiskey Park, during the first game of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. The United States was in World War I at the time, and there was some added emotion in the air because a bombing had taken place the day before at the Chicago Federal Building. A military band played the song during the seventh-inning stretch, and players and fans saluted. The song soon began being sung at other baseball stadiums, and then spread to other sports.
On April 15, 1929, Rep. John Linthicum (D-Md.) introduced a bill to make "The Star-Spangled Banner" the national anthem. He had previously introduced such a bill four times before, going all the way back to 1918. As part of his district was in Baltimore, some thought that he was pushing for the bill for himself and for his district more than he was doing it for patriotism and the country. The bill eventually got a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, and Linthicum presented them with a petition with 5 million signatures, which had been organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He also presented them with resolutions and letters from 150 organizations and messages of support from 25 governors. The House approved the bill on April 21, 1930, and the Senate did on March 3, 1931. President Herbert Hoover signed it the same day and the "Star-Spangled Banner" became the official national anthem of the United States.
Although it has largely been looked upon as a patriotic song about freedom, it has not been without controversy. Key owned slaves for many years, including at the time when he wrote the song, which includes the line "the land of the free." He eventually freed his slaves, and his position was that slaves should return back to Africa. In recent times, some have used the song to protest racial injustice, by staying seated or kneeling when the anthem is played at sporting events. They have seen this as a patriotic gesture, while others have seen it as quite the opposite.
And what became of the actual star-spangled banner that the song was written about? The flag had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill with the help of a few others. After the battle, it was given to George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry. He died a handful of years later and his widow, Louisa, received it. It stayed in the family for many years and was rarely seen. In 1878, the Armistead's grandson, Eben Appleton, inherited the flag. He allowed it to be displayed at Baltimore's sesquicentennial in 1880, but then put it in a safety deposit box because he wanted to preserve its condition. He loaned it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907, and donated it permanently to them in 1912, with the request that it be on display for the public. In the late 1990s, a preservation project was undertaken. The flag can be visited today at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
How to Observe
There are many ways to celebrate the day:
- Read, memorize, and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
- Visit the original Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History.
- Visit the home where the flag was sewn.
- Explore Fort McHenry, where the flag once flew.
- Read a book about the "Star-Spangled Banner," such as Marc Ferris' Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem or Marc Leepson's What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life.
- Watch a documentary about "The Star-Spangled Banner," or watch a video about the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit.
- Watch or listen to noteworthy renditions of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
- If you are not from the United States, find out if your country has a national anthem, and learn about it and its history.