The History Behind the Star Spangled Banner

Filed in American Culture by on September 12, 2014 0 Comments

Photo by Anna Conti.

This weekend marks the 200-year anniversary of the writing of America’s national anthem. “The Star Spangled Banner” is one of the most recognizable songs in the United States. But it is more than just a patriotic song. Behind this piece of music is a rich history that sheds light into the country’s first years as a nation, and an example of a cultural exchange.

In fact, although the song is two centuries old, it was only officially recognized as the national anthem through legislation in 1931. The song’s beginnings are traced back to the War of 1812, which was waged by the United States against Great Britain to protect trading rights and assert our status as a sovereign nation. The British sought to capture the port of Baltimore, but in order to do so, they first had to overcome the defenses of the United States at Fort McHenry.

On the night of September 13, 1814, the British fleet attacked. However, they were unable to capture the fort. As the smoked cleared the next morning, a lawyer named Francis Scott Key was inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over the fort in the midst of the smoke from the cannons and wrote this poem:

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 rocket’s 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, now conceals, now discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on 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 and 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 homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land,
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for 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.

This poem was originally published under the title the “Defence of Fort McHenry” and became widely popular across the states. The music for the song is an example of the value of immigration. The anthem is sung to the tune of what was a popular English drinking song called  “To Anacreon in Heaven” and renamed “The Star Spangled Banner.” The song was officially recognized for use by the Navy in 1889 for ceremonial purposes, and President Herbert Hoover signed legislation in 1931 recognizing it as the national anthem—over 100 years after Key wrote it.

You can view the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and started it all at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Today, the song can be heard before ceremonies and sporting events. You can watch some of the best renditions of “The Star Spangled Banner” below.


What is the national anthem in your home country, and what’s the history behind it? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.