This Day In Literary History
On September 14th, 1814, the famous American poet Francis Scott Key wrote his most popular poem Defence of Fort McHenry, which would be renamed The Star-Spangled Banner and become the United States' national anthem.
Earlier unofficial national anthems included My Country, 'Tis of Thee, the lyrics of which, ironically, had been set to the music of the British national anthem, God Save the Queen.
The story of Francis Scott Key's poem begins with the War of 1812, which took place from 1812-1815. On September 3rd, 1814, Key and lawyer-publisher John Stuart Skinner set sail on the HMS Minden on a mission.
Their mission, approved by then President James Madison, was to exchange prisoners with the British, who were about to attack Baltimore after violently sacking Washington DC.
Key was intent on rescuing his friend, Dr. William Beanes - the popular and elderly town doctor of Upper Marlboro, Maryland - who was a prisoner of the British. So, four days later, they boarded the HMS Tonnant to speak with Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane.
The British initially refused to release Beanes, because he had allegedly aided in the arrest of British soldiers. They changed their minds when Key showed them letters written by British prisoners praising the doctor for his kind treatment of them.
Unfortunately, while discussing the prisoner exchange during dinner on the British ship, Key and Skinner also heard British officers discuss the upcoming attack on Baltimore, so they were held captive until after the battle.
On September 13th, from a sloop behind the British fleet, Francis Scott Key watched the British attack Fort McHenry. Throughout the day and into the night, the fort was bombarded with over 1,500 bombs, rockets, and cannon balls. Fortunately, the Baltimore fort was well prepared for such an attack.
Key noticed the huge 30'x42' American flag atop the fort, flying like a beacon of defiance and courage throughout the attack. Using the only piece of paper he had - the back side of a letter that was in his pocket - Key began writing a poem about the battle. Later that night, when it became too dark for the British to see, they stopped firing on the fort.
When they went to sleep, Key and the other Americans aboard the British ships had no idea whether or not their enemies had won the battle. The next morning, Key noticed that the huge American flag was still perched atop Fort McHenry and flying proudly.
The British had been defeated. Key was released, and later that day at the Indian Queen Hotel, he completed his poem, The Defence of Fort McHenry.
Five days later, Key's patriotic poem was printed and circulated throughout Baltimore, with the author's instructions that the poem be sung to the music of the popular English drinking song, Anacreon in Heaven, also known as The Anacreontic Song.
Singing Key's poem to this particular song was supposedly the idea of Key's brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson. The poem and its musical accompaniment were then published as The Star-Spangled Banner by Thomas Carr of Baltimore's Carr Music Store.
The first public performance of The Star-Spangled Banner took place in October of 1814, when it was sung by actor Ferdinand Durang at Captain McCauley's Tavern.
The song's popularity surged throughout the 19th century; it was often played at public events - especially during Independence Day festivities. It was first performed before a major league baseball game in 1897 in Philadelphia.
Despite the popularity of The Star-Spangled Banner, it would not become the United States' official national anthem until 117 years after it was written.
Although then Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed an order in 1897 making The Star-Spangled Banner the official song to be played when raising the flag, it did not become the official national anthem.
It became the official United States national anthem on March 3rd, 1931, when then President Herbert Hoover signed a law making it so. Before then, the United States had no official national anthem.
Though Francis Scott Key's entire 4-verse poem had been published as The Star-Spangled Banner, only the first verse is traditionally sung as the United States' national anthem.
Quote Of The Day
"Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?" - Francis Scott Key
Today's video features actress-comedienne Roseanne Barr's highly controversial - and very funny - performance of The Star-Spangled Banner at a Chicago Cubs baseball game on July 25th, 1990. Also included is a clip of Madonna defending Roseanne's performance. Enjoy!