Though a celebrated part of American culture today, "The Star Spangled Banner" has not always been America's national anthem. In fact, some people might argue that the song wasn't always American. How did Francis Scott Key's poetic tribute to the defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 come to be one of the most revered and recognizable songs in America, gaining legal status as the official song of the United States?
When Key, a slaveholder, lawyer, and sometime poet, penned the "Star Spangled Banner," he wanted to give words to his emotions after witnessing the 1814 defense of Baltimore from British invasion. Just after dawn, Key looked to see whether the British or the Americans had taken the day. What he saw stirred him—a huge American flag, the "star-spangled banner," still flying at the fort. On the back of a letter Key immediately began composing his lyrics to the tune of an old English drinking song. Within days, the song became a handbill. Then, a Baltimore newspaper printed it, followed by newspapers around the country. By the 1890s, the Army and Navy had adopted the "Star Spangled Banner" as their official song, and in the midst of World War I President Woodrow Wilson ordered it played on all official occasions.
By the end of World War I, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other patriotic and civic groups began lobbying Congress to make "The Star Spangled Banner" America's official song, but some Americans opposed it because the music was English in origin and the range of notes made it difficult to sing. Prohibitionists pointed out that the song was based on a drinking song, which they felt was inappropriate for a dry country's anthem. Still others rejected its archaic wording, and Peace Movement activists deplored the song's martial spirit. Teachers complained that it did not do enough to teach young Americans how to be good citizens in peacetime as well as in war. Several groups suggested Katharine Lee Bates's "America the Beautiful" as an alternative. But, on March 3, 1931, after twenty years of wrangling and the introduction of some forty bills and joint resolutions in Congress, President Herbert Hoover signed the bill making "The Star Spangled Banner" the official anthem of the United States.
When it was written, "The Star Spangled Banner" reflected the patriotic mood of the new republic and helped make the flag a venerated symbol of America. Today, it still holds special meaning for Americans. Its familiar choruses inspire American pride and optimism. Some opposition to the anthem still exists among those who favor other songs, but the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, rekindled the anthem's popularity.
Kroll, Steven. The Story of the Star Spangled Banner: By Dawn's Early Light. New York: Scholastic, 1994.
Lord, Walter. The Dawn's Early Light. New York: Norton, 1972.
Molotsky, Irvin. The Flag, the Poet, and the Song: The Story of the Star Spangled Banner. New York: Plume, 2001.
Melinda L. Pash
A. S. Hargreaves