Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Star-Spangled Banner: First printed on September 17, 1814

Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern

No song of patriotism has ever proclaimed liberty to the hearts of more Americans than Francis Scott Key's The Star-Spangled Banner. However, what is not commonly known is that the tune of our national anthem was originally the theme song of the Anacreon English "Gentleman's" club. In other words, the song reflected all the vulgarity of such clubs during the time. But how was such a song redeemed? What is the story behind the Star-Spangled Banner?

Francis Scott Key made Georgetown along the Potomac River his home with his wife and eleven children. War broke out in 1812, when shipping disputes between Britain and the United States could not be resolved. In August of 1814, The British moved up the Chesapeake Bay, invaded Washington, and burned the White House. Word was sent to Key that the much loved elderly town physician of Upper Marlboro, Dr. William Beanes, had been captured by the British, and fearing that Dr. Beanes would be hanged the townspeople asked Key to do something. Having Col. John Skinner, an American agent for prisoner exchange, accompany him, Key set out for the British flagship TONNANT. After a conference with British officers Gen. Ross and Adm. Alexander Cochrane, Ross and Cochrane agreed to release Dr. Beanes after the planned battle for Baltimore. Supposedly, Dr. Beanes was privy to more information about the Baltimore invasion than the British felt comfortable with. Accordingly Key, Skinner, and Dr. Beanes were detained at first on board the H.M.S. Surprise and then on a smaller British sloop until after the battle.

Fort McHenry, as any American will remember from his fourth grade history book, was the obstacle stopping a British invasion of Baltimore. The fort had been designed by the Frenchman Jean Foncin on behalf of the then Secretary of War, James McHenry. In the summer of 1813, the general of the fort, Gen. George Armistead, asked for a flag that, "the British would have no trouble seeing from a distance." Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore and her thirteen year old daughter Caroline made the enormous flag, with fifteen stars that were each two feet long from point to point and eight red stripes and seven white stripes two feet wide. The total dimensions of the flag were thirty by forty feet, costing a total of $405.09. The fort was ready for attack.

As the 13th of September, 1814, dawned, the twenty five hour long British naval bombardment of the fort began. 1,500 bombshells each weighing 220 pounds were launched from the British ships! These new Congreve rockets were rather unpredictable though, and many exploded in mid-air. They contained lighted fuses that would go off when reaching the target. Red hot was the glow of these new monsters in the night sky. Because the Americans had sunk twenty-two British ships, a close approach was unthinkable. The British must pound their way through. That evening the firing stopped, only to resume again at 1:00 am on the 14th in full vigor. From behind the battle, Key, Skinner, and Dr. Beanes were forced to watch the battle with utmost anxiety. Would Fort McHenry hold up against the weight of the greatest navel power in the world? Only the fort's flag would tell. That night the question remained unanswered, and the flag veiled from sight. Long before daylight, the British had stopped their guns. What could that mean? Had the British taken the fort so effortlessly? Oh how Key must have strained in the darkness to catch a glimpse of what flag hung on the fort's flagpole! Then, the morning swept in, and the breeze caught the first rays of light and hope, reflecting a star-spangled banner. At last, "the flag was still there!" The British had called a full retreat of both land assault and naval bombardment. They considered the seizure of Baltimore too costly a venture after twenty five hours of vain bombardment. If only
Adm. Cochrane had known what American spirit would spring from the head of his defeat, he may not have given up so easily.

Key, filled with hysteric relief, scribbled his famous poem on the back of a letter which he had pulled out of his pocket. And so, in typical down-to-earth and straightforward American fashion, our nation's anthem was literally pulled from a breeches pocket! Key then handed the words to his brother-in-law, Judge J. H. Nicholson, and Nicholson took it to a printer. The first copy seems to have been printed on September 17th. Copies of the poem under the title "Defense of Fort McHenry" soon circulated around Baltimore, and on September 20th the poem was published in the Baltimore Patriot. The song was attached to the tune "Anacreon in Heaven," and preformed by a Baltimore actor under the name The Star-Spangled Banner. The Anacreon tune had already made it from England to America, and been used in conjunction with the new lyrics of the songs Adams and Liberty and Jefferson and Liberty. The tune's unique meter and broad range seemed perfect for the occasion.

Many years later on March 3, 1931, President Herbert C. Hoover signed the Act into law that made the Star-Spangled Banner America's national anthem. The Act had been fairly controversial, as some found the piece too difficult to sign and disliked the vulgar history of the tune. However, strong supporter of the Act, John Philip Sousa, believed the song contained "soul-stirring" words, and "it is the spirit of the music that inspires." As the Act did not actually repeat the words of the song, some discrepancies still exist. But the theme remains the same for all Americans: a theme of hope, stability and bravery, where the free remain victorious amidst a tumultuous world.


Sources:
http://www.usflag.org/history/francisscottkey.html
http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200000017/default.html
First print date of the Star-Spangled Banner from Wikipedia (I couldn't find a confirming source.)
Image from here

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