The National Anthem Established: The Star-Spangled Banner Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The US national anthem is made up of two parts, lyrics based on the Francis Scott Key poem “Defence of Fort M'Henry” and music written by John Stafford Smith. The poem was written in 1812, after Key witnessed the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, but it was not set to music and adopted for official use by the US Navy until 1889. Then, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson, through an executive order, authorized its use in official state functions. Only in 1931 did Congress pass a resolution affirming Wilson's order and adopting the song as the nation's official anthem. President Herbert Hoover signed the measure into law the same year, making it part of the US Code (the statutes that control government actions). The law, reproduced below, describes the approved procedure for a proper “rendition of the national anthem.” Also reproduced here are the four stanzas of the Francis Scott Key poem making up the anthem's lyrics. However, only the first stanza is commonly recited during public renditions of the anthem.

Summary Overview

The US national anthem is made up of two parts, lyrics based on the Francis Scott Key poem “Defence of Fort M'Henry” and music written by John Stafford Smith. The poem was written in 1812, after Key witnessed the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, but it was not set to music and adopted for official use by the US Navy until 1889. Then, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson, through an executive order, authorized its use in official state functions. Only in 1931 did Congress pass a resolution affirming Wilson's order and adopting the song as the nation's official anthem. President Herbert Hoover signed the measure into law the same year, making it part of the US Code (the statutes that control government actions). The law, reproduced below, describes the approved procedure for a proper “rendition of the national anthem.” Also reproduced here are the four stanzas of the Francis Scott Key poem making up the anthem's lyrics. However, only the first stanza is commonly recited during public renditions of the anthem.

Defining Moment

Before this legislation was passed in 1931, the United States of America had been without a national anthem. While a simple song might not seem very important, it is an integral part of the national identity of many countries' inhabitants. Much like a university's fight song or creed, a national anthem is a rallying point around which a country's citizens can gather and feel a part of something larger than themselves. By the 1930s, the United States had been a county for over 150 years, and throughout much of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been popular and was played at military events, particularly during the raising of the American flag. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson required its use at certain types of events in 1916; and in 1918, it played for the first time at a baseball game, during the World Series. Based on its wide use, its broad popularity, and its patriotic imagery, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was an obvious choice for the US national anthem.

The year 1931, then, was the first time that a set of rules had been written down and made part of the public record as to how and when to perform the official national anthem. The performing of the national anthem, especially in conjunction with the presentation of the American flag, was and is a symbol of the nation as a whole and all that that entails. Uniformed military personnel and civilian individuals were given separate actions to perform during the playing of the anthem, highlighting the differences between those two categories of citizens. Given that the song is based on a poem about a battle fought by soldiers, any military personnel present at the anthem's performance are, in effect, honoring their fellow soldiers before them and those who will come after. The War of 1812 was a chance for a young United States of America to prove its strength and enduring nature and a song from that period immortalized that nature and projected it forward for each successive generation.

Author Biography

Francis Scott Key was born in 1779 in Georgetown, Maryland, on his family's plantation. He studied law at St. John's College and eventually became a lawyer. He took on many high-profile cases, such as prosecuting President Andrew Jackson's would-be assassin, Richard Lawrence, and was appointed a US District Attorney in 1833. He was also a slave-owner and very active in defending slavery, even prosecuting those who spoke out against the institution. (This is not an unusual position in light of his upbringing.) Key participated in the American Bible Society, the American Colonization Society. He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd in 1802 and the couple had two children. Key is best known for his amateur poetry. Most of his poems reflect his faith and have heavy religious overtones. While “The Star-Spangled Banner” calls upon God, its main theme is the enduring strength of the nation. Key died in 1843, almost ninety years before his poem was made into the national anthem.

John Stafford Smith (1750–1836) was a British composer and organist who is best known for writing the score that later was married with the Francis Scott Key poem to form “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The original music is thought to have been written by Smith in the 1760s and was first published in 1778 as “The Anacreontic Song,” the official song of a gentlemen's society made up of amateur musicians and students of music.

Document Analysis

The relevant portion of the US Code (36, section 301) addresses the military and civilian requirements when the national anthem is played, especially when the American flag is also present. While there is no specific penalty stated for breaking these rules (except, perhaps, for military personnel under the Uniform Code of Military Justice), the strictures noted here have become the norm for all public performances, creating a situation in which one is expected to conform to the guidelines under penalty of public disapproval. Also noted, again, are the different forms of conduct expected of military personnel, in and out of uniform, and civilians.

As for the lyrics, Key's poem touches on several ideals that remain relevant today and perhaps are timeless. While the language of the poem may be somewhat archaic for today's reader, the themes are still clear even 200 years after they were laid down. The spark of inspiration for the creation of the poem was the fact that Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, Maryland, managed to stay standing after being attacked by British forces. The poem opens the morning after the battle, with the speaker daring to hope that he might see the American flag waving over the fort. It is not until near the end of the second stanza, after describing the enemy who lurks outside the fort, that the speaker is able to state with certainty that, “‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! Long may it wave….” The third stanza begins more triumphantly, showing that even though the British, who were the dominant world-power at the time, may have boasted that they would destroy the young American country, they were unable to do so. Yet, the last four lines of stanza three show that terror and death were not absent; rather, they were the price paid for the continued liberty of “the free.”

The final stanza is more typical of Key's other poems. He shows the power of men who seek to protect their homeland, an act that gives them a strength and a purpose that cannot be overestimated. He also thanks God for his intervention in helping to preserve the lives of Key's countrymen. Key was devoutly religious, as were many others of his era, and he believed that the country should embrace the ideals of religion and freedom, in order to create the strongest nation possible.

Essential Themes

The central ideas of the national anthem are the strength and freedom of the United States of America, especially while it is under attack from outside forces. This is particularly relevant to the modern world, where threats seem to come from many sources, even if they are not as obvious or overt as the British sending their ships to engage US forces inside military forts. According to Key's poem, fighting for one's country, protecting it from outside threats, is one of the most important things a person can do. At the same time, he emphasizes the importance of being free. There is a delicate balance, in other words, that can too easily be upset during a crisis.

Key also forswears those who boast of their power, because it is that type of person who often comes before a fall. “The [British] band who so vauntingly swore” that they would destroy the Americans were defeated in battle (although for the war as a whole it is more difficult to identify a clear winner). In alluding to the defense of one's home and the reliance on a god, Key shows his belief that many obstacles can be overcome, even at great odds. Such faith in the power of religion and belief was a large part of the founding era of the country, even though the Constitution created an official separation of church and state.

Finally, the adoption of a national anthem created a formal rallying point for American citizens. Although, before “The Star-Spangled Banner,” there was some debate about whether to choose and anthem and which one it should be, the Francis Scott Key poem seems to have touched on many of the ideals that were then and still are held dear by the widest possible swath of US citizenry. Not always the easiest piece to read or sing (with its somewhat antiquated language and its great musical range, from deep low notes to soaring high notes), still, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has, for two hundred years, given people solace and inspiration. Played at concerts, ball games, military events, Fourth of July ceremonies, flag raisings (“colors”), and many other events, the national anthem is a unifying symbol of the enduring quality of the American people and the nation they created.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cerulo, Karen. “Symbols and the World System: National Anthems and Flags.” Sociological Forum 8.2 (1993): 243–71. Print.
  • Delaplaine, Edward Schley. Francis Scott Key: Life and Times. Biography Press, 1937. Print.
  • Silkett, John T. Francis Scott Key and the History of the Star Spangled Banner. Washington: Vintage America Pub., 1978. Print.
  • Muller, Joseph. The Star Spangled Banner; Words and Music Issued between 1814–1864; an Annotated Bibliographical List with Notices of the Different Versions, Texts, Variants, Musical Arrangements, and Notes on Music Publishers in the United States. New York: Da Capo, 1973. Print.
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