The United States' national anthem is "The Star-Spangled Banner." Even before the song became the country's national anthem, it was a popular patriotic song. Francis Scott Key wrote the song during the War of 1812, as he watched cannons fire over Baltimore Harbor where the Chesapeake Bay and the Patapsco River meet.
The War of 1812
The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, in response to Britain's restrictions on U.S. trade and America's wishes to expand. Britain's Royal Navy had also been engaging in the impressment of American seamen, which involved taking American seamen off of their ships and forcing them to work on British ships instead. This war is sometimes called the Second War of Independence.
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The Battle of Fort McHenry
The Baltimore Harbor in Maryland was an important seaport. Fort McHenry at the Baltimore Harbor was the last line of Baltimore's defense. The British knew that if they were able to capture Fort McHenry, they could take over Baltimore. This would be a huge blow for America, possibly even giving Britain victory of the whole war. The Royal Navy launched a naval attack while other British forces launched a land attack from the other side. This battle lasted for more than 24 hours, and cannons launched rockets high in the air over the harbor, lighting up the sky. American cannons and troops held off the British throughout the night, keeping them from advancing. In the morning, Major George Armistead raised a huge United States flag over Fort McHenry. Everyone who saw this flag knew that it meant that the Americans had succeeded in preventing the British from taking over the fort. The British then retreated.
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Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key was an attorney with a law practice in Washington, D.C. During the Battle of Fort McHenry, Key was on a ship that was anchored in the Baltimore Harbor. He had been working on a case for an American doctor, and he happened to be on a ship when the battle broke out, so he wasn't allowed to leave the ship. Key heard the cannons firing and watched the rockets being launched into the sky throughout that night. As he watched and listened and eventually saw the American flag raised above Fort McHenry, he wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the wrong side of a letter. Eventually, he was allowed to leave the ship, and he went back to work in his law practice. He continued to work on his song lyrics, though, until he had four verses written. A local printer named the song "Defence of Fort McHenry" at first, and some newspapers printed the lyrics. In November 1812, the lyrics were first printed and named "The Star-Spangled Banner." After the War of 1812 ended, Key continued to practice law. He was eventually appointed as a U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia. Key also wrote other songs, but no songs were as popular as "The Star-Spangled Banner." Key died of pleurisy in 1843 when he was 63 years old.
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Setting the Lyrics to Music
The music Key set his lyrics to was an old English drinking song named "To Anacreon in Heaven." John Stafford Smith wrote the song in 1775. This song was popular in the United States in 1814. Francis Scott Key also used the same music for another song he wrote before "The Star-Spangled Banner."
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From Popular Song to National Anthem
The United States military began using the "The Star-Spangled Banner" in military ceremonies during the 1890s. President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order that designated the song as the national anthem of the country in 1916. In 1931, Congress passed an act that declared "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official national anthem of the United States.
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