The Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem of the United States of America. The lyrics come from Defence of Fort McHenry, a poem written in 1814 by the 35-year-old amateur poet Francis Scott Key after he had witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812.
The poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, The Anacreontic Song or To Anacreon in Heaven, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men's social club in London. The song, set to various lyrics, was already popular in the United States, but, after it was set to Key's poem and renamed The Star-Spangled Banner, it soon become a well-known American patriotic song. Although the song has four stanzas, only the first is commonly sung today, with the fourth stanza added on more formal occasions. With a range of one and a half octaves, it is known for being difficult to sing.
Before 1931, other songs served as the hymns of American officialdom. "Hail, Columbia" served this purpose at official functions for most of the 19th Century. "My Country, 'Tis of Thee", whose melody was derived from the British national anthem, also served as a de facto anthem. Following the War of 1812 and subsequent American wars, other songs would emerge to compete for popularity at public events, among them was The Star-Spangled Banner. The Star-Spangled Banner was recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889 and the President in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931 (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301), which was signed by President Herbert Hoover.
The Star Spangled Banner
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight, O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there. Oh, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mists of the deep, Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes, What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep, As it fitfully blows half conceals, half discloses? Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam, In full glory reflected now shines in the stream; 'Tis the Star-Spangled Banner, O long may it wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand Between their loved homes and the war's desolation! Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n rescued land Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto, "In God is our trust" And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Following is condensed from an article by Isaac Asimov in the March 1991 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain, primarily over freedom of the seas. We were in the right and, for two years, we held off the British, even though we were still a rather weak country.
Great Britain was in a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon. In fact, just as the United States declared war, Napoleon marched off to invade Russia. If he won, as everyone expected, he would control Europe, and Great Britain would be isolated. It was no time for her to be involved in an American war.
At first, our seaman proved better than the British. After we won a battle on Lake Erie in 1813, the American commander, Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry sent the message "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
However, the weight of the British navy eventually beat down our ships. New England, hard-hit by a tightening blockade, threatened secession.
Meanwhile, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and in 1814 was forced to abdicate. Great Britain now turned its full attention to the United States, launching a three-pronged attack. The northern prong was to come down Lake Champlain toward New York and seize parts of New England. The southern prong was to go up the Mississippi, take New Orleans, and paralyze the west. The central prong was to head for the Mid-Atlantic States, and then attack Baltimore, the greatest port south of New York.
If Baltimore was taken, the nation, which still hugged the Atlantic coast, could be split in two. Therefore, the fate of the United States rested to a large extent on the success or failure of the central prong.
The British reached the American coast and, on August 24, 1814, took Washington, D.C. Then they moved up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. On September 12, they arrived and found 1000 men in Fort McHenry, whose guns controlled the harbor. If the British wished to take Baltimore, they would have to take the fort.
On one of the British ships was an aged physician, William Beanes, who had been arrested in Maryland and brought along as a prisoner. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and friend of the physician, had come to the ship to negotiate his release. The British captain was willing, but the two Americans would have to wait. It was the night of September 13, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry was about to begin.
As twilight deepened, Key and Beanes saw the American Flag flying over Fort McHenry. Through the night, they heard bombs bursting and saw the red glare of the rockets. They knew the fort was resisting and the American flag was still flying. However, toward morning, the bombardment ceased, and a dread silence fell. Either Fort McHenry had surrendered and the British flag flew above it, or the bombardment had failed and the American flag still flew.
As the dawn began to brighten the eastern sky, Key and Beanes stared out at the fort, trying to see which flag flew over it. He and the physician must have asked each other over and over, "Can you see the flag?"
After the battle was all finished, Key wrote a four-stanza poem telling the events of the night. Called "The Defense of Fort McHenry," it was published in newspapers and swept the nation. Someone noted that the words fit an old English tune called "To Anacreon in Heaven," a difficult melody with an uncomfortably large vocal range. For obvious reasons, Key's work became known as the "The Star-Spangled Banner," and, in 1931, Congress declared it the official anthem of the United States.
Now that you know the story, here are the words. Presumably, the old doctor is speaking and this is what he asks Key:
Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O're the land of the free and the home of the brave?
"Ramparts" are the protective walls or other elevations that surround a fort.
The first stanza asks a question, the second gives an answer:
On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mist of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
"The towering steep" is again the ramparts. The bombardment has failed, and the British can do nothing but sail away, their mission a failure.
In the third stanza, Key allows himself to gloat over the American triumph, which was understandable after the bombardment he had witnessed.
During World War II, when the British were our allies, this third stanza was not sung.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave
The fourth stanza, a pious hope for the future, should be sung more slowly than the other three and with even deeper feeling.
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation,
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just,
And this be our motto, "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.