THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER                                               written in 1815

The Story

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) was an attorney in Washington, DC when the War of 1812 broke out. Though he is best known for writing this song – our national anthem, he also wrote many hymns and was a leader in the national organization of the American Sunday School Union.

In 1812, President James Madison asked Francis to try to negotiate the release of a physician who had been taken prisoner by the British. The British admiral granted Francis’ request for a visit, but because an attack on Fort McHenry and the city of Baltimore was about to be conducted, Francis was detained aboard the truce boat.

So Francis waited… pacing the deck all night. He could hear the British ships of the Royal Navy bombarding the Fort from Baltimore Harbor. As dawn revealed first light, Francis could finally see “the broad stripes and bright stars” of the American flag flying over the fort.  They had survived… and had held strong! That day, after he had been released, he went back to the city and wrote the first draft of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter… though its original title was “Defense of Fort McHenry”. Before the day was over, this anthem was printed and circulated all over Baltimore.

The flag that was waving over Fort McHenry that night is still on display in Baltimore.

The poem was set to the tune of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith (1750-1836) for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London.  “To Anacreon in Heaven” (or “The Anacreontic Song”), with various lyrics, was already popular in the United States. Set to Francis’ poem and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, it soon became a well-known American patriotic song. With a range of one octave and one fifth (a semitone more than an octave and a half), it is known for being difficult to sing. Though the poem has 4 verses, only the first is commonly sung today.

It is the last verse that might cause this anthem to be classified as a hymn.

The Song

            Read this song, and – today – remind yourself of the freedom our flag represents.

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
what so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming;
whose broad stripes and bright stars through 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 through the night that our flag was still there;
O 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 through 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!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
that the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
a home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d 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.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.


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