Nearly 200 years ago, by the dawn’s early light, Carroll County-born Francis Scott Key set to writing the lyrics to one of the country’s most well-known and beloved songs, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then known as “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.”
Throughout the year, Maryland is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the song with Star-Spangled 200, a series of events commemorating the bicentennial. As part of the celebration, the “Star-Spangled Banner” manuscript — handwritten by Francis Scott Key — and the Fort McHenry flag from which the song derives its name have been reunited at the Smithsonian National Museum of History in Washington, D.C., where they will be on exhibit until July 7.
Jill Feinberg, marketing director at Star-Spangled 200, said it was important to bring such iconic pieces together.
In addition to celebrations throughout the state, including a Star-Spangled Spectacular in September, Star-Spangled 200 is celebrating the occasion with a #StarSpangledSummer social media campaign. Residents are encouraged to tweet and post images of 15-star flags, patriotic pets and “Star-Spangled Selfies,” in which people can post images of themselves in front of the flag or national monuments.
Feinberg said “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the most iconic pieces of Americana and deserves to be celebrated.
“The anthem is something that’s just so inspirational,” Feinberg said. “We have people who call it a lullaby, because everybody knows the words and the tune. It’s very comforting. It is our honor and our duty to celebrate this on a national level.”
Francis Scott Key and the Star-Spangled Banner
Francis Scott Key, the man who would become one of the most famous lyricists in American history, was born just north of Keymar in 1779, and served as a lawyer who worked out of Georgetown.
Kristin Schenning is education director at the Maryland Historical Society, which most of the year is home to the “Star-Spangled Banner” manuscript. She said one of the most fascinating things about Key is that he was just an average man who happened to be thrust into history.
“He just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Schenning said. “He was a really good lawyer, but if he hadn’t written this piece, nobody today would know who he is. He captured the feelings of a city and the feelings of a nation.”
Schenning said though many people have an image of Key on a British vessel, writing the poem that would become the national anthem, many aren’t aware of the circumstances that led to the piece.
After an attack in Upper Marlboro during the War of 1812, prominent citizen William Beanes was taken prisoner by British troops. Key joined a collection of other citizens to negotiate for Beanes’ release.
“They met the British on a truce ship and had a rendezvous with the British to discuss releasing Beanes,” Schenning said. “They were successful, but the British decided since they had been out there for several days and were familiar with the British military movements, that they should be detained until after the battle.”
Key, along with Beanes and the rest of the group, were held on the British ship watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore for 25 hours. It was then that he wrote the lyrics on a manuscript that survives today — crossed out lines and all.
“Key was an interesting guy. He was an amateur poet and a lyricist. It was a very common thing back then to take a tune that everybody knows and write new words to it,” Schenning said. “It was not a very literate society, so a lot of people passed news through song. It was a very popular and common thing to do.”
Schenning said there is some disagreement to whether the lyrics were specifically written to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular song of the era, or if the lyrics were retrofitted to the tune after the battle. Despite the disagreement, Schenning said she believes it is clear the words were intended by Key for the tune.
“He wrote another song to that tune that didn’t really go anywhere, so we know that he knows the song,” Schenning said. “It’s very difficult to write a poem and then put it to a piece of music and have it fit just right, so there is no doubt in my mind they were always meant to go together.”
Following the bombardment and his release, Key showed the manuscript to Joseph Nicholson, one of the defenders of Fort McHenry, who then distributed the piece to others in the area. Soon, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” was being reproduced in newspapers across the country.
Despite the song’s immediate popularity, it was not officially designated as the country’s national anthem until 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional resolution.
“It was a very popular song, and it was kind of the unofficial anthem of the military thanks to the influence of John Philip Sousa, but it wasn’t until the Daughters of the War of 1812 and Maryland Senator John Charles Linthicum really fought to have it designated that it took off.”
Schenning says the popularity of the song for the more than 100 years between its creation and designation as a national anthem falls back to Key’s lyrical content.
“It was a very, very unpopular war at the time. We desperately needed a win, and suddenly here comes this thing that people could rally around. It sets the stage, and gives this sense of triumph and joy,” Schenning said. “When people read his words, they could picture it and understand what happened here in Baltimore. It brought the country together and appealed to people on a lot of different levels as well.”