No other national anthem as eloquently honors a country’s flag as he Star Spangled Banner. The anthem not only accompanies almost every major American function, bestowing significant honor on those asked to sing the song, but is perhaps the best recognized in the world. SundryShop.com celebrates the 4th of July with an original story that explains how a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the war of 1812 against the British came to be paired with a tune written by John Stafford Smith years earlier to create our national anthem!
The 4th of July commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain.
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The History Behind Frances Scott Key’s National Anthem – An Original Story
Through the Eyes of a Youth During the 1780s
"Francis!" boomed the commanding voice of Lieutenant John Key. There was no response as the wind whistling through the colonial home. "Francis!" the lieutenant called again this time with more intensity. No answer again, but this time the faint playful laugh of child hiding behind behind the stairs draws the lieutenant’s attention, followed by the heavy sound of boots making their way to the child. As the chuckling increases, a large powerful hand grasps the back of a collar and pulls a giggling eight-year-old Francis out from behind the stairs. The immense lieutenant looms over the young Francis, "I'm going out. Stay here and mind."
"Yes, sir," Francis respectfully replied.
"That's a good boy!" John says, winking and patting his son on the head as he turns and marching out of the house. Minutes later young Francis darts out of the house after his father.
Making sure to keep his distance, the mischievous young Francis follows his father though the dimly lit streets of the 1780's Westminster, Maryland. As Lieutenant Key reaches a small discreet door, he warily looks over his shoulders, and then knocks. The door opens immediately and Lieutenant Key slips inside before the door slams shut behind him. Scampering over to the entrance, Francis hears a mass of male voices coming from within. Noticing a gap between the heavy oak door and the cobble stone street, Francis planes himself on the street and peers under the crack.
The dim light of a few oil lamps allows Francis to barely observe the scene that was shrouded by clouds of smoke that fills the room like a thick fog. The chatter dies down as a tall, weathered man takes the platform at the front of the room. "Gentleman of the Anacreontic Society," he bellows "we have a distinguished guest amongst us tonight! The composer of our secrete society’s constitutional song, Mr. John Stafford Smith." The room erupts with robust applause. John Smith stands up from his seat at the organ and raises his hat to the crowd of men.
"Let us show our British guest how well America can sing “To Anacreon in Heaven," booms the tall man. As John Smith plays the tune on the organ, the other men’s shoulders lock and they sway in unison as they sing the lyrics [http://www.miketodd.net/encyc/anacreontext.htm]. They were no longer a group of individual professionals, but rather a banned group of brothers who were united in secrecy and revelry.
Wanting to join the unity that came from inside the room, Francis presses his face closer to the door. Just then Francis feels himself lifted from the cobblestones. Looking over his shoulder Francis beholds the stern face of Dr. Thompson. "Does your father know you're here?" Saying nothing, Francis stares at him with frightened eyes. Still holding the young boy by his collar, the doctor bursts though the doors. The echo of the singing rings though the young Francis's ears as he is dragged though the mass of men. As the doctor and his captive reach the front of the room, the singing stops; only the organ music continues.
"Key?" The doctor yells at the crowd holding Francis up for the crowd to see. Lieutenant Key steps out of the mass of men, his face read with anger. "Go home Francis. Go on. Get!" The doctor releases the boy who races toward the door. As he is about to exit, he turns for one more look. While everyone seemingly stares back at him as though he is a naughty intruder, he locks eyes with John Smith, who gives Francis a faint smile.
Frances Scott Keys’ Resolve and Inspiration, 1814
In 1814, the warm September sun beats down upon a small rowboat in the middle of the Patapsco River. By then, Francis is a part-time poet and a lawyer. He comes with Colonel John Skinner to negotiate with the British the release of Dr. William Beanes, a friend whom the British captured following the attack on Washington.
A massive English warship that is but a few meters ahead dwarfs the rowboat. As the rowboat bobs against the mighty battleship, a tall, handsome thirty-five-year-old sailor stands in the bow and bellows, "Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner requesting permission to board!" After an agonizing moment of silence, a small rope ladder comes flying over the side of the ship. Francis grabs the ladder while John ties a tether to the rowboat so it can then be further secured and lifted along the ship’s side. The two men then begin the assent to the deck of the ship.
Once on the crowded deck, a rotund British Officer, "Admiral Alexander Cochrane," introduces himself to the two men and then continues, "May I also present to you, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross."
"Gentlemen," Francis replies with a nod of his head "we are here on the orders of President Madison to negotiate the release of Dr. Beanes and other American prisoners." Admiral Cochrane looks directly into the eyes of Francis and laughs. "Sure, sure we can talk, but I must tell you, your efforts are futile. See all those dots on the horizon?" Francis and John squint their eyes to see the hundreds of little black specs far off in the distance. "You see before you, sirs, the entire force of the Royal Navy preparing to wipe your Fort McHenry off the map." Admiral Cochrane states with a smug smile. "So while we can talk, it will be of no use, for this war will be soon over." To this, the British sailors let out a thunderous cheer. Momentarily Keys remembers the burning of the Capital city and the White House, and he trembles at the thought that Baltimore might soon fall, as well.
"May we check our men?" Francis asks. "Take them down. Let them see the prisoners," the Admiral barks at his right-hand man. As they enter the sweltering brig of the ship, the stench of men held in cramped quarters, without bathing and with little food or drink, foully greets Francis and John. Apart from a few moans and scraping of chains against the beck, the brig is quiet. Francis and John move from prisoner to prisoner, gathering names, ranks, and injuries. He finds Beanes, in better spirits than he believed possible. Remarkably, while making their way though the sea of imprisoned men, they hear the same query from every solider, "Is the flag still flying?"
Beanes joins Francis and Skinner on the main deck, the portly Admiral Cochrane again greets Francis, "I see that you found your man”.
"Yes, sir," answers John, "We will accept no less than a one for one release!" To this, the Admiral contemptuously laughs out loud. To further dismiss the weight of the proposal, the admiral istates, " The three of you know far too much and will be detained on this ship until the battle is over. You are now guests of the Royal Navy. Come dine with me. We can watch the destruction in a civilized fashion." "Sir!" Francis interjects, " Fort McHenry is more of a town than a fort. There are hundreds of women and children there." Admiral Cochrane slowly moves closer to him as he speaks, "Well, lucky for them there is an easy way to make the bombing stop." He pauses to create an air of suspense, "Take down that bloody flag!" He turns on his heals and marches toward his cabin, "Will you gents also be joining us for tea after dinner?" he asks, not looking back.
Hope Flashes Amidst Endless Bombardments and a Poem is Born
Just as the sun begins to set during the evening of the 12th, a light rain begins to fall and slowly intensifies in strength. The first volley of canons is released on Fort McHenry, their cracks and booms slicing through the air and sending shivers down Francis's spine. The canons thunder ceaselessly throughout the night. Often, a shell hits the rampart, catching fire and illuminating the fort in a red glare. Francis, William, and John watch from the deck for some proof that the flag, almost three miles away, is still standing. To their amazement, they experience a sense of hope as fire illuminates a flag that seems larger than life.
After countless hours of relentless bombing, Admiral Cochrane bursts though the cabin doors, "Why won't they lower that bloody flag?" he yells in John's face. "Every gunship in the Royal Navy is pointed at the flag, and you idiots won't bring it down!" He slams his hand on the table and storms out of the cabin. Then, suddenly, during the deep of night of the 13th, after rain began to pour relentlessly, the sound of gunfire ceases. The dark night somberly shrouds the three men. They stand trembling, looking in the direction of where the flag had been flying, not knowing the outcome of the battle.
Francis, awe struck by the previous images of the unfaltering flag, begins penning a poem in on the back of an envelope. In his head a tune plays over and over, inspiring his verse. Even though it has become over the years a popular pub tune, he knows it is the only one that can hold the power of his words. It is the same tune that had brought a group of men together when he was a young boy. Now as a man, he knows that the tune written by John Stafford Smith paired with his words he is writing will have the power to bring men together once again.
Even while uncertain about the outcome of the battle, Key begins to write the “Defense of Fort M'Henry”
O, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming
While the morning fog rolls down the river and settles onto the Baltimore Bay, the canons continue to lie quiet. Amidst the smoke and rubble in the distance, Key can see a flag still stands. But he is uncertain if it is the British or the American flag. He continues writing,
What is that which the breeze o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
As the sun rises more fully, Francis incredulously beholds that the star shaped Rort McHenry has withstood the onslaught of the cannons, and the 42ft long flag, with 8 red stripes, 7 white stripes and 15 white stars, continues to wave proudly. He passionately writes,
Tis the star-spangled banner - O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The admiral approaches, "I have no authority to keep you any longer." He pauses, looking down at his Francis’ feet. "Your people are bloody fools," nodding his head in the direction of the flag, “For many lie about the base of that flag, a massive slaughter, indeed. But, the Americans have won the battle. We will return you to shore on the 16th.”
After reaching the fort, Key completes all four verses [http://www.miketodd.net/encyc/anthtext.htm] while in the Indian Queen Hotel, Keys, and the local judge deems it so inspiring that he soon disseminates the printed verse throughout the fort. By 1916, Woodrow Wilson designated that the song become the national anthem that, to this day, continues to enthrall and bind the entire country.