The Birth of "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Francis Scott Key

Defence of Fort M’Henry

1814

VAULT Ruggles 203

Francis Scott Key penned “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the poem that would become “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after watching British ships bomb Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, in September of 1814. This birth of the United States’s national anthem is one of the most well-remembered events of the War of 1812, now in its bicentennial.

That same year, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson set Key’s poem to the popular tune “Anacreon in Heaven,” and it soon became well-known as a patriotic song. “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the nation’s unofficial anthem after the Spanish-American War in 1898, but its place as the National Anthem did not become official until 1931, when it was designated by Congress as such. The Newberry’s collection includes several different printed iterations of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” including its first appearance in a songbook, first printing in a magazine, and many others.

The broadside shown here, printed in 1814 in Baltimore, is a second edition but the first to include Key’s name, and it is one of only three copies of the second edition known to exist. Only a single copy of the first edition survives; it is on permanent display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

A full printing of the poem’s three stanzas is presented on the broadside. There is no music included, only the note “Tune—ANACREON IN HEAVEN.” The broadside opens with a paragraph-long description of the dramatic circumstances under which Key wrote the poem: “In the night he [Key] watched the bomb shells, and at early dawn his eye was again greeted by the proudly waving flag of his country.”

The Newberry will host the 18th Nebenzahl Lectures: The War of 1812 and American Cartography, Thursday, October 24, through Saturday, October 26.