A relative newcomer

Today’s trivia question: how long has The Star Spangled Banner been the national anthem?

Oh, most of us genealogists who are history geeks know the words were written during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor by the British during the War of 1812.

It was in fact on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key — a Maryland lawyer — wrote the words on a ship about eight miles from the city after watching the British shell the fort for hours — and fail to take down the American flag flying there.1

The Star-Spangled Banner

The music is another story. It’s an English song originally written around 1777 and the identity of the composer has been a matter of some contention for years. A thorough analysis by William Lichtenwanger for the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress credits the work to John Stafford Smith (1750-1836), and suggests it was written for an English gentlemen’s club.2

And, of course, it’s been described in unflattering terms: “as patriotic as ‘The Stein Song,’ as singable as Die Walküre, and as American as ‘God Save the Queen.’”3

Yeah, well, it isn’t as easy to sing as — say — America the Beautiful.

So when did it become the national anthem?

Not for a very very long time after it was written.

In fact, until 1931, the United States didn’t have a national anthem:

between 1911 and 1931 over forty bills and joint resolutions were introduced … It took twenty years and much agitation to accomplish … But … on March 3, 1931, President Hoover signed Public Law 823 of the 71st Congress. The law proclaimed: “That the composition consisting of the words and music known as The Star-Spangled Banner is designated the national anthem of the United States of America.”4

So… when you’re writing that family history… you might not want to suggest that the folks at the family reunion in — say — 1870 sang the national anthem.

Because at that point there wasn’t one.


SOURCES

  1. “This Day in History: Key pens Star-Spangled Banner,” History.com (https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history : accessed 13 Sep 2018).
  2. William Lichtenwanger, “The Music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill,” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, July 1977, PDF reprint, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 13 Sep 2018).
  3. Charles Braun, “Let’s Waive‘ The Star-Spangled Banner,’” Fact 2, no. 1 (Jan-Feb 1965): 3-7, cited in Lichtenwanger, “The Music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill.”
  4. Lichtenwanger, “The Music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill.”
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