On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key, an amateur poet, set down the words to a poem that eventually were adopted as the lyrics to America's national anthem. To mark the anniversary of this event, test your skills with these trivia questions about Key and the story behind the origins of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
What Sight Inspired Key to Write the Poem? As the sun rose over Baltimore's Fort McHenry on the morning of September 14, 1814, Key was struck by the defiant and reassuring beauty of the American flag flying high over the fort after heavy bombardment by British forces during the Battle of Baltimore. Although the battle -- a four-day British assault by land and sea -- continued through September 15, 1814, the Americans eventually prevailed, maintaining their hold on strategic landmarks in the bustling port city.
How Did Key Happen to Be in Baltimore? Key, a successful attorney in the nation's capital, less than 50 miles south of Baltimore, had come to the Maryland city a week earlier in a bid to negotiate the release of a close friend, Dr. William Beanes, who had been captured by the British on August 24, 1814. Those negotiations were conducted aboard a British ship that was anchored a safe distance from the British vessels that were shelling Fort McHenry. Joining Key in the talks to free Dr. Beanes was U.S. Army Colonel John Skinner. Although the two Americans had successfully negotiated the release of the doctor, all three Americans were confined to a nearby American flag-of-truce vessel during the bombardment. It was from the decks of that ship that Key witnessed the American flag flying proudly over Fort McHenry on the morning of September 14, 1814.
What Was Key's Title for His Poem? Some scholars maintain that it was always Key's intention to have the words he wrote serve as the lyrics for a patriotic song. However, others argue just as passionately that he was simply writing a poem, which he entitled "Defense of Fort M'Henry." The poem was soon being distributed to Americans on broadsheets, which were elaborate flyers printed on one side only. On some of those early broadsheets bearing the words to Key's poem was the suggestion that those words could be sung to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," a song composed in England in 1775 and widely sung in men's drinking clubs. Many Americans took the suggestion, and the patriotic song, now better known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," grew in popularity over the next several decades.
When Did "The Star-Spangled Banner" Become the Official U.S. National Anthem? Although Key's words, set to the melody of an English drinking song, were widely popular across the United States for decades, it was not until 1931 that the song was officially adopted as America's national anthem. Leading the campaign to designate the song as the national anthem were a number of patriotic and veterans organizations, including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. On January 31, 1931, the VFW presented the House Judiciary Committee with a petition bearing the signatures of roughly 5 million Americans and calling for the adoption of the song as the country's national anthem. The House was quick to approve enabling legislation, which was approved by the Senate on March 3, 1931. Later that same day, President Herbert Hoover made it official, signing the bill into law.