On this day, “by the dawn’s light,” Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to the United States’ national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The inspiration for Key’s great words was the British fleet’s shelling of Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor of Baltimore, Maryland. The year was 1814, and the war was the War of 1812. Key watched the bombardment from an odd perspective. An American lawyer, Key had boarded a British ship prior to the battle to negotiate the release of another American being held by the British. Once on the ship, Key was detained by the British until the battle ended the next morning. Key’s vantage point was from the enemy’s side, where the British fleet aimed its guns at the flag flying over the American fort, a flag that at that time had 15 stars and 15 stripes.
A few days after Key wrote his poem, it was published in American newspapers. Soon people began singing the poem’s words to the tune of an English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The song did not become the national anthem immediately, however. More than one hundred years later, in 1931, the U.S. Congress made it the official anthem (1).
Key’s words are so familiar that we seldom examine the remarkable picture he illuminates with his imagery. Read them again, paying special attention to how he evokes both pictures and sounds:
O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? (2)
Today’s Challenge: An A+ Alternative Anthem
An anthem is a rousing, reverential song of devotion or loyalty to a group, a school, or a nation. While the “Star-Spangled Banner” is certainly reverential, many have criticized it as a song that is too difficult to sing. What would you argue would be a good alternative national anthem? Identify the specific song, its composer, and your specific reasoning for making this song the alternative national anthem. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
1-Bennet, William and John Cribb. The American Patriot’s Almanac. New York: Thomas Nelson, 2008: 350.
2- Key, Francis Scott, 1779-1843. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Public Domain.