Star-Spangled History: 5 Facts About the Making of the National Anthem

Biographer Marc Leepson shares little-known facts about Francis Scott Key and his patriotic ditty that became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."
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Francis Scott Key Photo

An engraved portrait of American lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. (Photo: Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Francis Scott Key is a name virtually every American knows, but few know about the man himself. Who was Francis Scott Key? And what was he doing in Baltimore Harbor the night of September 13, 1814—aside from writing the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

As we count down the days to the Fourth of July, here are five interesting facts about the man who composed the anthem we’ll all be singing next week on America’s birthday.

1. “Frank” the Lawyer

Key—known to friends and family as “Frank”—was a well-connected, 35-year-old lawyer in Washington, D.C., who volunteered to go to Baltimore on a prisoner-exchange mission. He had been asked by family friends to help arrange the release of Dr. William Beanes, a Maryland surgeon whom the British had taken following the disastrous Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, after which British forces burned the White House and other government buildings in the nation’s capital.

Key, accompanied by Army Col. John Skinner, rode to Baltimore on horseback carrying orders from President Madison and General John Mason, the Commissioner General of Prisons.

2. The Birth of the Anthem

Skinner and Key gave different accounts of their negotiations with the British, each claiming credit that led to the release of Dr. Beanes. Whether Key or Skinner did the convincing, the British agreed to release Dr. Beanes only after the end of the battle they believed would result in the taking of Baltimore. 

While Key, Skinner, and Beanes were confined to the sloop the President, which sat at anchor a mile or two behind the British fleet that bombarded Baltimore, Key spent the night of September 13, 1814, writing the song that would become “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Francis Scott Key Photo

A painting depicts Key aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant viewing the Stars and Stripes still flying above Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore at dawn on September 14, 1814. (Illustration by Ed Vebell/Getty Images)

3. An English Drinking Song?

The words that Key wrote first appeared on broadsides and sheet music soon after the Battle of Baltimore under the title “Defense of Ft. M’Henry.” One of the first reproductions indicated that it was to be sung to the tune of “To Anacreon In Heaven,” an English song composed by John Stafford Smith around 1775. Very well known in the United States, the tune was the theme song of the Anacreontic Society of London, a gentlemen’s club that met periodically to listen to musical performances, dine and sing songs. The club took its name from Anacreon, the ancient Greek poet known primarily for his verses in praise of love, wine, and revelry. That’s why “The Star-Spangled Banner” is commonly referred to as an “English drinking song.”

4. Poem Versus Song?

For nearly two centuries historians believed that Frank Key—a prolific amateur poet—was writing a poem that night. The evidence: Key was not a songwriter; nothing on the untitled verses he wrote in Baltimore indicated they were anything other than a poem; and Key was unmusical at best and possibly tone deaf. Aside from a few religious hymns and possibly one patriotic song, he had not written the words to any song before 1814—or after that, for that matter.

However, Key’s poem’s rhyme and meter almost perfectly match those of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Plus, Key knew the tune as it was used in many songs of his day, including “Adams and Liberty,” a very popular political ditty written in 1798.

Also, it is all but certain that nine years earlier Key wrote a patriotic poem that became a song. At an 1805 dinner in Georgetown honoring Tripolitan War naval heroes Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart the guests sang a song that Frank Key (a Georgetown resident) had written for the occasion.

It contains the lines: “And pale beam’d the Crescent, it’s splendour obscur’d/By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.” More to the point, the song was sung that night to the tune of “To Anachreon on Heaven.”

A recent study by music historian David Hildebrand that takes into consideration all of the poem-versus-song evidence concludes that Frank Key did, indeed, write a song during the Battle of Baltimore.

5. From Patriotic Song to National Anthem

What So Proudly We Hailed Photo

"What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life," a biography by Marc Leepson, hits bookstores today.

Although it was a popular patriotic song throughout the mid and late 19th century and into the 20th, “The Star-Spangled Banner” did not become the official national anthem until 1931. That came about following a long, intensive lobbying effort by patriotic and veterans groups led by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

On January 31, 1931, the VFW presented the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee a petition containing some five million signatures urging adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. The House approved a bill to do so and the Senate followed on March 3, 1931. That same day President Herbert Hoover signed into law a measure designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States, eight decades after the death of the man who wrote the words in 1814.

Journalist and historian Marc Leepson’s latest book, What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life, published today, is the first biography of Key in more than 75 years.