(The following is an article from the September-October 2012 issue of the Library’s new magazine, LCM, highlighting “first drafts” of important documents in American history.)
O! say, can you see by the dawn’s early light …”
These words are as American as, well, the American flag that inspired them.
Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer and poet, was so moved by the sight of the Stars and Stripes that he penned those very words, which became the lyrics to our country’s national anthem.
On Sept. 14, 1814, while detained aboard a British ship, Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British Royal Navy ships in the Chesapeake Bay. The failure of the British to take Baltimore during the Battle of Fort McHenry was a turning point in the War of 1812.
As dawn broke, Key was amazed to find the flag, tattered but intact, still flying above the fort. Inspired, he penned “The Defense of Fort McHenry” (later dubbed “The Star-Spangled Banner”) on the back of an envelope.
Almost immediately, his poem was published with the instruction to sing it to the music of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Contrary to popular belief, it was not a drinking song. Written by British composer and musicologist John Stafford Smith, the tune was the beloved song of the Anacreontic Society, a London society of doctors and lawyers who were avid amateur musicians.
More than a century later, with the help and encouragement of bandleader John Philip Sousa, President Herbert Hoover signed the act establishing Key’s poem and Smith’s music as the nation’s official anthem on March 3, 1931.
The Library holds several hundred editions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” most notably an 1840 copy of the poem in Key’s own hand. According to Loras John Schissel, a specialist in the Library’s Music Division, Key handwrote numerous copies of the poem for friends near the end of his life. The Library purchased its copy, known as the “Cist Copy,” in 1941. According to Schissel, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the only national anthem to end in a question mark.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know what became of the back of the envelope that contained the manuscript original,” he said.
Bound manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (page-turner version)
Download the September-October 2012 issue of the LCM in its entirety here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.