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First Drafts: “The Star-Spangled Banner”

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(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 …”


Francis Scott Key autographed manuscript of “The Star Spangled Banner,” 1840. Manuscript Division.

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.


Comments (16)

  1. I don’t think there’s any dispute that To Anacreon in Heaven is a drinking song, based on its lyrics (multiple versions abound):

    To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
    A few Sons of Harmony sent a petition;
    That he their Inspirer and Patron wou’d be;
    When this answer arrived from the Jolly Old Grecian;
    “Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
    No longer be mute,
    I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
    And besides I’ll instruct you like me, to intwine,
    The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”


    Ye Sons of Anacreon then join hand in hand;
    Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love!
    ‘Tis yours to support what’s so happily plann’d;
    You’ve the sanction of Gods, and the Fiat of Jove.
    While thus we agree,
    Our toast let it be:
    “May our Club flourish Happy, United, and Free!
    And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine,
    The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”

  2. I wish everyone would sing it..instead of just listening now……

  3. The story behind our national anthem is both fascinating and evolving at the present time. Therefore I am sorry to see so many myths being perpetrated in this article. It was never a poem, but from the start conceived as lyrics to the Anacreontic tune, an extremely well known melody in America from 1798 on, especially though its use for “Adams and Liberty, or, The Boston Patriotic Song.” Key was not on a British ship at the time, but rather on his own American ship, under guard of the Brits. He did not write on an envelope, as envelopes were not yet invented. And no one back on shore ever needed to suggest a melody, as his words were always bound to that tune.

    For scholarly substantiation of these things please watch my lecture on the topic, hosted at

    or listen to the public radio program I wrote entitled “From Broadside to Anthem: Music of the War of 1812″ at

    I have invested years now in researching these things — if anyone out there has any primary evidence that substantiates the old myths (not hearsay reports, such as those of Charles Durang decades later) please chime in. I would welcome the dialogue.

    Finally, in her carefully researched “Document Deep Dive” created for the Smithsonian, Megan Gambino incorporated my suggestions already mentioned, plus others even more challenging. See

    David Hildebrand, Ph.D.
    Director, The Colonial Music Institute

    PS — any song focusing on Venus & Bacchus, and published as “As Sung at the Crown and Anchor Tavern ” IS a drinking song, in my view, but there is nothing wrong with that if you are familiar with the rampant use of parody in early American music.

    • Thank you for your comments Mr. Hildebrand and lentigogirl. I’ve asked one of the Library’s music specialists, Loras Schissel, who also collaborated on the article, to offer further information. According to Schissel, he’s not familiar with any writings by Key indicating that he had set out to write a lyric versus a poem. Its verse is well-suited as poetry or as a song lyric.

      As far as the ship in question, various accounts list the HMS Surprise or the HMS Minden. Can you tell us which American ship Key was said to be on?

      If envelopes were not invented yet at the time, perhaps as letters were often folded and sealed with the address on the verso, the article should have stated:”Key wrote on the verso of a letter.”

      According to Schissel, the poem was printed with the directive to sing to the tune “Anacreon in Heaven,” so the article isn’t saying that how to sing the song came from individual or popular opinion.

      And, as to whether “Anacreon in Heaven” was or was not a drinking song, here we chose to not agree that it was. It all depends on what you think a “drinking song” is. Schissel cites the following:

      A first hand account of a meeting of the Society:
      From R. J. S. Steven’s “Recollections.”

      “After the Anacreontic Song had been sung, in the chorus of the last verse of which, all the members, visitors and performers joined ‘hand in hand,’ we were entertained by the performance of various celebrated catches, glees, songs, duettos and other vocal, with some rhetorical compositions, till twelve o’clock.”

      Accounts describe society president Ralph Tomlinson wanting a song to “show off” his good singing gifts (and maybe his wide vocal range), but Schissel has never seen a first-hand account indicating that the song was performed by a group of drunken professionals. The aforementioned account does go on to mention that after the society president had “left the chair,” things went down hill. But Schissel really does think it was a club song–singing the praises of fellowship, wine and food. The fact that women were known to visit the meetings (noted some weeks after Haydn’s visit), he just don’t see it as a bawdy type song.

      He also adds, after quoting all the lyrics (which you can see here, that one toast and “Venus’ Myrtle and Bacchus’s vine” is not much to prove it a drinking song.

  4. I have a hand written copy of it. Has been in my family for years. Any idea of a value or someone I can talk to about it?

  5. I have a
    written copy of The Star Spangled Banner written on French paper with a French watermark. I know its real because my great great grandfather named William curry was in the war fighting under General Harrison. I was just wondering as hold it is just thinking what to do with it. email me backor I read this again anybody put in any message thank you Gary

  6. An apostrophe – No “s.”

    As I’ve been saying for years. What Scott described was a painting on a deep blue canvas. As originally written (and intended), the flag could not be seen and the last time he knew for sure was by tracking a SINGLE rocket that pierced the darkened sky, thus grabbing Key’s focus. Not until its BOMB burst did the sky illuminate to such a degree as to reveal “that our flag was still there.” FSK painted an emotional scene taut with apprehension when that last bomb burst gave the last proof that the flag was still there. It is implied that the fighting rockets and bombs ceased and for a spell there was no way to know if it was as a result of victory or failure.

    So, I maintain, the lyrics as they have been sung incorrectly all these many years lack the original mastery and vision of its painter. It is far more emotional to track a single, and what proves to be the LAST, rocket’s red glare through a dark sky and with its payload’s explosion the LAST thing you see is our flag. The time between that last ‘BOMB bursting’ and breaking dawn was absolute torture. But when dawn broke, FSK was so overwhelmed with the answer, yes! “our flag was still there.”

  7. I have a written copy that was rolled up on dark waxy looking paper that my grandfather gave me and I’m curious to find out what the value of it is and where I can go have this looked at.

  8. The music was chosen because of the songs popularity, it was a tune all Americans knew and as such a great choice for our national anthem.

  9. How many copies of The Star-Spangled Banner was written to friends before he passed away I seem to think that I may have an original copy of The Star-Spangled Banner signed

  10. I also believe I have a copy of the original. Someone please contact me with information.

  11. jacob durang is my great grandfather x’s 7. he is of direct ancestry to me

  12. jacob durang is my great grandfather x’s 7. he is of direct ancestry to me and john durangs son Ferdinand, he is generally recognized as the first person to publicly sing it, at Captain McCauley’s tavern in Baltimore in October 1814. He was a member of the Bowery Theatre Company. He died in 1831

  13. I bought what looks like the 1840 hand-written version at a garage sale years ago. It, too,is on a waxy feeling brown paper with a water mark. I would also like to know if it worth anything. I enjoyed passing it around the class when I taught 4th and 5th grade Social Studies. One of the things the students found interesting was that in the third line it reads “through the clouds of the fight” instead of the words we sing, “through the perilous fight”. Anyone know when this change happened?

  14. I believe I have the back of the envelope that contains the manuscript original. I’m in the process of certifying it now, if authentic, who would I contact to auction, sell, etc… can anyone help? I’m a harley mechanic, this is my 1st time using a keyboard and computer. no joke.

    • Hi there,

      The LOC doesn’t sell or trade rare books and ephemera, though I would image the LOC would be quite interested if you have certified material associated with the creation of the SSB. If it’s authenticated, you’d want to contact any number of auction houses that deal in the early American material. Any internet search would turn them up, but you’d be looking for names such as Sotheby’s, Heritage Auctions, etc.

      All best,

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