In the 200 years since Francis Scott Key wrote the words to The Star-Spangled Banner (then The Defense of Fort M’Henry), the song has proved to be just as resilient as the spirits of those who inspired it. The story of how the song was written is one that most Americans know. However, between its writing and today, the song has been through a number of changes, some subtle, some not.
It has endured controversy and competition to remain the United States of America’s most prominent tune and a symbol of our Republic.
It became popular quickly after it was published, though it was then just one of many adaptations of the tune. Still, the spirit of American defiance it presented made it an instant hit at a time when many in the public were apprehensive about the current war. A quick look at history tells us that there was not a lot to celebrate about the War of 1812. The British had burned the White House and the American incursion into Canada had failed. At the point when the Battle of Fort McHenry occurred, the war had dragged on for two years with few meaningful victories and several stinging defeats.
The United States would go on to sign a peace treaty just two months after the Battle of Fort McHenry. The treaty returned relations between England and the United States to the status quo, meaning the war achieved essentially nothing but an end to the impressing of American sailors. If not for the (ultimately meaningless, sorry Andrew Jackson) victory at New Orleans and the rousing tale told by The Defense of Fort M’Henry, the war would have seemed like a marginal defeat. The song, however, told a different tale, and it was that tale that endured as the spirit of the United States.
By no means, however, was that the only meaning of the song over the past two centuries. Just as what it means to be an American has evolved, the song has evolved as well. During the mid 1800s especially, the meaning of the song was expanded, just as many in America began to expand their definition of freedom and what it meant to be a citizen. The abolitionist movement embraced The Star-Spangled Banner as an example of the true devotion to freedom that lived in the heart of the country. It was at this time, when the Republic was hanging on its most precarious point, that a fifth stanza was added to the song.
In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., American poet, physician and father of one of our most famous Justices, sought to expand the meaning of The Star-Spangled Banner to directly support the cause of the Union. The war having just begun, Holmes encapsulated the feelings of many who fought for the Union’s cause in keeping the country together. Though rarely heard, the fifth stanza presents a staunch attitude of defiance against those who would tear the country apart:
When our land is illumined with liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.
For more on how the music itself has changed, check out this New York Times article.
The Star-Spangled Banner was first recognized as an official ceremonial song by the United States Navy in 1889, 75 years after it was first penned. For a song to have endured so long as simply a popular tune is almost unfathomable in today’s United States, but the Banner has remained.
In the second installment, we will explore the past 100 years (1914 to 2014) of The Star-Spangled Banner’s history.