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Separating fact from fiction about 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

September 14, 2016 by Mark Clague


On September 14, 1814, the Battle of Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The University of Michigan's Mark Clague corrects some common myths about our national anthem.

Francis Scott Key (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Francis Scott Key (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Myth #1: Francis Scott Key was held prisoner aboard a British ship during the bombardment of Baltimore.

Correction: Key was aboard his own American truce ship during the battle.

Key and fellow lawyer John S. Skinner, the U.S. Agent for Prisoners of War, sailed from Baltimore on September 5, 1814 on an American truce ship and headed down the Patapsco River hoping to meet the British fleet somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay. They were on a mission of mercy to negotiate the release of the elderly Dr. William Beanes, a civilian non-combatant who had been taken prisoner by the British as they departed Washington, DC after burning the White House, the Capitol, and other government buildings in revenge for the U.S. burning of York (current day Toronto) in April 1813.

Key was a persuasive addition to the negotiating team because of his close family ties to both the United States and England. His father served in the Continental Army; his uncle remained a British loyalist during the Revolution. Key’s mission was a success.

During their talks, and then upon the release of the doctor, Key and Beanes were moved from the H.M.S. Tonnant, where they had negotiated with British Admiral Cochrane, to the H.M.S. Surprise and finally back to their own American truce ship. (The exact name of this ship has defied generations of researchers.) During the harrowing 25-hour bombardment, their ship was tethered to a British vessel (one not involved in the fighting) and placed under guard in order to prevent Key and his companions from revealing to Baltimore’s defenders any attack plans overheard. Key was likely some six to eight miles from America’s Fort McHenry, which guarded against certain American defeat by protecting the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor. Superior British weapons pounded the fort from newly designed bomb ships anchored safely out of range of the fort’s own guns.

Yet Key rose on the morning of September 14, 1814 and through the lens of his spyglass saw his nation’s 15-star, 15-stripe flag waving defiantly over the fort. He was elated and relieved, certain that God had intervened. He spent the next two days waiting for the British to depart, when they would release him and his compatriots. And what does a patriotic poet do when stuck with nothing to do and having witnessed a momentous event? He wrote the lyrics of a song to a well-known melody that he knew well.

Myth #2: Francis Scott Key drafted “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of an envelope (or letter).

Correction: Key most likely wrote his draft on a clean sheet of paper using pen and ink.

While the original working draft of Key’s lyric is lost, envelopes were not commonly used in 1814 and then only by the rich for special occasions. Instead, letters in Key’s day were written on a sheet of paper that was folded and sealed with wax. Postage was charged by the number of sheets in a letter, so a sheet of postal wrapping would have been both a waste of paper and a waste of money, since it doubled the postal cost.

Detained during the battle aboard his own American truce ship—one that would have been amply provisioned for an official U.S. diplomatic mission—Key would have had plenty of blank paper and other writing supplies at hand. He would have planned, for example, for paper and pen to write out an agreement of release for Dr. Beanes, to chronicle his journey, and to write a letter to President Madison about his mission’s fate. He wouldn’t use scrap paper for his report.

The surviving handwritten final draft of Key’s lyric is held by the Maryland Historical Society. Note that Key ran out of room as he was writing and the fourth verse gets scrunched at the bottom of the page. Even national poets are human!

Key’s copy was then given to a Baltimore printer and 1000 broadsides were printed and distributed to the U.S. soldiers and militiamen who had served in “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which was the original title of Key’s lyric.

Myth #3: Francis Scott Key wrote a “poem” later set to music by someone else.

Correction: “The Star-Spangled Banner” was always conceived of by Key as a song and he wrote his “lyric” to fit a specific melody of his own choosing.

Usually referred to as a poet, Francis Scott Key is more accurately remembered—at least in connection with “The Star-Spangled Banner”—as a lyricist. In fact, he wrote lyrics for a total of three songs and ten hymns. In all cases, he invented words to fit previously existing musical models. This was typical in Key’s era when hand-engraved music notation was expensive, but printing words was common, fast, and pretty cheap.

In one strategy known as the broadside ballad tradition, lyrics would be written to match the rhythm and contour of familiar tunes and published as text only in newspapers and books. The melodies for these “broadside ballads” were usually identified by a note just below their title. The most successful of these lyrics went “viral” and were reprinted by local newspapers (all newspapers were local at this time, of course).

The very first printing of Key’s now famous lyric, for example, indicated that the words were to be sung to the “Tune—Anacreon in Heaven.” Known also as “To Anacreon in Heaven” or “The Anacreontic Song,” this composition was the anthem of a late-eighteenth-century amateur musician’s club in London, England called The Anacreontic Society. Although a bit different in details of rhythm and melodic contour, its melody is easily recognizable as the tune sung today in performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

We are also certain that Key knew the Anacreontic melody before he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because he had used the melody before. Nine years before the attack on Baltimore, Key wrote his first patriotic song—”When the Warrior Returns”—to honor Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. and Charles Stewart, two heroes of the Tripolitan War. Following broadside practice, Key wrote the words to fit the melody of “The Anacreontic Song” and reportedly sang the song himself at a dinner in the heroes’ honor. Key would even reuse several poetic devices from this 1805 song in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” These include rhymes such as “wave” and “brave,” the “war’s desolation,” and most importantly the phrase “star-spangled” to describe the “flag of our nation.”

The melody of “The Anacreontic Song” was used frequently for broadside ballads in Key’s era. More than 80 Anacreontic lyrics appeared in print before 1820. As a poetic form, it was unique. It features eight-line stanzas—four is typical—and these eight lines contain nine rhymes. Each line has an end rhyme plus there is an extra internal rhyme in line five. Key’s 1814 lyric has this extra rhyme in the phrase “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs busting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” It therefore fits precisely the structural model unique to parodies of “The Anacreontic Song.” It is simply implausible that Key could write an eight-line lyric with nine rhymes by chance.

Nevertheless, because Key did not preserve for history a first-hand account of his writing of the Banner, others including the musician Ferdinand Durang and Key’s own brother-in-law, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, claimed to have been the one to have brought text and tune together. Maybe they noticed what Key had done, but in its day, any and all readers would have understood it to be a broadside ballad and its distinctive line and rhyme scheme fit one and only tune, a popular melody that Key had used before.

Myth #4: Key’s Banner is based on the melody of a bawdy old English drinking song.

Correction: “The Anacreontic Song” was the constitutional anthem of an elite, London-based, amateur music society… but it gets complicated.

Francis Scott Key would have most likely encountered the melody of “The Anacreontic Song” initially through its most popular American parody—a song written in support of the United States’ second President John Adams and known as “Adams and Liberty.” So for Key, the song might well have been singularly American. It’s also likely that he knew the original English musicians’ club tune as his family was of British descent.

This original song was the constitutional anthem of The Anacreontic Society, an all-male music club based in London and founded about 1766. Undoubtedly club members drank alcohol at meetings (water wasn’t safe after all) and indeed this lyric toasts the club’s future, but the song’s purpose is distinctly different as it conveys the club’s value of sociality through music.

The song indeed sounds like a drinking song. It uses the choral refrain, fast tempo, jaunty affect, and melodic leaps common to the drinking song genre but here for advertising purposes. It conveys the fun-loving camaraderie of club membership and celebrates the joys of making music. (There’s nothing bawdy about the original text and, in fact, women were not even present when the song was sung and couldn’t be members.)

It is also too musically sophisticated for a typical pub ditty. Accompanied by harpsichord and with a chorus sung in four-part harmony, it required substantial vocal skill to perform. It is also rather long. These characteristics are not part of the drinking song genre.

The song was written to be performed in a ballroom rather than a pub. Anacreontic Society meetings were elite affairs beginning with a two-hour symphony concert held in an elegant meeting room followed by dinner. The club’s anthem was sung after dinner (and was usually preceded by a prayer) to introduce a set of popular part songs. Professional singers, who also performed in London’s theaters, sang along with select, trained amateurs while general members joined to echo as a chorus. As a challenging song written to showcase the artistic aspirations of the club, “The Anacreontic Song” would typically have been sung by a featured professional. Its rather athletic melody was thus never intended for mass singing. So that’s why it’s so hard to sing! It’s written to allow a skilled soloist to show off.

One wonders what Key would think of 100,000 fans at a college football game singing his Anthem. In his day, the Banner was only sung as a solo, with the final two lines (“O say does that… wave?) repeated by a chorus (i.e, the community) and affirmed.

Myth #5: A 1931 act of Congress made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States.

Correction: This is absolutely correct in terms of the anthem’s legal status, but the bill approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Herbert Hoover simply recognized what had been true in American cultural practice for decades.

Citizens treated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as America’s anthem long before it was officially so. Early in the nineteenth century the song “Hail Columbia” served as the de facto anthem of the United States, yet as Key’s song grew in popularity it stole the honor.

With its lyrical repetition of the phrase “Star-Spangled Banner,” Key’s song became synonymous with the flag through the 1820s and 1830s. A series of wars—the Mexican-American War (1846–48), U.S. Civil War (1860–65), and Spanish-American War (1898)—sanctified flag and song through the blood sacrifice for the defense of national sovereignty. By the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had even become the official “national anthem” for the U.S. Army and Navy.

So—citizens in performance made Key’s song into America’s own long before a federal law made it official.

This content originally appeared on Star Spangled Music.Mark Clague is an associate professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where he serves as director of entrepreneurship and career services, co-director of the American Music Institute, and editor-in-chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. More of his research can be found at

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