Library of Congress
The picture shows a copy of the first printed edition of The Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the U.S. The music was printed between 1840 and 1842.
(Achieve3000, March 6, 2006). O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light. . .
Do you recognize those words, and do you know what they mean? They are the first words of The Star Spangled Banner, which became the U.S. national anthem 75 years ago. Here's some information about its history and how people feel about it today.
Inspired By a Flag
Many Americans are not really sure what the national anthem is about. The song was originally a poem, written by lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key and inspired by a U.S. victory in the War of 1812.
Despite its name, the war actually took place between 1812 and 1815. America became involved in the conflict in the course of engaging in international trade. In the years leading up to the war, the U.S. traded with both Britain and France, even though those two countries were fighting each other in Europe. During that time, Britain's navy repeatedly invaded U.S. ships and impressed American sailors to fight on the British side, disrupting U.S. trade. As time went on, many Americans grew antagonistic toward Britain, and in June of 1812, the U.S. declared war. Although the two sides had territorial disputes—the U.S. wanted to expand into Canada, which Britain ruled—the war eventually ended in a stalemate.
On September 3, 1814, while the war still raged, Francis Scott Key boarded a British ship near Baltimore, Maryland. President James Madison had given the young lawyer permission to negotiate with two British officers for the release of an American prisoner. The officers eventually agreed to release the prisoner, but they were concerned that during negotiations, Key might have overheard plans for an overnight attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore—as a result, the British officers decided to detain Key until after the battle was over. Key waited on board the British ship, anxious about how the battle would turn out. In the morning, he saw that the American flag continued to fly above the fort, indicating that the U.S. had won the battle.
Inspired by the victory, Key wrote a poem called Defense of Fort McHenry, which was printed in a Baltimore newspaper and soon became a popular song, set to a tune by British composer John Stafford Smith called To Anacreon in Heaven.
By the early 20th century, the song was known as The Star Spangled Banner and was played at military occasions and sporting events. On March 3, 1931, Congress adopted the song as the national anthem.
The Anthem Today
Today, Americans continue to hear The Star Spangled Banner at patriotic occasions and at baseball games. Many people believe that with its stirring melody and patriotic lyrics, the song is the superlative choice for the anthem of the United States, which is, after all, "the land of the free and the home of the brave."
However, some people feel that the U.S. should have a different national anthem. Why? For one thing, The Star Spangled Banner is about a war that few Americans know much about, and the song recounts a battle against Britain, a country that is now a well-established U.S. ally. Many people object to the fact that the anthem is about a war at all. They feel that a national anthem should be about national pride without describing conflict.
Some people believe that The Star Spangled Banner is simply too inaccessible to the average American. To the modern ear, the lyrics of the song are archaic and therefore hard to remember. In fact, the song has four stanzas, but most people know only the first one, if they know the words at all. In addition, many people say that the song is difficult to sing because some of the notes are hard to reach. They feel that a national anthem should have a tune that anyone can sing, since anthems are meant for people to share and celebrate.
These critics have discussed making any one of a variety of songs the new national anthem—songwriters have penned many patriotic tunes about the U.S, including America the Beautiful and America (My Country Tis of Thee). The most popular alternative for a national anthem, though, is God Bless America, by Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant who came to the U.S. at age five. Berlin wrote the song in 1918, when the U.S. was fighting in World War I and resurrected it in 1938, as the world headed toward World War II. When singer Kate Smith sang the song on the radio, the song became a big hit, and it has been popular ever since. Many people like the song because it expresses national pride in a straightforward yet elegant way.
Despite the plethora of songs about the U.S, The Star Spangled Banner remains the national anthem. Many people consider it the best song to express how they feel about their country.
To modern-day eyes, the lyrics of The Star Spangled Banner may seem archaic (old-fashioned), but if you study the words closely, they tell a story. Here are the lyrics. There are also definitions for some of the more difficult words. Study the words carefully in context to see if you can guess what some of them mean before you read the definitions provided below.
O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
gallantly (adverb): bravely
perilous (adjective): dangerous
rampart (noun): a defensive wall
stream (verb): to wave, as a flag
twilight (noun): the light in the sky just after sundown but before darkness, or just after darkness but before sunrise
If the story of The Star Spangled Banner were told today—in our modern language—it might be worded something like this:
It's early morning. Can you see what we saw last night?
In the last bit of darkness, we saluted it proudly.
We watched from behind the walls its broad stripes and bright stars waving
All through the dangerous battle.
Rockets and bombs exploded overhead, lighting up the sky and providing proof
That the flag was still there.
Is the flag still waving over our free, brave country?