By the dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key peered through a spyglass and spotted an American flag still waving over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry after a fierce night of British bombardment. In a patriotic fervor, the man called “Frank” Key by family and friends penned the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Two hundred years later, learn nine surprising facts about the national anthem of the United States and the man who wrote its lyrics.
1. Francis Scott Key intended his verses to be song lyrics, not poetry.
“The Star Spangled-Banner” was not a poem set to a melody years later. Although Key was an amateur poet and not a songwriter, when he composed his verses, he intended them to accompany a popular song of the day. “We know he had the tune in mind because the rhyme and meter exactly fit it,” says Marc Leepson, author of the new Key biography “What So Proudly We Hailed.” The first broadside of the verses, printed just days after the battle, noted that the words should be sung to the melody of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Key was quite familiar with the tune, having used it to accompany an 1805 poem, which included a reference to a “star-spangled flag,” he had written to honor Barbary War naval heroes Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart.
Although Key composed the patriotic lyrics amid a burst of anti-British euphoria, “To Anacreon in Heaven” was ironically an English song composed in 1775 that served as the theme song of the upper-crust Anacreontic Society of London and a popular pub staple.
2. Key was not imprisoned on a British warship when he penned his verses.
In his capacity as a Washington, D.C., lawyer, Key had been dispatched by President James Madison on a mission to Baltimore to negotiate for the release of Dr. William Beanes, a prominent surgeon captured at the Battle of Bladensburg. Accompanied by John Stuart Skinner, a fellow lawyer working for the State Department, Key set sail on an American sloop in Baltimore Harbor, and on September 7 the pair boarded the British ship Tonnant, where they dined and secured the prisoner’s release under one condition—they could not go ashore until after the British attacked Baltimore. Accompanied by British guards on September 10, Key returned to the American sloop from which he witnessed the bombardment behind the 50-ship British fleet.
3. The flag Key “hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming” did not fly “through the perilous fight.”
In addition to a thunderstorm of bombs, a torrent of rain fell on Fort McHenry throughout the night of the Battle of Baltimore. The fort’s 30-by-42-foot garrison flag was so massive that it required 11 men to hoist when dry, and if waterlogged the woolen banner could have weighed upwards of 500 pounds and snapped the flagpole. So as the rain poured down, a smaller storm flag that measured 17-by-25 feet flew in its place. “In the morning they most likely took down the rain-soaked storm flag and hoisted the bigger one,” Leepson says, “and that’s the flag Key saw in the morning.”
4. The song was not originally entitled “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
When Key scrawled his lyrics on the back of a letter he pulled from his pocket on the morning of September 14, he did not give them any title. Within a week, Key’s verses were printed on broadsides and in Baltimore newspapers under the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” In November, a Baltimore music store printed the patriotic song with sheet music for the first time under the more lyrical title “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
5. It did not become the national anthem until more than a century after it was written.
Along with “Hail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” was among the prevalent patriotic airs in the aftermath of the War of 1812. During the Civil War, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was an anthem for Union troops, and the song increased in popularity in the ensuing decades, which led to President Woodrow Wilson signing an executive order in 1916 designating it as “the national anthem of the United States” for all military ceremonies. On March 3, 1931, after 40 previous attempts failed, a measure passed Congress and was signed into law that formally designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States.
6. The national anthem has four verses.
The version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” traditionally sung on patriotic occasions and at sporting events is only the song’s first verse. All four verses conclude with the same line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” (In 1861, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a fifth verse to support the Union cause in the Civil War and denounce “the traitor that dares to defile the flag of her stars.”)
7. Key opposed American entry into the War of 1812.
Ironically, the man who created one of the lasting patriotic legacies of the War of 1812 adamantly opposed the conflict at its outset. Key referred to the war as “abominable” and “a lump of wickedness.” However, his opposition to the war softened after the British began to raid nearby Chesapeake Bay communities in 1813 and 1814, and he briefly served in a Georgetown wartime militia.
8. Key was a consummate Washington insider.
Although Key loathed politics, he was a prominent figure in Washington, D.C. “He was an important player in the early republic,” Leepson says. “He was a very successful and influential lawyer at the highest levels in Washington.” Key ran a thriving law practice, served as a trusted advisor in Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” and was appointed a United States Attorney in 1833. He prosecuted hundreds of cases, including that of Richard Lawrence for the attempted assassination of Jackson, and argued over 100 cases before the United States Supreme Court.
9. Key was a one-hit wonder who might have been tone deaf.
Key was much more adept in his legal day job than he was as an amateur poet. Most of the odes he composed were never meant to be seen beyond family and friends, and none came remotely close to realizing the popular fame of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In addition to being a middling poet, Key also had a hard time carrying a tune. “Key’s family said he was not musical,” Leepson says, “which means he likely was tone deaf.”