America is preparing to mark the 200th anniversary of one of the most unnecessary and avoidable wars in its history– the War of 1812, or “Mr. Madison’s War,” declared by Congress on June 18, 1812.
It is also appropriate to note that today – June 14– is Flag Day, the day that the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the nation’s flag in 1777. These two landmarks come together because it was during the War of 1812 that America got the words that eventually became its national anthem –with music borrowed from an old English drinking song. Almost from the outset, the song has been butchered at baseball games and Super Bowls.
At war with England for the second time since 1776, the United States was ill-prepared for fighting and the British were preoccupied with a war with France. So it was a fitful few years of war.
But the conflict produced an iconic American moment in September 1814. Francis Scott Key was an attorney attempting to negotiate the return of a civilian prisoner held by the British who had just burned Washington DC and had set their sights on Baltimore. As the British attacked the city, Key watched the naval bombardment from a ship in Baltimore’s harbor. In the morning, he could see that the Stars and Stripes still flew over Fort McHenry. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics that we all know –well, at least some of you probably know some of them.
But here’s what they didn’t tell you:
Yes, Washington, D.C. was burned by the British in 1814, including the President’s Mansion which would later get a fresh coat of paint and come to be called the “White House.” But Washington was torched in retaliation for the burning of York –now Toronto—in Canada earlier in the war.
Yes, Key wrote words. But the music comes from an old English drinking song. Good thing it wasn’t 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. Here’s a link to the original lyrics of the drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven (via Poem of the Week).
The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1916 when President Wilson declared it by Executive Order. But that didn’t really count. In 1931, it became the National Anthem by Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover.,
Now here are two other key –no pun intended– events related to Flag Day, June 14:
•In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that schoolchildren could not be compelled to salute the flag if it conflicted with their religious beliefs
•In 1954 on Flag Day, President Eisenhower signed the law that added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Learn more about Fort McHenry, Key and the Flag that inspired the National Anthem from the National Park Service.
The images and music in this video are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History which has excellent resources on the flag that inspired Key.
This version of the anthem is on 19th century instruments:
The history of the War of 1812, including a Timeline of major events, is explored in greater depth in the Anniversary edition of Don’t Know Much About History, now available in paperback.