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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Key Writes A Song, September 14, 1814

Today in 1814, Francis Scott Key saw the sun rise aboard a British warship. Key was an American, a lawyer by trade and a former militiaman out of necessity. He was in a dangerous place at a dangerous time, for the ship on which he was temporarily trapped was part of the flotilla that had spent the evening shelling Fort McHenry, the fort that helped protect Baltimore from a seaborne invasion.

Key's journey began the night before when he had sailed down the bay on a truce ship with Colonel John Skinner, the US government's prisoner of war exchange agent. The two men hoped to secure the release of Key's friend, Dr. William Beanes. Keys, who as an attorney had argued cases in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, was successful in securing the release of his friend. However, the British would not let the trio leave the ship until the operation against Fort McHenry was complete. Keys would have to watch as an American fort and the city it protected were shelled by the mightiest navy in the world.

No one would've expected Fort McHenry to withstand the punishment it was taking. After all, the early years of the War of 1812 had not gone well for the fledging United States and the force assembled to defend Baltimore was far from adequate. But as the sun rose, Keys viewed something that he would carry with him for the rest of his life: the huge American flag flying over McHenry, though a little tattered, was still flying. The fort had held against 1,800 British cannonballs.

Keys was so moved by what he saw that he immediately wrote a poem to commemorate the event. As he said later, “Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?” The song was set to the tune of the popular British song “To Anacreon in Heaven” and was circulated in the form of a pamphlet. On September 20, a Baltimore newspaper published the lyrics and the legend began.

Most Americans assume that 'The Star-Spangled Banner' has been our official national anthem since sometime in the 19th century. While the armed forces of the US quickly adopted the tune, it was not until 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order making the song official. In 1931, President Hoover signed a Congressional act which confirmed Wilson's presidential order.

This nation's national anthem has been played on every continent and in nearly every nation. It brings tears to the eyes of veterans and makes the young learn reverence for symbols of freedom. And we owe it all to a lawyer from Washington who risked his life to help his friend and, while doing so, learned a lesson of liberty and perseverance.

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