Why Francis Scott Key Wrote the Star-Spangled Banner

Even though this year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, most students (and adults) don’t know much about the conflict. Perhaps that is because America’s second war with Britain ended in a draw and Americans like to celebrate victories. The war gave Americans at least one thing that they are all familiar with, however—the country’s national anthem.

In 1814, the British army burned the capital building at Washington, D.C. After that success, they decided to try to take the nearby city of Baltimore. Baltimore harbor was protected by Fort McHenry, and the American forces there were well prepared for an attack. The Americans built barricades and sunk boats around the fort so when the British vessels entered the harbor they struggled to get into firing range of the fort. British ships fired on Fort McHenry from a distance, though. More than eighteen hundred cannonballs hit Fort McHenry on the night of September 13, 1814.

Lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment from a boat eight miles away. At the time, he was on a British ship negotiating for the release of an American prisoner of war. Key opposed the war at first, but the British decision to burn the capital upset him. Though he would have liked to avoid war, he did not want his country to be defeated. On September 13, Key watched anxiously to see if the American flag still flew over Fort McHenry, but he couldn’t see because of the smoke.

The next morning the British stopped firing, unable to get their ships past the line of sunken ships around the fort. British shipman Robert Barrett wrote, “As the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign [flag] on their battery, and fired at the same time a gun of defiance.”

Francis Scott Key’s relief at seeing the flag moved him to write a few lines of poetry on the back of a letter that was in his pocket. This poem eventually became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. Years later, Key remembered the feelings that led him to write the famous song. He said, “Through the clouds of war, the stars of that banner still shone…Then, in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke, and ‘Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?’ was its question. With it came an inspiration not to be resisted.” In 1931, the Star-Spangled Banner officially became America’s national anthem.

The History of Flag Day

“Resolved, That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” On June 14, 1777, the U.S. Continental Congress wrote the Flag Resolution, but it gave no instructions on how large the flag should be or even its shape. Over one hundred years later, however, the American flag became such a symbol of national pride that a patriotic son from an immigrant family suggested that the flag should have its own holiday.

Bernard Cigrand was a young schoolteacher from Wisconsin when he placed a small flag in a bottle on his desk and told his students to write essays on what the flag meant to them. The assignment he gave to his students on June 14, 1885 is recognized as the first observance of Flag Day. After that day, Cigrand wrote many articles and gave speeches to promote the creation of a national holiday for the flag. Cigrand’s great granddaughter said that “he was a historian and he loved the flag. His parents came over from Luxembourg and they loved the country. They instilled that love of country in him.”

By the 1890s, Cigrand’s idea to honor the flag on June 14 caught on in several states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. At the beginning of the twentieth century, additional state legislatures approved Flag Day Resolutions. The Governor of Michigan proclaimed that “the rising sun should find Old Glory waving from every home, from every schoolhouse, and every public building…there should be appropriate exercises in every school and each child should have for his own a flag to be treasured.” As the U.S. entered World War I, President Wilson issued a proclamation requesting June 14 of each year as National Flag Day; however, Congress did not approve it until 1949 when it became law with President Truman’s signature.

Despite the work involved in creating Flag Day, most Americans today pay little attention to it. There are ways you can observe the day, however. During the week of June 14, the president will issue a proclamation urging citizens to display the American flag in their homes. Some organizations, such as the National Flag Day Foundation hold special events and parades in honor of our flag. To find out if there are Flag Day events in your area, contact your city council or local veteran’s association.