America acquired the song that is its national anthem about thirty-eight years after the country won its independence from Britain.
It is somewhat ironic that the melody is British, and came from a song extolling the pleasures of wine and getting laid. The American lyrics were of course penned by lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key. But Key directed that his lines be sung to the British melody “To Anacreon in Heaven,” Anacreon being the sixth-century B.C. Greek poet known for his lyric love verse.
So why did the patriotic Francis Scott Key choose a British melody? During Key’s time, “To Anacreon in Heaven” was one of the most popular songs in England and America. At least eighty-five American poems were fitted to the tune. And Key himself, in 1805— nine years before he’d write “The Star-Spangled Banner” —set a poem, “When the Warrior Returns,” to the British melody. (That poem, interestingly, contained an image that the poet would soon reshape and immortalise: “By the light of the star-spangled flag.”)
Thus, Key was well acquainted with the melody, its popularity, and its musical cadence. During the War of 1812, Key was a Washington lawyer in his thirties. Under a brief truce, he was sent aboard a British vessel in Chesapeake Bay to acquire the release of a captured American physician. By the time the lengthy negotiations were completed, the truce had ceased and British ships were bombarding Fort McHenry, which guarded the city of Baltimore. Key witnessed the fiery battle. By morning, the American flag of fifteen stars and stripes was still flying over the fort. Inspired by the sights and sounds of that night of September 13, 1814, Key composed a poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” which was published the following week. Americans almost immediately regarded the poem, sung to Key’s suggested melody, as their national anthem.
But, surprisingly, the anthem was not officially adopted until March 3, 1931, by a presidential proclamation of Herbert Hoover. Today the Stars and Stripes flag that inspired Francis Scott Key is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution.