On After witnessing the massive overnight British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key composed the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in September 1814 but this did not become our national anthem for another 117 years. Even though throughout the 19th century, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was regarded as the national anthem by most branches of the U.S. armed forces, it was not until 1916, and the signing of an executive order by President Woodrow Wilson, that it was formally designated as such for the military. In 1931, Congress passed an act confirming Wilson’s presidential order, and on March 3, 1931 President Hoover signed it into law.
While “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been the official national anthem since 1931, there have been a number of patriotic songs with more popularity (and easier to sing) that have served as our national anthems over the years.
“America” (My Country, Tis of Thee)
In 1831, Samuel Francis Smith, a student at Andover Seminary in Massachusetts, had been given the task of translating texts from several German song collections. One of the songs–“God Save Saxony”—had an attractive tune that inspired Smith to write new words for a patriotic hymn for the United States.
Astonishingly, Smith was unaware that the tune of “God Save Saxony” had been lifted from the British national anthem, “God Save the King.” Despite the tune’s link to the British national anthem, “America” served as our de facto national anthem for a hundred years–until “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the official song in 1931.
The Star-Spangled Banner
Key’s poem was then set to the tune of a popular British song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London. Anacreon was an ancient Greek lyric poet, famous for his drinking songs and hymns, and “To Anacreon in Heaven” was intended to celebrate wine, women and song—and the men’s club itself.
The tune’s range of one and a half octaves makes it difficult for many to sing, and some have complained of its warlike setting. As a result, there have been calls over the years to replace it.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
The “Glory, Hallelujah” tune was a folk hymn developed in the oral hymn tradition of camp meetings in the southern United States and first documented in the early 1800s. In the first known version, “Canaan’s Happy Shore.” The tune and variants of these words spread across the United States. At a flag-raising ceremony at Fort Warren, near Boston, Massachusetts, on Sunday, May 12, 1861, the song “John Brown’s Body”, using the well-known “Oh! Brothers” tune and the “Glory, Hallelujah” chorus, was publicly played “perhaps for the first time”. The American Civil War had begun the previous month.
“America the Beautiful”
The original words are from a poem by Katharine Lee Bates, first published in The Congregationalist in July, 1895. The music is by Samuel A. Ward, originally written for a hymn called “O Mother dear, Jerusalem,” published in 1892. As the title indicates, the words most often sung are not patriotic in the usual sense. In fact, some have complained that the song is essentially a musical travelogue, with no true patriotic fervor at all.
“God Bless America”
Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was written in 1918, but not published until 1938. The song stirred some significant controversy. Many on the Left found the lyrics jingoistic and presumptuous. There were complaints from the Right, as well since Berlin was an immigrant (born in Russia) and a Jew.
Our National Anthem is hard to sing and it focuses on sacrifices and bravery, critical subjects for anyone who wants to live free. The decision Wilson made in 1931 was a difficult one. We are a country that is often divided politically, religiously, and ethnically but in the final analysis, we are all “the Free and the Brave.”