FINALLY AND OFFICIALLY, ‘STAR-SPANGLED BANNER’ BECAME AMERICA’S NATIONAL ANTHEM 90 YEARS AGO TODAY

The overwhelming majority of living Americans cannot remember a time when the Star-Spangled Banner” was not our national anthem. 

Francis Scott Key watched the British pound Maryland’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and then wrote about that moment in history in a poem originally titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” A newspaper in Baltimore published the work on September 14, 1814, and he later changed the name to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

The War of 1812, Fort McHenry for the Star-Spangled Banner.
An illustration of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

The words fit music he knew well: an old English tune titled “To Anacreon in Heaven.” In fact, nearly 80 different lyrics used that tune by 1820. Key himself wrote three other sets of lyrics to that melody, according to the Constitution Center.  

While “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” – lyrics adapted to another English song, “God Save the Queen” – served as America’s first national anthem, military bands and civic groups played the “Stars-Spangled Banner” with increasing frequency. 

In 1916 – 102 years after Key first published its words – President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order decreeing it America’s national anthem.” He ordered it played at all major public events.  

Babe Ruth, 1918 World Series, Boston Red Sox vs. Chicago Cubs.
Babe Ruth during the 1918 World Series.

Two years later, with the United States fighting in World War I and baseball players going off to war, the song became a star. When the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox played in the 1918 World Series, the matchup drew little interest even though Babe Ruth started on the mound for Boston in Game 1. “(Fans) were paying more attention during the game to a group of Army biplanes doing stunts near the park than they really were to the game,” historian Jim Leeke told WBUR.org in 2018. 

An account in the New York Times reported “… that the crowd was yawning until the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ is spontaneously played by the naval training school band during the seventh-inning stretch.” 

Wilson’s executive order, however, did not constitute law. Thirteen more years passed before Congress finally acted early 1931. President Herbert Hoover immediately signed it into law March 3, 1931, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” our national anthem 90 years ago today.   

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