HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — On this day in 1931, it became the law of the land: The Star Spangled Banner was the official national anthem of the United States of America.

The selection of the song was not without controversy, some of which continues to this day. Objections to it range from the tune used for the anthem, to the politics of the poet, to the fact our National Anthem is excruciatingly difficult to sing.

The original “Star Spangled Banner,” a 30 foot by 42 foot “Garrison Flag”, now on display at the Smithsonian Institute. (Courtesy: Smithsonian Institute)

The Star Spangled Banner had its beginnings in September of 1814 when Francis Scott Key observed the fight for Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to Baltimore harbor. Thrilled by the sight of the American flag still flying over the fort after a night of bombardment by the British, he wrote a four stanza poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. Before long it was set to music-To Anacreon in Heaven, a somewhat bawdy (by the standards of the time) and very popular British drinking song. (A lot of people have objected to the song because of the ancestry of that tune.)

One of the first published versions of the Star Spangled Banner, from 1814. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

The song became extremely popular, especially after the somewhat ho-hum original title was changed to The Star Spangled Banner. People started to propose it as the official national anthem. But it had competition. Tunes like “Hail, Columbia,” “America the Beautiful,” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” were also popular, and also used for official occasions.

Still, The Star Spangled Banner grew in popularity, especially after the Civil War. It began to get official acknowledgment; The U.S. Army started playing it at retreats, parades, and concerts, and it was officially recognized for use by the U.S. Navy in 1889, especially for raisings of the American flag. 

But over the years, people made alterations to the music and the wording. By the early 20th century, there were multiple versions of the song floating about. President Woodrow Wilson, who ordered military bands to play the song at patriotic occasions in 1916, called upon the U.S. Bureau of Education to come up with a “standard edition” for popular use. The Bureau called upon five musicians for help-Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonnedk, and most notably John Philip Sousa, America’s March King. Americans got to hear this standardized version for the first time on December 5, 1917, when it premiered at Carnegie Hall.

On April 15, 1929, Rep. John Linthicum of Maryland introduced legislation to make The Star Spangled Banner the national anthem for the sixth time. The time, it would seem, was finally right; the legislation was approved out of committee, passed in the House of Representatives, and on March 3, 1931, it passed in the Senate, and President Herbert Hoover signed it into law.

Here is the complete version of The Star Spangled Banner. Usually, only the first verse gets performed at ball games and the like. On some occasions, the fourth verse gets tacked on. The second and third stanzas? Well, some people don’t like the “foe’s mighty host” part in verse two, since after all, we’ve kinda mended fences with Britain since then. Stanza three can really stick in people’s crawls. Some people feel that “hireling and slave” is an endorsement of slavery. (Key was a slave owner.) Other people feel that’s a complete misinterpretation of the lyrics. There’s a lot of argument back and forth on the internet, as well as reputable sources. Do your own research and come to your own conclusions-that is, after all, part of living in a free country.

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave![55]

To see Francis Scott Key’s early draft of the song, click here

To view a transcript of Key’s early draft, click here

To view a performance of To Anacreon in Heaven, click here

The view one of the greatest performances of The Star Spangled Banner of all time, click here