It may surprise you to learn that it took over 150 years from the United States declaring its independence in 1776 to the official establishment of a national anthem. 

Granted, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was around and widely used for more than a hundred years before gaining official status. 

Read on for a more detailed history of the national anthem to learn why!

The History of the National Anthem

The War of 1812 had been raging for over two years. The fighting between France and Great Britain overflowed into a power struggle over trading with the United States

Trying to block each other from trading with America led England to overstep the United States’ maritime rights, pulling America into the fray.

In August of 1814, British troops overtook Washington, DC, burning the White House, Capitol Building, and other federal buildings. Pressing their advantage, they set their sights on the next major port city, Baltimore, MD. 

The Siege of Fort McHenry

After an initial unsuccessful land assault, the British navy began to lay siege to Fort McHenry, a naval post to defend the port in Baltimore. 

The commanding officer, Major George Armistead, ordered a line of American merchant ships to be sunk in the harbor to prevent British ships from approaching. 

On the morning of September 13th, 1814, after trying to enter the harbor and exchanging initial gun and cannon fire, British troops pulled back out of Fort McHenry’s cannon range. 

They proceeded to fire upon Fort McHenry nonstop for the next 25 hours. 

Who Wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

Attorney Francis Scott Key was aboard a British vessel, trying to negotiate the release of an American prisoner. He was there through the long night of bombardment.

He watched from afar the constant firepower launched at his beloved country, powerless to stop it. 

When Was “The Star-Spangled Banner” Written?

As dawn broke the morning of September 14th, Major Armistead ordered a gigantic U.S. flag to be hoisted and flown over the fort. 

Seeing this sight from the British ship across the harbor, Francis Scott Key was overwhelmed with a feeling of patriotism at the scene before him. He took a letter from his pocket and penned the first verse of a poem on the back. 

When he returned home to Baltimore he finished three more verses to his poem, initially titled “Defence of Fort McHenry“.

Timeline From First Publication to Official National Anthem of the USA

A local printer printed Key’s poem as broadleaf. It was quickly picked up and printed by two more Baltimore newspapers. 

By October, 17 more newspapers all along the east coast printed the “Defence of Fort McHenry”. 

By November, the poem had a new title: “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Credit for the name change is generally given to a Baltimore publisher named Thomas Carr. 

Controversial Melody

Francis Scott Key chose a well-known melody to accompany his lyrics, but not everyone liked his choice. 

The melody we know today as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was originally a British drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  

John Safford Smith wrote “To Anacreon in Heaven” in 1775 for a gentlemen’s music club called the Anacreontic Society. A Greek poet who loved wine, this song honored Anacreon. 

The melody was popular, used by Francis Scott Key to accompany verses he wrote back in 1805. President John Adams used the tune for a song called “Adams and Liberty”. 

So while it created some controversy to use a drinking song, the tune was already popular and well known and lent well to Key’s new poem. 

Star-Spangled Banner History of Use Finally Made Official

Around the 1890s, the US military adopted “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official song of the military. Troops played the song to raise and lower the flag. 

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order that designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States. 

Congress made this official in 1931, passing a measure and declaring the song as our national anthem through an official act of Congress. 

National Anthem History in Sports

The earliest recorded occurrence of “The Star-Spangled Banner” being played before a sporting event was in 1862 during an opening game of baseball in Brooklyn, New York. 

In order to play a song at any event prior to World War II, you would have to hire a band. This was too expensive to do regularly, so playing the anthem before a game was not common practice. 

The 1918 World Series

The World Series almost didn’t happen in 1918 because the United States was fighting in World War I. Spirits were low and many couldn’t fathom playing sports while American soldiers were fighting overseas. 

Upon hearing that many of the troops were looking forward to news about the World Series it was decided to continue the games. 

The opening of the World Series was an important enough event that they arranged for a band to play “The Star-Spangled Banner”. 

Due to the political climate, this singing of the anthem, even though it was still not officially the national anthem, was very moving. Seeing the players all remove their caps and turned to face the flag moved the crowd to stand and do the same. 

Sound Systems Made It More Affordable

After World Ward II sounds systems made playing the national anthem more affordable. The tradition of playing the anthem before games started during this time. 

Standing During the National Anthem

The playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events, and particularly the playing during the World Series in 1918, began the tradition of standing during the playing of the national anthem. 

With these roots of standing laid during wartime and as a symbol of patriotism and support for the troops overseas, there is an emotional history behind this tradition. 

Respecting this tradition is an important part of our heritage. Standing for the national anthem and honoring the flag as it plays has deep roots, to learn more about why it’s important, check it out

Our National Anthem is a Treasure Even though the history of the national anthem took over a hundred years before becoming official, it is a core part of our identities as Americans. The patriotism expressed in “The Star-Spangled Banner” stirs our hearts to honor our country, our flag, and our military.