Spangled Mythconception #6: Congress Made Key’s Banner the U.S. National Anthem

MythConceptionsLogoMYTH #6: A 1931 act of Congress made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States

CORRECTION: This is absolutely correct in terms of the anthem’s legal status, but the bill approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Herbert Hoover simply recognized what had been true in American cultural practice for decades

Maestro Laura Jackson leads Michael Gandolfi's Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 with the Reno Philharmonic

Maestro Laura Jackson leads Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 with the Reno Philharmonic

Citizens treated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as America’s anthem long before it was officially so. Early in the nineteenth century the song “Hail Columbia (1798, Poets & Patriots track 9) served as the defacto anthem of the United States, yet as Key’s song grew in popularity it stole the honor. With its lyrical repetition of the phrase “Star-Spangled Banner,” Key’s song became synonymous with the flag through the 1820s and 1830s and then a series of wars—the Mexican-American War (1846–48), U.S. Civil War (1860–65), and Spanish-American War (1898)—sanctified flag and song through the blood sacrifice for the defense of national sovereignty. By the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had even become the official “national anthem” for the U.S. Army and Navy.

The publication of piano variation sets in the mid-19th c. reveal the growing popularity of Key’s song. Seattle International Piano Competition Gold Medalist and U-M graduate Jeannette Fang performs Cull’s “Brilliant Variations” (1861) from our Poets & Patriots recording project.

So—citizens in performance made Key’s song into America’s own long before a federal law made it official.

Q: What’s your favorite memory from performing “The Star-Spangle Banner”?

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8 Responses to Spangled Mythconception #6: Congress Made Key’s Banner the U.S. National Anthem

  1. Pingback: Spangled Mythconception #5: The Banner as Baseball Ritual Begins with Babe Ruth & the 1918 World Series | Star Spangled Music

  2. Pingback: Spangled Mythconception #7: An Official Version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” Exists | Star Spangled Music

  3. Marc Ferris says:

    Wholeheartedly agree.

  4. Pingback: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ turning 200: lyrics remembered, lyrics forgotten | California news

  5. I don’t think this is a myth. Today, no one disputes that the U.S. does not have a national language, and that all attempts by Congress to designate a national language have failed, even though all government documents, including the charter documents that founded this country, were originally written in English. Besides, weren’t there other patriotic songs, such as “Hail, Columbia” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which were sung so often that they could also be described as “anthems?” Isn’t it more correct to say that the country had multiple anthems before a single “official” anthem was named?

    The very concept of the “nation-state” was not yet fully defined in the 1800s, that is, a geographic region with boundaries, a capital city, and its own government, represented by “national symbols,” such as a flag and an anthem. Before the 1800s, a republic or a kingdom or an empire might have multiple flags, one for each city and region, not one national flag. There was no idea that an anthem should belong to one kingdom, so any European kingdom might use “God Save the King” as an anthem for their monarch, the same way we use “Hail to the Chief” to invoke the American Presidency today. With different lyrics, “God Save the King” was used everywhere in Europe, even though the song originated in England and has been an anthem for the British monarchy since the mid-1700s. In fact, even we Americans use “God Save the King” as an anthem, except we call it “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

    The idea that a kingdom should have a signature anthem only began in 1797, when the classical composer Joseph Hayden wrote the “Kaiserhymne” for the Holy Roman Emperor. Even then, the Kaiserhymne, Russia’s “God Save the Tsar,” and other royal anthems were really the anthems of monarchy and empire. The Ottoman Empire commissioned a new anthem every time a new Sultan ascended to the throne, so that every Ottoman Sultan had his own personal anthem. The Kaiserhymne only became an anthem for the entire German nation in 1841, when the German poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote new lyrics and renamed the song “Das Lied der Deutschen (The Song of the Germans).” Von Fallersleben wrote the lyrics as a musical expression of the nationalist desire to create a new unified nation from the many independent German states in Central Europe. In other words, he was assigning new meaning to an existing anthem to promote a specific view of what a nation should be.

    At the start of the 1900s, F. Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” was little more than a flag-raising song. But by then, there were many ethnic nationalities, who like the Germans, believed they should have their own nation and rule themselves, rather than be a subject nation ruled by a foreign monarch. Probably all of these national movements had their own anthem, written in their own language, with music in their own national style, whether they were an independent nation or not. Then the First World War began. After a century of failed nationalist revolutions, the Great War was in many ways the ultimate showdown between empire and nation, between monarchies who thought they had a divine right to rule an empire, and their subjects who believed they had a natural right to independence.

    In 1916, when the United States was still a neutral power, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the use of the “Star-Spangled Banner” for more than just raising the American flag. He officially named it the anthem of the U.S. army and naval armed forces, and military bands played the anthem every time they marched. Americans like Wilson identified with the nations who were fighting for their independence, so the President may have deliberately expanded the meaning of the “Star-Spangled Banner” from an anthem that celebrated the endurance of the flag to an anthem that celebrated the endurance of the United States itself, the great experiment in democratic self-government, which in 1916 was still one of the few democracies in the world. Unlike France, the other great democratic republic, our anthem DID NOT originate from one of our most glorious military conflicts, such as the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. It was an anthem from the easily forgettable War of 1812, a war we provoked against Great Britain for questionable reasons which achieved few of its vaguely defined objectives. And yet, this anthem best expressed our nation’s revolutionary struggle for liberty, our unbreakable resolve to resist tyranny, and our perseverance against seemingly impossible adversity.

    When we finally did enter the First World War in 1917, “Star-Spangled Banner” truly became our unofficial national anthem, as American soldiers sang the song everywhere they went. Unfortunately, our anthem commemorated the failure of our ally, Great Britain, to defeat an entrenched enemy through the use a prolonged artillery barrage, which in retrospect was rather inappropriate. But it may also have been a declaration that we were not fighting to rescue British or French or Russian empire, but because we believed our inevitable victory would prove to the world that democracy would always with time triumph over tyranny, and that the new century would belong to free nations, not empire. Even now, this is the best description for how we view ourselves as a nation in relation to the rest of the world.


    Winston Ho 何嶸
    Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
    Department of Asian Languages and Cultures

    • Thanks for the very thoughtful and provocative comment. I’ve actually found very little documentation of Wilson’s involvement in the change of navy and army regulations in 1916. The Wilson Presidential Library claims to have no information or documentation of his involvement with the change and the change did not apply to the other services, nor civilians officially. Part of the question I think is the difference between a nation’s singular anthem and its range of more generic patriotic song, whether referred to as an anthem or not. There are claims as early as the 1850s that Key’s song was an anthem, but I certainly agree that it’s role in flag raising ceremonies was vital to its deepening relationship to U.S. identity. There are also accounts as early as the 1830s of the Banner being featured more prominently than “Hail Columbia” on patriotic occasions, so the progression of song to anthem is much messier than one might think. There are certainly plenty who object to Key’s song as anthem in the 19th c. and today as well. Finally, La Marseillaise has a claim to being the first national anthem. It was written in 1792 and was adopted as the anthem of the Republic in 1795. Thanks again for your comments — excellent food for continuing thought.

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