The United States’ national anthem was written at a low point for the new nation during the War of 1812. Two years in, by August 1814, the British had captured Washington, D.C., and burned the White House (then the Presidential Building) and the Capitol. They turned next to attack Baltimore — a hotbed of American pro-war sentiment.
On 13 September, the British began a 27-hour bombardment of the city. One eyewitness was Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old attorney from Maryland, who happened to be on board a British naval ship negotiating a prisoner exchange at the time.
Captive on the boat, and an opponent of the conflict, Key anxiously watched the shelling from eight miles away at sea.
‘It seemed that the city was surely going to fall,’ explains Christie’s Books and Manuscripts specialist Peter Klarnet in the short film above. ‘That it didn’t, was such a miraculous event.’
The following morning, filled with jubilation at seeing the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry, Key immediately began a rough draft of what would become The Star Spangled Banner on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket.
Over the next few days, the British abandoned their assault and on 16 September, Key was released. He finished the composition that night in a room at Baltimore’s Indian Queen Hotel.
Key set the poem he had written to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven, a popular British drinking song by the English composer, John Stafford Smith. It struck a chord among Baltimore’s battle-weary citizens and was quickly printed as a broadside handbill for circulation around the city.
Days later, the poem was passed to the Baltimore Patriot and Evening Advertiser, one of the two major newspapers in the city. They printed it on 20 September 1814, the day the presses resumed after the staff returned from manning the city’s defences, under its original title: ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry’.
Above the lyrics, the newspaper also printed a note that describes the composition of the ‘beautiful and animated effusion, which is destined to long outlast the occasion and outlive the impulse which produced it’.
Today, those words feel like a predication of what the song would become. ‘The Star Spangled Banner really evokes the mood of the time,’ says Klarnet, adding that it ‘really commemorates this final securing of that independence’.
In 1931, Congress proclaimed The Star Spangled Banner as America’s national anthem.
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This issue of Volume IV, Number 59 of the Baltimore Patriot comes to Christie’s from the collection of the American Antiquarian Society and is being sold to benefit its collections acquisition fund.
Founded in 1812 in Worcester, Massachusetts, by the publisher Isaiah Thomas, the society’s research archives hold close to three million printed books, pamphlets, newspapers and manuscripts made in America between the first European settlements and 1876. This copy of the Baltimore Patriot is one of two held by the society.
Two other confirmed prints exist. One is another full edition of the newspaper held by the Wisconsin Historical Society, while the other is a clipping of the poem that was found in a scrapbook collected sometime in the 19th century. The latter was sold by Christie’s in 2018 for $75,000 — a figure five times the low estimate and testament to the song’s enduring legacy.