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COLIN KAEPERNICK’S refusal in August 2016 to stand for the national anthem triggered a furor. Critics demanded the 49er get to his feet, as players have been doing since leather-helmet days. Supporters applauded the African-American quarterbackfor protesting racial inequity and police brutality.

Modern print imagines Francis Scott Key spotting the tricolor over Fort McHenry (Library of Congress)

L’affaire Kaepernick is only the latest controversy to envelop “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Way before Kaepernick was staying in his seat—and U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe was taking a knee—in protest, the song was stirring controversy. Through the 1920s, America’s most renowned band leader and many others bitterly resisted a prolonged effort to make the old song something most Americans thought it already was: the official national anthem.


“The Star-Spangled Banner” grew out of the War of 1812, a two-year scuffle between the United States and Britain. In September 1814, having burned Washington, D.C., British forces were advancing on Baltimore, 35 miles north. Only Fort McHenry, a brick bastion at the mouth of Baltimore harbor, guarded the port. Aboard warships out on Chesapeake Bay, the British were holding Americans taken prisoner during the Washington campaign. The POWs included Upper Marlboro, Maryland, physician William Beanes, 65. Friends asked Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key to seek Beanes’s release. Key, 35, sailed from the capital under a flag of truce with a federal official authorized to negotiate prisoner exchanges.

Meeting on Wednesday, September 7, 1814, with British Major General Robert Ross on a warship, Key persuaded Ross to release Beanes. However, with Fort McHenry about to come under attack, Ross detained the two aboard ship, lest they reveal British plans.

On Tuesday, September 13, 1814, the king’s fleet began firing cannon and rockets. American gunners at Fort McHenry countered. Salvoes continued through the night. Eight miles out on the bay, Key could see blasts but not any outcome. Dawn found the American flag still waving over the fort. The British, about to withdraw, released Beanes and Key. The Americans had prevailed.

The elated lawyer quickly composed “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” a rhyming verse expressing Key’s exhilaration at seeing the American tricolor flying by the dawn’s early light. Handbills of his doggerel circulated around Baltimore. The Baltimore Patriot newspaper ran the poem, retitled “The Star Spangled Banner,” propelling the lines nationwide. Key set his verse to the melody of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a ubiquitous 18th century British drinking song.

To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full Glee,

A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,

That He their Inspirer and Patron wou’d be;

When this Answer arriv’d from the jolly old Grecian

“Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,

“No longer be mute,

“I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,

“And, besides, I’ll instruct you like me, to intwine

“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.

For the next several decades, musicians performed the song on the national holidays of the age, such as January 18—the date on which the Americans triumphed at New Orleans, the last battle of the War of 1812, Independence Day, and February 22, George Washington’s birthday, An 1854 anti-temperance march in Manhattan by German-Americans included a rendition. But in the main “The Star Spangled Banner” was in that era simply another patriotic tune, like “Hail, Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle.”

By the time the South was seceding, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had become familiar enough to inspire Confederate parodies:

Oh, say can you see,

Through the gloom and the storm,

How peaceful and blest was America’s soil,

‘Til betrayed by the guile of the Puritan demon,

Which lurks under virtue

And springs from its coil

Union troops sang the original at Fort Sumter as they ran the American flag back up the bastion’s flagpole on April 14, 1865. When news of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender reached Washington, federal workers marched to the White House and sang the song.

Performed at Civil War veterans’ reunions and Fourth of July and Decoration Day celebrations, the song began to annoy some listeners like the Marine Band’s 34-year-old leader.

Professor John P. Sousa favored a homegrown anthem, even when played informally. “We ought not to adopt as our national air the work of a foreigner,” Sousa said in 1884. “The words of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ are American, but the music is English.”

During the Spanish-American War, Spanish troops in Cuba enjoyed recordings of the tune, not realizing it was the enemy’s “national air.” As America’s imperial adventure unfurled, military bands blared the song for American soldiers cheering victories at Manila, capital of the Philippines; at San Juan Hill outside Santiago de Cuba; and in Puerto Rico In 1901, the U.S. Army ordered the song played nightly as the flag was lowered at bases and camps. Singing along was another matter. Soldiers stood, but few knew the lyrics.

The custom of standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not universally appreciated. On the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, a hotelier banned the tune in 1909 after a guest from the Lower 48 “twitted” him for refusing to stand. In San Diego in 1912, union-busting vigilantes forced nearly 100 members of the radical International Workers of the World to kiss the flag, stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and march to the county line. A Washington, D.C., theater booted a man for creating a disturbance when, in 1913, he stood for the song.

Europe went to war in 1914 amid strong isolationist and pacifist sentiment in the United States. President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” In this context, skeptics found “The Star-Spangled Banner” too bellicose. Katherine D. Blake, a pacifist and suffragist, offered an anti-war alternative:

O say can you see, you who glory in war,

All the wounded and dead

Of the red battle’s reaping

Can you listen unmoved to their agonized groans

Hear the children who starve,

And the pale widows weeping?

Henceforth let us swear

Bombs shall not burst in air,

Nor war’s desolation wreck all that is fair.

But the star spangled banner by workers unfurled

Shall give hope to the nations

And peace to the world.

America’s 1917 declaration of war on Germany lessened contention about the song. Organizers of Liberty Bond rallies, patriotic gatherings, and any event displaying the flag relied on “The Star Spangled Banner” to animate crowds. When American troops in France captured a German band, doughboys made the musicians play the song as they marched into captivity. Sousa, now famed for robust compositions like “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “The Washington Post March,” may have disdained the song’s anthemic ambitions, but he and his outfits thrilled wartime audiences with his own stirring arrangement.

On September 5, 1918, before the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs met at Comiskey Park to begin that season’s World Series, U.S. Navy sailor Jackie Fred Thomas opened the game with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—a Series first. The crowd of 19,274 joined in. “When the final notes came, a great melody rolled across the field,” wrote the New York Times. “Onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”  Southpaw Babe Ruth held the Cubs to six hits and pitched the Sox to a 1-0 victory, presaging another Boston championship


Patriotic fervor did not quash dissent. The Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1917 attacked Episcopalian Bishop David H. Greer, who did not share the lyrics’ endorsement of war, for barring performances of the song at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. In 1918, when a New Haven, Connecticut man wrote “Deutschland uber Alles” on his Selective Service questionnaire, a mob forced him to sing the song and kiss the flag.

Although most Americans assumed wrongly that the “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the national anthem, periodic efforts to make it official came to naught. In 1913, anticipating the song’s centenary, Rep. Jefferson M. Levy (D-New York) floated a bill that died in committee, as did variants in 1917 and 1918. Some congressmen endorsed deservedly forgettable alternatives like “Uncle Sam’s Power,” “Before the Gates,” and “The U.S.A.”

In 1921, Rep. John Charles Linthicum (D-Maryland), whose district included Fort McHenry, took up the guidon. A teetotaler who nonetheless led House “wets” opposing Prohibition, Linthicum was drawn into the anthem issue by the National Society of U.S. Daughters of 1812 and by his personal interest in Fort McHenry and its preservation. The six-term congressman made official recognition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” a personal crusade. “There seems to be something in this poem, in this anthem, which affects us as no other poem or anthem could affect us,” Linthicum said.

When Linthicum introduced a bill naming a national anthem in April 1921, however, the issue stirred no interest. A stand either way would alienate voters, so Congress repeatedly decided by not deciding.

The song’s most famous foe was Sousa, now at the height of his fame. A national anthem should be “a vigorous, inspiring air and a poetic composition of nobility” like Britain’s “God Save the King” and France’s “La Marseillaise,” he wrote, noting that “The Star Spangled Banner” possessed none of those characteristics. An anthem must be simple to sing, he added, observing that “The Star-Spangled Banner” occupies “an almost impossible register for most voices.” His own “The Stars and Stripes Forever” might do, he implied.

For the untrained voice, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a challenge, as an anonymous wit noted:

Oh, say, can you sing from the start to the end,

 What so proudly you stand for

 When the orchestras play it;

 When the whole congregation, in voices that blend,

 Strike up the grand hymn

 And then torture and slay it?

 How they bellow and shout

 When they’re first starting out,

 But ‘the dawn’s early light’ finds them

 Floundering about.

 ‘Tis ‘The Star Spangled Banner’

 They’re trying to sing

 But they don’t know the words

 Of the precious old thing.

 Hark! The ‘twilight’s last gleaming’

Has some of them stopped,

 But the valiant survivors press forward serenely

 To ‘the ramparts we watched,’

 Where some others are dropped

And the loss of the leaders is manifest keenly;

 Then ‘the rockets’ red glare

 Give the bravest a scare

 And there’s a few left to face

 The ‘bombs bursting in air’

 ‘Tis a thin line of heroes that manage to save

 The last of the verse

And ‘the home of the brave.

After the First World War, the song’s martial themes alienated many. Columbia University Professor Clyde R. Miller said the lyrics link patriotism “with killing and being killed, with great noise and clamor, with intense hatreds and fury and violence.” Another Columbia professor, Peter W. Dykem, said that unless the nation is in crisis, the song  “falls flat.”

Some critics decried Congress as meddlesome. Pacifist Lucia Ames Mead said the popular will, not legislative decree, should elevate a national anthem. The public “by natural selection will decide which anthem is most expressive of their ideals and dear to their hearts,” Mead said, finding an ally in Oscar Sonneck, chief of music at the Library of Congress. Popular taste will prevail, Sonneck said, regardless of what legislators do. With Prohibition the law of the land, the melody’s public-house roots grated on temperance advocates, just as its British origins irked those who wanted an all-American anthem. The historically minded objected to picking an anthem celebrating a single event in an obscure war.

Passions solidified and amplified. “The words and the tune of that song are admittedly unsuitable for the purpose of a national anthem,” declared the New York Times. “Words that nobody can remember to a tune nobody can sing,” the Herald Tribune sneered. “No one with a normal esophagus can sing [it] without screaming, nor any one read its lines without marveling at those who call them poetry,” wrote author Poultney Bigelow.

From advocates came equally strong sentiments. Norman R. LaTourette of the Veterans of Foreign Wars attacked pacifists and their “powerful and well-financed propaganda…to replace Francis Scott Key’s inspiring words with something more flowery and meaningless.”

When a New York organization said its Independence Day 1926 celebration would not include a vocal rendition, so as not to offend Britons—the obscure third verse slags them as “hirelings” and “slaves”—Linthicum barked that Americans afraid of offending Britain “should go to England and sing ‘God Save the King’ and not bask under the sunshine and prosperity of the American republic while entertaining such strong allegiance to other lands.”

“The people have carried the melody and words in their hearts for over a century,” said Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-New York), who had his own anthem-recognition bill. “Such age-worn choice seems irrevocable.” Asked Rep. John Hill (R–Maryland) “Why should we have an Army, why should we have a Navy, if we want to sing some psalm…or some other piffle as a national anthem?”.

Linthicum revived his bill without success in 1923, in 1925, and in 1927. An April 22, 1924 House Judiciary Committee debate showed Congress as divided as the public. Celler urged congressional recognition to protect the song “against aspersions cast upon it by certain unpatriotic people.” “A barroom ballad,” Rep. George S. Graham (R-Pennsylvania) scoffed.

In 1929, Linthicum introduced his bill yet again. This time, his backers bore down harder on their lobbying, while critics confined themselves to talk and letters to newspaper editors. On Friday, January 31, 1930, the House Judiciary Committee took up H.R. 14. The Marylander pulled out the stops. To show the song could be sung he brought sopranos Elsie Jorss-Reilley of Washington and Grace Evelyn Boudlin of Baltimore, accompanied by the Navy Band. “If I quavered on those high notes all would be lost,” Jorss-Reilley said later. Her timbre was firm and “(t)he stirring notes…rang…in the House judiciary committee room and echoed through the long corridors of the House Office Building,” the Associated Press reported.

Presenting a petition with nearly five million signatures endorsing the bill, Walter I. Joyce, VFW national commander and a Spanish-American War veteran, said, “I stood on San Juan Hill in ‘98 and heard four bands play that tune. All around me in the pup tents men were lying sick with fever but when they heard that glorious old tune, every man somehow got to his feet. According to a New York veterans’ group commander, “A bunch of pinks and lime-juicers,” were stalling the bill.


Francis Scott Key-Smith pleaded on behalf of his grandfather’s song. Female supporters sported red, white, and blue sashes. Linthicum entered into the record telegrams of support from 25 governors and resolutions of support from 150 organizations, including the VFW, the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans of the World War, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Daughters of 1812. Even the Musicians’ Mutual Protective Union jumped on board.

No one spoke officially against the bill, which received committee approval, followed on April 21, 1930, by House passage. Senator Millard Tydings (D-Maryland) steered the bill, which ultimately passed and was signed by President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931. The United States finally had an official national anthem.

Though popular between the wars, the anthem still could cause a rumpus. In 1938, a Long Island couple had retired for the evening when from a bedside radio came the familiar strains. The husband jumped to attention, making his wife do the same. She found the situation so upsetting she sought counsel from New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who had no answer. An editorial writer suggested turning off the radio before turning in.

The anthem’s popularity increased as war broke out in the Far East and in Europe. On August 18, 1940, residents of Andover, New Jersey, irate that the Ku Klux Klan and the German-American Bund were holding a rally in their town, loudly sang the anthem to drown out the speechifying.

In 1942, Congress codified the habit of standing for the anthem: “…all present should stand and face toward the music. Those in uniform should salute at the first note of the anthem, retaining this position until the last note. All others should stand at attention, men removing the headdress.”

A favorite World War II jest turned on the famously obscure lyrics: GI returns from patrol. Sentry asks for the password. Soldier draws a blank. Okay, sentry says, you can prove you’re a Yank by reciting “The Star Spangled Banner.” The soldier say he can’t remember the words. “Aaaah, g’wan and pass,” the sentry says, “You’re American, alright.”

During the war, major-league baseball and professional football games began to stage live performances of the anthem or play a recording. “The National Anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kick-off,” NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden said after Japan had surrendered. “We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.”

During the 1950s the anthem became a fixture on television, not only by way of sporting events but to mark the end of the broadcast day, accompanied by footage of the star spangled banner waving.

In the 1960s, protest against racial injustice and the American presence in Vietnam sometimes took the form of remaining seated during the anthem. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the dais for winning gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter event, angered many fellow Americans by raising black-gloved fists through the playing of the anthem. Similar ire greeted Jose Feliciano’s Latin-inflected arrangement of the anthem at that year’s World Series and Jimi Hendrix’s screaming feedback-addled rendition at the August 1969 Woodstock pop festival. As the musical tastes became less buttoned up, non-standard but heartfelt performances, like the late Whitney Houston’s at the 1991 Super Bowl, drew accolades.

Over the years candidates for a replacement have never been in short supply, with Katharine Lee Bates’ “America, the Beautiful” leading the list, joined by numbers like Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

In a 2014 resolution, the U.S. Senate expressed hope that “The Star-Spangled Banner” will “remain our national anthem in perpetuity.”

With its attributes and flaws, its reliability as a conduit for patriotic fervor and as a context for protest, difficult to sing and easy to parody, “The Star-Spangled Banner” likely will live up to that vision.

Originally published in the February 2017 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here