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How We Got Our National Anthem

The VFW calendar on our refrigerator reminds me that today marks the anniversary of our national anthem, which was officially labeled such on March 3, 1931. Among my many thoughts about our anthem when I saw that event on the calendar was the nagging question of what our anthem was before March 3, 1931. Did we even have one?

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” as we know it today, was originally only a poem–no music–having been written on September 13, 1814, by 35-year-old Francis Scott Key while he was in Baltimore Harbor during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry. Later, it was set to the music of a popular British song of the day written by John Stafford Smith.

Although the song was recognized for use by the U.S. Navy in 1889, it was not yet the national anthem. In 1929, Robert Ripley published in his daily cartoon “Believe It or Not” the fact that the United States had no national anthem, and that started a nation-wide debate about how to correct that terrible oversight. During the debate, famed composer and band director John Philip Sousa weighed in on the question, favoring “The Star-Spangled Banner” as his preference.

Sousa’s nudge started a national movement that culminated on March 3, 1931, when Congress passed a resolution making Key’s song the official national anthem. President Herbert Hoover signed the resolution into law shortly thereafter.

Before 1931, other songs were popularly used as patriotic hymns, including “Hail, Columbia” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” But we had no official national anthem until “The Star-Spangled Banner” won that honor.

Typically, we sing only the first verse of the anthem. (And many people, notoriously many celebrities, singing the anthem before sporting events, manage to mangle even that one stanza.) If we happen to be in a venue where the audience is asked to sing more than that first verse, most of us just lip synch it or sing “watermelon, watermelon” to give the impression that we know more than we really do. If you have never read the other verses, take time to do so today as a way of honoring what that anthem stands for. It will give you a greater appreciation for what this great country once was and could still be today by God’s grace.

(Watch for my upcoming book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, to be published by McFarland Publishing in Spring 2016. Check it out at

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