How the Star Spangled Banner Became the National Anthem

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John Charles Linthicum

A Maryland congressman persisted in turning Francis Scott Key’s poem into the song that is sung at the start of every event in the United States.

U.S. Rep. John Charles Linthicum, a Maryland Democrat, spent 12 years trying to convince members of Congress to enact legislation that would make “The Star Spangled Banner” the country’s official anthem.

Members of the Maryland Society, United States Daughters of 1812, asked Linthicum to introduce legislation for a national anthem soon after he was elected to the House in 1911. Resolutions calling for a national anthem had been submitted in the House and U.S. Senate, but no action was taken on them.

Francis Scott Key Poem

In 1912, Linthicum spoke during a session of the House about the need for a national anthem. He felt the song should be the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was a poem written by Francis Scott Key, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and avid poet.

“This song of Key’s aroused the dormant patriotism of the nation for human nature would not withstand its irresistible appeal to the love of country,” Linthicum said. “It lifted the national spirit from the vale of gloom and despair in which it had been floundering to the sunlit heights of confidence and victory. It heralded the dawn of a new day to our Federal Government. In moral value it was worth ten thousand bayonets.”

Key wrote a poem, originally entitled “The Defender of Fort McHenry,” after watching a 25-hour bombardment of the Baltimore fort from a British schooner in the Chesapeake Bay on Sept. 13, 1814. Key was seeking the release of a civilian doctor held captivate by the British when the bombardment began during a heavy rainstorm. By the next morning, the rain had stopped. Through the mist Key saw in the distance an American flag flapping in the breeze. He knew the fort had not fallen to the British.

Linthicum Pushes for Legislation

In March 1918, Linthicum introduced the first legislation that called for “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. The bill received little support from other congressmen.

Linthicum introduced five similar bills over the course of several years. Each measure failed to pass the House. He introduced a sixth bill, H.R. 14, on April 15, 1929. It took him nearly a year to secure a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, which claimed jurisdiction over the measure.

The congressman urged his colleagues to attend the session. “This country needs a national song to give expression of it patriotism,” he told them.

Linthicum submitted to the judiciary committee a petition with more than 5 million individual signatures by people who supported “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. He also presented resolutions and letters from 150 organizations in favor of the song, as well as letters and telegrams from 25 governors who requested enactment of the bill.

Passage of H.R. 14

The House approved H.R. 14 on April 21, 1930 amid criticism that because Linthicum’s district encompassed parts of Baltimore, he was eager to promote the city’s history more than furthering patriotism. The critics also pointed out that “The Star Spangled Banner” was set to an old British drinking song. The music was well beyond the vocal range of many Americans.

Despite the criticism, the Senate approved H.R. 14 as one of the final acts of the 71st Congress, which was held from March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1931. President Herbert Hoover signed the bill into law the day before Congress adjourned.

Linthicum’s persistence paid off, although many Americans may not have been aware of his accomplishment 80 years after “The Star Spangled Banner” became the national anthem – until now.

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  1. John Charles Linthicum