Learn the History Behind the American National Anthem
Everything Americans Should Know About the National Anthem

Everything Americans Should Know About the National Anthem

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem of the United States of America. It’s a song every person should be familiar with—and not just because they sing it at the start of every sporting event! It’s a song that has tremendous meaning and history behind it, which is why it’s the rallying cry of our country.

Here’s everything you should know about the National Anthem and why it’ll always be such an important part of our national identity.

The History of the National Anthem

The history of the national anthem is interesting in the fact that it was never meant to be a national anthem—much like other things that came with the start of our nation. What started as an attempt to document the beauty of the lone American flag standing through the night despite the British attempt to destroy the fort and all that it stood for, became a symbol of strength and pride for our country.

Francis Scott Key, the composer of the Star-Spangled Banner, wasn't a musician—in fact, he was a lawyer. He was helping a friend who was captured by the British army during the War of 1812, and he went to negotiate his friend's release. Unfortunately, the British bombed Fort McHenry while he was there, and it was during this that Key witnessed one of the most iconic lines of this future anthem.

After the bombing, Key was relieved to see the lone American flag still flying, and wrote a couple of lines in a tribute to all he had seen while he was on a boat waiting the bombings out. The poem was titled "The Defense of Fort McHenry," and featured powerful lines including the "rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air," which is now a familiar line to all Americans.

Little did Key know that his poem would become so incredibly popular. It was printed in newspapers, and then wound up being set to the music of an English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," by a composer of the name John Stafford Smith. The song didn't have an official title, but people eventually began referring to it as “the Star-Spangled Banner,” because of the vivid imagery.

Over the years, the Star-Spangled Banner grew in popularity at public events and gatherings. And, in 1916, years after Key's death, it was determined that this would be played at all official events. Another 15 years later, it was officially adopted as the national anthem on March 3, 1931.

Conduct During the National Anthem

“Please rise for the singing of our national anthem” is something you’ll hear before every sporting event, and a wide range of public services. Rising for the recitation of the anthem is important, because it shows a sign of respect for the song, the flag and everything they represent together.

Beyond standing (if you’re able to), there are a variety of other important etiquette practices that every American should observe during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Conduct will vary depending on whether you are in the armed forces or just a civilian, as well as the venue. Here’s a look at some of the more common practices every person should keep in mind:

  • All individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem, facing the flag, and maintain said position until the last note of the anthem has finished.
  • Members or veterans of the armed forces who are present but not in uniform may follow suit, facing the flag, and standing saluting until the end of the anthem.
  • Civilians who want to show proper respect should stand at attention, with their right hand over their heart, facing the flag, just like you would during the Pledge of Allegiance.
  • Individuals standing for the national anthem should remove their hats and hold them at the left shoulder, keeping their hand over their heart.
  • You should remain completely silent during the national anthem, not speaking or making hand gestures to anyone else. Maintain a stoic composure.
  • If, for some reason, there isn’t a flag displayed during the national anthem, do the same thing as if the flag were there, facing the music.

These are the basic observational standards for the national anthem; however, there are deviations that are acceptable. For example, someone holding a flag high and proud should use both hands while bracing it against their shoulder—this might prevent them from putting their hand over their heart. In more informal settings—such as sporting events—it’s also acceptable to clap or cheer for the performance as the performer wraps up on “and the home of the brave.

These standards have been the suggested proper conduct during the national anthem for years, and they’re the proper way to show respect for the nation, as well as those who have sacrificed their lives for our freedoms.

An Essential Part of our American History

There are some things in our history as a country that are likely to never change, remaining true to the original sentiment they were created with. It’s unlikely we’ll add anyone to Mount Rushmore or adopt a national bird other than the Bald Eagle—and we’re not likely to ever see any changes to the Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem. Why it was written and what it stands for are intrinsic parts of our history, never meant to be altered or amended.

The next time you rise for the national anthem, keep not only proper etiquette in mind, but also the sentiment behind the song: what it means and why Francis Scott Key wrote it. Those feelings—and its meaning—live on today.

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