The National Anthem’s Path to Fame Began With Little Fanfare

The National Anthem’s Path to Fame Began With Little Fanfare

One of the most important articles ever published by a 19th-century newspaper called The Baltimore Patriot & Evening Advertiser didn’t even make the front page. It appeared on Page 2.

The article was about a new song, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” The title was anything but catchy or enduring, but the newspaper said the song itself was “destined long to outlast the occasion, and outlive the impulse, which produced it.”

For once, a prediction in a newspaper proved correct. The song caught on, and its author, Francis Scott Key, became famous for it after it was retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Still, that issue of The Patriot took on historical significance, because it was the first printing of Key’s lyrics with a date — Sept. 20, 1814, three days after Key had completed the lines he had begun scribbling on the back of a letter he was carrying.

The issue was important enough to end up in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society, which concentrates on 18th- and 19th-century documents and memorabilia, especially newspapers. Its goal is to have one copy of every newspaper printed between 1640 and 1876 in the American colonies or, after the Declaration of Independence, the United States. It has two million newspapers on hand.

Credit…via Christie’s

As it happened, it had two copies of that issue of The Patriot. Society officials decided to sell one, a copy acquired nearly 90 years ago from the York County Historical Society in York, Pa. Christie’s, which will sell that copy in an online auction that closes on June 10, estimates that it will go for $300,000 to $500,000 — enough, the antiquarian society says, to buy something else that would make its collection more complete. Officials of the group would not say what they had their eyes on.

Ellen S. Dunlap, the president of the antiquarian society, said the editors who printed Key’s poem could not have known what it would become. “They were just putting something in there to fill up the column inches, in a way,” she said.

If they had not published it, would it have been forgotten or lost?

“No,” she said. “It touched an emotion. Somebody was going to publish it.” Newspapers often published poems and ballads in those days. “This one just became kind of a big deal,” she said. (But it took 117 years. It did not officially become the national anthem until 1931, by coincidence the year the society acquired the copy that Christie’s is selling)

For the patriots who ran The Patriot, Key’s song was not just stop-the-press news, it was start-the-press news. The paper had not come out in almost two weeks. With the British closing in on Baltimore, the staff had taken a hiatus from journalism and had “been engaged in the defence of the city, and thus in the service of our country,” the editors explained in an article adjacent to the one about Key’s song. As such, said Peter Klarnet, Christie’s senior specialist in Americana, the issue served as “a unique time capsule into the time in which it was printed.”

“And it was a great news day,” he said. The issue “really captures the mood after this absolutely miraculous victory.”

For the young nation, the War of 1812 had been going badly for the Americans. But, under the headline “Glorious News,” The Patriot reported on the American defeat of the British Navy in the Battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, between New York and Vermont. The Patriot also reported that Congress was meeting again, less than a month after the British had burned the United States Capitol and the President’s House, not yet famous as the White House. President James Madison had been forced to flee Washington.

And that was just Page 2.

Like most newspapers of the period, The Patriot filled the front page with advertisements — then as now, newspapers had to turn a profit to survive, and Page 1 was where The Patriot made its money. One ad offered 1,000 bushels of corn. Below that, someone was trying to sell “a fine young mare well calculated for our troops.”

“Because this was Baltimore at the beginning of the 19th century,” Mr. Klarnet said, “there are advertisements for runaway slaves, for slaves who had been found.” He said there were at least five such notices on Page 1.

But back to Page 2.

Key was a witness to the bombardment of Fort McHenry because he had sailed across the harbor there to negotiate the release of a prisoner held by the British, his friend William Beanes, a physician from what was then called Upper Marlborough, Md. Key had been sent by the president to accompany the American government’s prisoner-of-war exchange officer, John Stuart Skinner.

Beanes’s captors agreed to let him go but set one condition: The Americans could not sail back across the harbor and go ashore until after the attack.

That forced them to wait out 25 hours of shelling. They were on a sloop, which Key said later was “tossed as though in a tempest” as the night wore on.

Key wrote something during the night, and back in his hotel room, he did some rewriting and polishing of lyrics that could be sung to the English drinking tune “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Then Skinner stepped in, and proved to be an exceptional promoter. He said later that he had taken the song from Key and “passed it to the Baltimore Patriot, and through it to immortality.”

It is not clear who wrote the article, which did not carry a byline, although it was signed “Ed. Pat.” — which would suggest that one the owners, Isaac Munroe or Ebenezer French, had dashed off the paragraph about Key’s lyrics.

But there is a larger mystery than the story of the story: Did The Patriot land a scoop with the publication of Key’s song? Or had The Patriot already been scooped?

Historians say a handbill with the lyrics was probably printed on Sept. 17, three days before The Patriot hit the streets. According to some 19th-century accounts, the handbill was printed at a rival newspaper, The Baltimore American. But it was not dated, and The American itself did not get around to printing the song until Sept. 21.

Mr. Klarnet believes that The Patriot was first. He said that a survey of known newspaper printings of the song in the weeks and months after the Battle of Fort McHenry found that the majority followed the version printed in The Patriot rather than the one in The American, which had slight differences in a few phrases and in punctuation.

But there is no way to know. “As with the Declaration of Independence,” Mr. Klarnet said, “the details we obsess on now were so incidental to the people at the time that no one recorded it.”

Latest Category Posts