The first dated printing of the Star-Spangled Banner
[Francis Scott Key], 20 September 1814
STAR-SPANGLED BANNER – [KEY, Francis Scott (1779-1843)] "Defence of Fort M'Henry," as printed in the Baltimore Patriot and Evening Advertiser, Vol IV, No. 59, 20 September 1814.
The rare, first newspaper printing of "The Star-Spangled Banner” appearing three days after Francis Scott Key completed the lyrics. The first to appear at auction, and one of only three copies confirmed extant. At the head of the second page, filled with breathless reports of the British failure to capture Fort McHenry, the editors of the Baltimore Patriot featured the text of Key's original four verses celebrating the occasion. Using the original title, "The Defence of Fort M'Henry,” the editors predicted (quite accurately) that this "beautiful and animating" song was "destined long to outlast the occasion, and outlive the impulse, which produced it…" The Patriot had ceased publication on 10 September so that its staff could man the city's defenses, resuming publication ten days later once the emergency had passed: "In our first renewal of publication, we rejoice in an opportunity to enliven the sketch of an exploit so illustrious, with strains, which so fully celebrate it."
As a further introduction, the editors included a short synopsis of what was known of the circumstances surrounding the song's composition: "The annexed song was composed under the following circumstances – A gentleman had left Baltimore, in a flag of Truce for the purpose of getting released from a British fleet a friend of his, who had been captured at Marlborough. He went as far as the mouth of the Patuxent and was not permitted to return lest the intended attack on Baltimore should be disclosed. He was therefore brought up the bay to the mouth of the Patapsco, where the flag vessel was kept under the guns of a frigate, and he was compelled to witness the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which the Admiral had boasted that he would carry in a few hours, and that the city must fall. He watched the flag at the Fort through the whole day with an anxiety that can be better felt than described, until the night prevented him from seeing it. In the night he watched the Bomb-Shells, at an early dawn his eye was again greeted by the proudly-waving flag of his country." Key's four verses, set to the tune of "Anacreon in Heaven," a popular English drinking song, appear below the introduction.
The chronology of the U.S. national anthem’s composition and earliest printings is well documented. It was written at a low point in the War of 1812, weeks after the British had captured Washington and burned nearly all its public buildings to the ground, turning next to attack Baltimore, a hotbed of American pro-war sentiment. Key, who had been a captive of the British fleet near the entrance to Baltimore Harbor since 7 September, spent the night of 13th and 14th observing the battle together with two other American detainees, including a government agent for prisoner exchange named John Stuart Skinner. In the immediate aftermath, exultant at the British failure to subdue Fort McHenry and capture the city, Key began his rough draft of what would become “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Over the next several days, the invaders abandoned their unsuccessful assault, withdrew their troops from the outskirts of the city, and prepared to set sail. Key and the other prisoners were released from captivity and returned to shore on the evening of the 16 September, and he finished composing the song in his room in a Baltimore inn that same night.
Key’s composition struck an immediate chord among Baltimore’s battle-weary citizens and the song was hastily printed as an undated broadside handbill. At some point on the morning of 17 September, J.S. Skinner also called on Key at the inn and obtained a manuscript of the song. Then, as Skinner would later recount, he "passed it to the Baltimore Patriot, and through it to immortality.” Skinner’s claim was by no means hyperbolic. Our own survey of known newspaper printings of the song in the weeks and months following the Battle of Fort McHenry reveals that the vast majority follow the version that was printed in the Baltimore Patriot rather than the version printed by the Baltimore American the following day.*
The 20 September 1814 issue of the Baltimore Patriot is notable not only for being the first to print Key’s song, but also that it offers a view into the world in which it was written. Two columns to the right of Key's words, the editors, in order to "avert any censure," offer a preemptive apology "TO THE PUBLIC" for ceasing publication during the crisis, observing that together with the citizens of Baltimore, they had “been engaged in the defence of the city, and thus in the service of our country." Page two is filled with good news, most notably reports of the evacuation of British soldiers that had threatened Baltimore by land. Immediately below Key’s lyrics the reader learns of the “GLORIOUS NEWS” of the American victory at Plattsburg, thwarting yet another major British offensive. In contrast with the news-packed page two, the first page may at first seem dull in comparison—filled with the staple advertisements that filled the front pages of all newspapers of the period. But intermixed with these advertisements is evidence is another dimension of daily life in early nineteenth century Maryland: slavery. At least five notices concern escaped slaves. In April 1814, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane issued a proclamation promising freedom to enslaved people who would abandon their owners. It is estimated that over 4,000 heeded the call. Some entered the Royal Navy while others emigrated to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Canada. Whether Cochrane's proclamation was the reason behind any of the runaway notices in this issue is unclear. Some of them would march on the fields of Bladensburg for the British crown, which may have been the inspiration for the line in the third verse of Key’s song: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of light or the gloom of the grave…”
The Baltimore Patriot had been in existence only since late 1812 after the local Democratic-Republican organ, the Baltimore Whig, had closed its doors after it backed DeWitt Clinton over James Madison for President. Local Democratic-Republicans invited Isaac Munroe & Ebenezer French, editors of the Boston Patriot, to move south to fill the void. In their inaugural issue, the editors pledged to “advocate the policy which has been pursued by the Jeffersonian and Madisonian Administrations. Its columns will ever be devoted to the dissemination of those pure and universal principles,” while warning that “’Divide and conquer’ is the policy of Britain and of Federalism. To unite and vindicate our country’s honour is the imperious duty of Republicans” (28 December 1812).
Ironically, Francis Scott Key was probably not an avid reader of the Patriot, as he was not supporter of the War of 1812, calling the war a "lump of wickedness.” Writing to his brother in the weeks after the Battle of Fort McHenry, Key recalled his distaste for the “public rejoicings” in Baltimore that greeted the news of the declaration "this abominable war” in June 1812. (FSK to John Randolph of Roanoke, 5 Oct. 1814) Those “rejoicings” soon turned violent: a mob attacked the local Federalist newspaper, The North American and Mercantile Daily Advertiser, soon after the June 1812 declaration of war, running its publisher out of town and destroying its press. When the publishers attempted to resume printing in the city later in the summer, they were lynched in the streets (one of the victims being none other than the Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry” Lee who sustained debilitating injuries that plagued him for the remainder of his life).
Although Key questioned the wisdom of going to war with the most powerful nation on earth at the time, his loyalty to his country did not flag. He stood with the raw militia at Bladensburg in a vain attempt to defend Washington in August 1814 only to see the British burn the capital to the ground. The experience of watching Americans bombarded for over twenty-four hours proved profound enough for Key to take up his pen and write a new song, re-using his catchy descriptor for the American flag, “Star-Spangled”, one he first coined for his 1805 song “The Warrior Returns.” (Written in honor of the return of Stephen Decatur after the Tripolitan War, he had set the lyrics to the “Anacreontic Song” as well.) And in many respects, Key’s song helped cement the American flag as the most prominent of the nation’s symbols. Thus it is no surprise that “The Star-Spangled Banner” became synonymous with the raising and lowering of the flag at military installations over the course of the nineteenth century.
Like many Americans, Key was deeply moved by the events of August and September 1814. The victory at Baltimore, together with the Jackson’s signal success at New Orleans, did much to bolster American morale. (Sometime around 1816, an enterprising Wilmington Delaware printer added a fifth verse to the “Star-Spangled Banner” to commemorate Jackson’s victory.) The close of the War of 1812, while a tactical and strategic draw, was an important victory for the Democratic-Republicans over the Federalists, signaling the latter party’s descent into political oblivion while heralding a period of relative political unity that prompted a Boston newspaper to describe it as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Secretary of State Albert Gallatin observed that the War of 1812 had “renewed and reinstated the national feelings and characters which the Revolution had given,” making “The people ... more American; they feel and act more as a nation.”
Filby & Howard N-5. Brigham lists six copies of this issue of the Baltimore Patriot in institutional collections while Filby and Howard recorded five. However, since that time several issues have been determined to have been erroneously recorded or lost. At present, we can confirm the existence of three complete issues: two housed at the American Antiquarian Society (including the present copy) and an imperfect copy at the Wisconsin Historical Society. There is photographic evidence that two other copies were extant in the past half-century, and documentation suggesting the existence of a third, but their whereabouts have not been confirmed at the time of printing of this catalogue. Additionally, a clipping from the 20 September 1814 edition of the Baltimore Patriot, bearing the text of the song, sold in these rooms in 2017 (Christies, New York, 14 June 2018, lot 111, $75,000).
Two pages, one sheet, 498 x 312mm, printed in five columns on each side (marginal wear not affecting text, occasional foxing and a few minor toned spots).
*Based on our survey of 28 subsequent newspaper printings found in America’s Historical Newspapers between 26 September and 10 December 1814. For a fuller discussion of the two versions of the lyrics, see Filby & Howard, Star-Spangled Books, pp. 63-69.
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