Old Glory…is Half British


The British Star Spangled Banner

By Eribert Loehner

On July 1st of this year, Canada celebrated the 150th anniversary of its Confederation. Only three days later, the United States celebrated the 241st anniversary of its independence from Britain.

The histories of both Canada and the United States are closely intertwined. That is not to say that our relationship has always been friendly, but as president John F. Kennedy aptly proclaimed, “Our geography has made us neighbors, our history has made us friends, our economy has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies.”  

It may actually come as a surprise to most Canadians that American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, established Canada’s postal service, and America’s first president, George Washington, as a commissioned militia officer took part in the support of Canada by fighting against French

George Washington during the ‘French and Indian War’

outposts during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

On the 4th of July, Canada was overwhelmed by strains of the American national anthem.  It surreptitiously crept into our houses over the radio and television. What could be more patriotically American than the “Star Spangled Banner?”

It may come as a surprise to most Americans that it is not. The music for the American national Anthem was written by an Englishman. Highly ironic considering the War of Independence was fought to purge America of British influence.

An Englishman writes the music!

The music for the American national anthem was written by John Stanford Smith a member of the Anacreontic Society; an early 18th century English social club intended to promote amateur music and wit.

Actually, it was one of those snooty English societies intended to keep the uneducated rabble out. A society

John Stafford Smith

that did not believe in Thomas Jefferson’s inalienable right that all men were created equal.

The song, with different lyrics and named the “Anacreontic Song”, was intended to be the society’s anthem, but it quickly became a popular drinking song.

Popular for both sides

The society often entertained dignitaries; including visiting US Naval officers and the song became popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the brother-in-law of American poet Francis Scott Key who wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” lyrics as part of poem called “The Defence of Fort McHenry” in 1814, who first combined the Anacreontic Song with Keys lyrics.

In 1892 the US Navy claimed the “Star Spangled Banner” as an anthem that should be played during the raising of the flag.

US Navy ‘Flying Squadron’ in 1898

In 1914, Europe was consumed by war and US President Woodrow Wilson did all in his power to keep America out of the European War. He declared the US neutral, yet it wasn’t really.  

American industry made significant profits providing munitions and military hardware to England and France; a great irritant to the European Central Powers.

Wilson responded by saying Germany and Austro-Hungary were also free to buy military materiel from the US, but a British naval blockade prevented the Central Powers from receiving the goods. It was a less-than-satisfying argument and Germany accused the US of not being neutral.

Germany’s accusations heightened Wilson’s efforts to cleanse the US of any bias. There was, however, one big problem. The US did not have an official national anthem.

My country ’tis of thee’ —  God Save the King!

The unofficial anthem that was played at all official functions was a song called “My country ‘tis of thee”. The music for this song was that of “God save the King!” the national anthem of Great Britain! Wilson struck a committee to urgently find an official replacement for the informal anthem.

The committee recommended the “Star Spangled Banner” and it was formally played as an anthem on the White House Lawn in 1917, but was not officially adopted until 1931 by an Act of Congress approved by President Herbert Hoover.

It is probably a good time to ask the question “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” And yeah……I think I can. America has hit a bit of rough patch lately, but I am sure it will pass.

‘Best belated wishes on your 241st birthday, America.’