Birth of an anthem
The War of 1812 began in June two centuries ago, when the government headed by James Madison declared war on Great Britain. It was not popular in New England, to the extent that a group of New England delegates met in Hartford, Conn., to consider seceding from the union.
One of the chief complaints of Madison and the maritime communities of the country was the British habit of stopping neutral merchant ships and forcing sailors to join the crews of British warships. It was called “impressment.”
For a time Britain was heavily involved in fighting Napoleon, so not much was done by its forces on this side of the Atlantic except coastal raids. But at last the French were overcome, Napoleon was sent off in supposed safety to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, and forces could be devoted to efforts in this hemisphere. By 1814 a U.S. negotiating team headed by John Quincy Adams was in Ghent in neutral Dutch territory, to talk terms with a British delegation.
While that was going on a British force defeated an American force near Washington, D.C., and entered the nation’s capital, burning several public buildings, including the White House. Then the invaders decided to strike at Baltimore, a port where many privateers had been outfitted to prey on British shipping.
News of the Washington attack heartened the cabinet in London, and it seemed as if Baltimore would fall next, and an invasion from Canada would succeed. The group in Ghent was told to demand possession of a chunk of Maine, possession of both sides of the St. Lawrence River, and several other concessions. The U.S. delegation refused, but quietly dropped the insistence on an end to impressment.
London was still feeling euphoric when shattering news arrived that the naval and land attack on Baltimore had failed, that the British commander had been killed, and that the invasion from Canada had been beaten at Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain. When this news reached the U.S. delegates in Ghent they insisted that peace should be based on how territorial things had stood at the start of the war.
The British cabinet asked the Duke of Wellington if he would assume command of British forces in North America, but as a military expert he pointed out the various geographical and logistical difficulties in store, and just at that time Napoleon returned from Elba, absorbing all Wellington’s energies leading up to Waterloo.
Peace with the U.S. was signed at Ghent generally on American terms, but the British prime minister said Madison was a “sneak” who might scuttle the treaty or try to change it so as to be inadmissible. So continued military activity was set in motion.
Before news of the treaty reached this side of the Atlantic, a British attack on New Orleans was repelled by Andrew Jackson and the British commander was killed by gunfire. The city of Washington was celebrating Jackson’s triumph when news of the peace treaty arrived. Madison did not “sneak” any changes, but accepted it gratefully, and the war was over.
Although Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” during the naval attack on Baltimore in 1814, the song did not become this country’s national anthem until 1931. In the early decades of the 20th century a certain assertiveness dominated this country, and the hymn “My Country, ’tis of Thee” followed the same tune as the British “God Save the King.” A certain amount of anti-British feeling came to the fore in the 1920s, and on March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed an Act of Congress declaring Key’s hymn to be the national anthem.
Most who sing it today don’t realize that the tune originated in a British social club dedicated to the Greek poet Anacreon, whose chief interest was with women, and when finished with them, with wine.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Rutland Herald.