Preserving the National Anthem
Francis Scott Key was both an early customer of and the attorney for Bank of America’s heritage bank, Bank of The Metropolis. Both Key’s famous poem that eventually became our national anthem and the building that housed the bank were products of unlikely victories over British attacks during the War of 1812.
We sing it to kick off almost every major sporting event in America. It’s performed thousands of times each year both privately and publicly. It’s that famous patriotic song we all know and love, our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Its famous lyrics were taken from a poem written by Francis Scott Key, who was one of the earliest customers of one of our oldest heritage banks, Bank of The Metropolis in Washington, D.C.
Key wasn’t only a customer of the bank; he also represented the bank as its attorney. Just as the bank and Francis Scott Key are linked together in history, Key’s celebrated poem and the building that housed Bank of The Metropolis are both products of remarkable survivals of the 1814 British invasion of Washington, D.C. and Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.
Two years into the War of 1812, British troops invaded Washington, D.C. and attacked Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. One of the prisoners British soldiers took during the invasion was Dr. William Beanes, a colleague of Key. Key worked with an American colonel to negotiate Beanes’ release, which took place along the Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore. Key was able to help secure the freedom of his colleague, but on the condition that they stay afloat in the bay, out of the way of British forces during the attempt to take Fort McHenry.
On September 13, Key watched with Beanes and Colonel John Skinner while the British attacked Fort McHenry for more than 24 hours. When the sun rose the next morning, Key was shocked to find that the British had been unsuccessful. The fort stood strong, undestroyed, and from its façade was raised an American flag, proudly marking the United States’ victory. The British retreated and Key was moved to write down what he saw in a poem, which he titled: Defence of Fort McHenry. The poem went on to be printed in handbills and newspapers, including the Baltimore Patriot. The poem was later set to the tune of a song by John Stafford Smith, To Anacreon in Heaven, and was renamed The Star-Spangled Banner. Although his original poem has four stanzas, only the first is commonly known and sung today as the national anthem.
Less than a month before the Battle of Baltimore, the Bank of The Metropolis in Washington, D.C. experienced its own unlikely victory over the British invasion. When British troops invaded the capital, burning and destroying every public building, they went to the bank with the goal of destroying it, too. When they arrived there, however, they found it occupied by Sarah Sweeny, the bank’s custodian, who told the soldiers that the building was the private residence of an old widow. The soldiers ultimately believed her story, and as they were under strict orders not to burn private buildings, they retreated and the bank emerged from the battle unharmed.
Key, the bank’s attorney and loyal customer, enjoyed moderate fame over his poem and the song that was made of it until he died of pleurisy in 1843 at the age of 63. His death lifted The Star-Spangled Banner to even greater heights, allowing it to thrive despite criticism that its lyrics were violent and unwieldy.
Over 70 years later, The Star-Spangled Banner was well known and recited across the country when President Woodrow Wilson declared that it should be played to begin all official events. Fifteen years later in 1931, President Herbert Hoover, along with Congress, declared the song to be the official U.S. national anthem.
Given that Francis Scott Key was one of our heritage bank’s first customers and that both he and the bank survived the 1814 invasion of Fort McHenry and Washington, D.C., Bank of America was proud to partner with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to fund the conservation and digitization of Key’s handwritten copy of The Star-Spangled Banner.
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