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History of the American Flag & National Anthem

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  • 0:03 Transformations From the Past
  • 0:30 The National Anthem
  • 1:34 Flag Symbolism
  • 2:20 Flag Pride
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Have you ever wondered why the flag of the United States looks the way it does, with all those stars and stripes? In this lesson, you'll learn more about the history of the flag and the national anthem written in its honor.

Transformations From the Past

How did the tune of a British song that praises wine transform into the Star-Spangled Banner? And why did the American flag at one time have as many as 15 stripes, even though now there are only 13?

In this lesson, we'll dive into the history of both the flag and the national anthem and learn how both became the symbols of national pride that they are today. We'll also look at why the two are connected by a shared moment in history.

The National Anthem

The year was 1814, and a 30-something lawyer and amateur poet had been sent onto a British ship to negotiate for the release of an American prisoner. From his spot on the British ship, this man, named Francis Scott Key, was a witness to more than a day-long battle that would wage against Baltimore's Fort McHenry. This violence was part of the complicated series of events known as the War of 1812.

And what did Key see ''by the dawn's early light?'' The star-spangled banner was waving in victory. Yes, the American forces had made it through a night of ''the bombs bursting in air.'' As the story goes, Key took such inspiration from this flag that he jotted down the lyrics that would later become the Star-Spangled Banner.

So what does all this have to do with a British song that had lyrics about wine and silliness? As others had done, Key took his lyrics and put them to the tune of an already popular song, a tune the public would know. His lyrics caught on, and though the Star-Spangled Banner would not become the official national anthem until 1931, he had created a patriotic hit.

Flag Symbolism

The flag that Key wrote about in the national anthem was different than the one you'll see flying today. The flag flying at Fort McHenry in 1814 had 15 stripes, instead of the 13 stripes of our current flag. Why is that?

Well, two new states, Kentucky and Vermont, had just joined the original 13 states. This meant there were 15 states in the country at that time, and the flag flying that day reflected this. As more states were added, it was decided not to continue to add stripes but to instead add stars.

There have been many variations of the flag through history, some with the stars in a circle, for instance. Today's flag has 13 stripes, most commonly understood as representing the original 13 colonies. The 50 stars represent the current 50 states.

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