Bombardment of Fort McHenry, September 13-14, 1814; painting by Peter Rindlisbacher
Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) is best known for writing the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. What is not so well know is that embedded within the lyrics of that great song was one phrase that also would have great significance for our nation. Here’s the story.
The war of 1812 was still going strong in 1814. In that year, British forces stormed, bombed, and burned our capitol city, Washington, D.C. The White House, the Capitol, and many other government buildings were in flames, and government officials had fled into Virginia.
The British were attacking from the East, at Fort McHenry on the Chesapeake Bay. If that fort fell, the British would go into Baltimore, and the new nation would be in great danger. It was a desperate situation.
Francis Scott Key was an American, but he was on a British warship, negotiating the release of a friend of President Monroe who was being held as a prisoner of war. He had completed the negotiations and won the man’s release when the bombardment of Ft. McHenry started. He would not be free to go back to American lines until the battle was over. But what a view he would have of it! He was out in the bay with all the British ships, watching the pounding they were giving the fort with their big cannons. Could Fort McHenry survive? He would know in the morning by seeing what flag was flying above the fort.
Then, “By the dawn’s early light,” the flag, “what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,” was still flying, “broad stripes and bright stars,” and all. Key was inspired to write down a few lines of a poem on that back of an old envelope he had in his pocket.
Later on in the day, Key polished up the poem a bit and showed it to some friends. They liked it, had it printed on handbills, and soon copies were being distributed all around the city. A week after the battle the Baltimore newspaper published it, along with the tune of a popular drinking song. The song’s popularity grew over the years, and in 1931 it was named our national anthem.
Now for the ‘rest of the story.’ Seldom does anyone ever sing the last verse of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, but in that last verse are these two lines:
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just;
And this be our motto, “In God is our Trust.”
When Key wrote those words, he had in mind Psalm 143:8 which reads as follows: “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for in Thee do I trust.” When he put those words into the song, he called it our motto. At the time, this was more wishful thinking than anything else. The United States had no national motto at the time, nor did they have any plans to establish one.
Fifty years after the war of 1812 the words In God We Trust started appearing on our coins. Then in 1956, that phrase was officially declared our national motto. Not everyone is happy about that anymore, but it is still there, and it came from the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key, and Psalm 143:8.
This two cent piece, minted 1864-1873, was the first coin to include the In God We Trust motto.
Psalm 143:8 — Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.
Psalm 20:7 — Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Psalm 56:11 — In God I trust and am not afraid. What can man do to me?
1 In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
2 In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me;
turn your ear to me and save me.
3 Be my rock of refuge,
to which I can always go;
give the command to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.