Francis Scott Key Manuscript To Visit George Washington’s Mount Vernon

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In celebration of the bicentennial of the National Anthem, the Maryland Historical Society and George Washington’s Mount Vernon are partnering together for an event of historic proportions.

"The Star-Spangled Banner," Francis Scott Key, 1814, MdHS, 54315

In celebration of the bicentennial of the National Anthem, the Maryland Historical Society and George Washington’s Mount Vernon are partnering together for an event of historic proportions. From October 1 through October 31, 2014, the original handwritten manuscript of the "Star-Spangled Banner" lyrics, written by Francis Scott Key, will be on loan to George Washington’s estate, marking its first and only visit to the state of Virginia. Special public events celebrating the manuscript and its connection to George Washington will take place on Sunday, October 5. 

“We are honored to partner with the Maryland Historical Society to bring the Star-Spangled Banner document across the Potomac to George Washington’s home," said Mount Vernon President Curt Viebranz. "While the manuscript is here at Mount Vernon we expect that it will be viewed by thousands of Americans and international guests.”

The manuscript depicts the flag as Key saw it, at "Dawn's Early Light," on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814. It will be displayed in an environmentally controlled chamber in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. The manuscript will be surrounded by panels describing Mount Vernon at the time the song was written during the War of 1812.

"The Maryland Historical Society has been proud to share its iconic American treasure with hundreds of thousands of Americans during this 1814 Bicentennial year,” says Maryland Historical Society President Burt Kummerow, “It joined the original Star Spangled Banner Flag at the Smithsonian in June and recently visited Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, which inspired its creation 200 years ago. Now its bicentennial journeys will climax with a stay at George Washington's Mt. Vernon."

The Star-Spangled Banner Manuscript was most recently at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore. Just a few miles from the Fort, Key witnessed the battle, and was inspired to write the words that would become our National Anthem.  

The general public is invited to view the Star-Spangled Banner Manuscript at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and participate in special events on Sunday, October 5. Visitors will be able to learn more about the surprising connection between George Washington and the melody of our National Anthem! The special activities on October 5 are included in general admission.  

Events of the day are as follows:

  •     11 am & 2 pm: A Musical Tribute Celebrating the Star-Spangled Banner. Early American music expert David Hildebrand performs authentic music of the War of 1812 in the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Auditorium. Hildebrand sings and plays upon period guitar, fretless banjo, and a variety of flutes. Join in sing-alongs like “The Battle of Baltimore,” and hear the real story about the birth of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
  •     10 am and 3 pm: Special Wreath-Laying Ceremony at Washington’s Tomb. Listen to brief remarks about Washington’s legacy and its impact on saving Mount Vernon during the War of 1812. A performance of The Star-Spangled Banner will take place while the wreath is laid at the tomb of George Washington.

A ‘Humble’ Document

"The Star-Spangled Banner manuscript is a humble document," says Maryland Historical Society Education Director Kristin Schenning, "Francis Scott Key was a regular guy. He was a lawyer--a very good lawyer--but he was doing his job and found himself the right place at the right time. To have the Star-Spangled Banner manuscript in the home of George Washington, our Founding Father, speaks volumes as to what it means to be an American –- that anyone can contribute a huge amount."

In September of 1814, the United States was at a point in the War of 1812 when it desperately needed a victory. When the British withdrew after their temporary occupation of Washington, D.C., they took an American physician, Dr. William Beanes, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland with them. Key was asked to obtain the release of Dr. Beanes and traveled with a U.S. agent for prisoners to the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay to arrange for Beanes' freedom. 

On September 13 & 14, 1814, British bomb vessels fired more than a thousand rockets and exploding cannonballs called "bombs" on Fort McHenry in their attempt to invade Baltimore.

Key witnessed the Battle of Baltimore from a truce ship in the Chesapeake Bay. It was a long, rainy night--a 25-hour bombardment. All of Baltimore was shrouded in darkness, with the only light coming from the exploding bombs and rockets overhead. Their deadly blasts illuminated the American flag that was still flying over Fort McHenry the next morning, September 14. 

The enormous, 30'x42' foot flag was still there.

It was on that fateful morning that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write his heartfelt words. Just like Key, the other 50,000 people living in Baltimore at the time knew, that if they too looked out their windows and saw the flag still waving, they were still free. The lyrics would become known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

When he was released from the British fleet, Key gave the handwritten manuscript to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson, who insisted it be published. Within a week, the lyrics was printed in the form of a handbill entitled "Defense of Fort M'Henry" and distributed to the Defenders of Baltimore.

The lyrics quickly became popular and was set to the music of the British drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." Within weeks, Key's song spread throughout the nation. It was later adopted by Congress as the official U.S. national anthem in 1931.

"The manuscript is about the Battle of Baltimore, but it's more than that. It's about the flag, the pride of county we feel. The way we think about the flag today directly goes back to that song," Schenning says.

The Timeworn Nature of the Manuscript

All four stanzas of the Star-Spangled Banner appear on Key's manuscript. "You can see that Key has taken notes," Schenning continues, "On the manuscript a few words are crossed out. The script is fancy, but it gets cramped towards the bottom of the page -- almost as though he is excited and is running out of space, but he wants to fit everything on one sheet."

Historians believe that Key wrote the lyrics at the Indian Queen Tavern in downtown Baltimore, where it was believed he stayed. After he wrote the manuscript, he folded it, as if to put it in his pocket. To this day, the page remains creased.

"The manuscript is as iconic to our nation as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights - yet it is a very accessible document," Schenning continues.

Preserving the Manuscript

Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson's son, James Macon Nicholson, inherited the manuscript in 1817. In 1875, it was passed on to his daughter, Rebecca Lloyd Shippen. The manuscript stayed in the Nicholson family until Henry Walters bought it in 1907. The Walters Art Gallery bought it from his estate in 1934; exhibited until 1947, loaned it to the "Freedom Train" traveling exhibit and then for an extended stay at the National Archives in 1949. Mrs. Thomas Courtney Jenkins purchased the manuscript for the Maryland Historical Society in 1953.

In 1998, First Lady Hilary Clinton embarked on a "Savings America's Treasures" campaign and gave the Maryland Historical Society a grant to conserve the manuscript.

In 2002, a conservator from the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) appraised and tested the manuscript for fading and wear and found it in good condition. Based on its condition, minimal conservation was needed. The manuscript was stabilized (encapsulated mat) in a custom-made container designed specifically for the permanent exhibit case. The oxygen was removed from the container and replaced with Argon, an inert gas that inhibits oxidation.

The manuscript resides at the Maryland Historical Society in a custom-built case. Every hour, a mechanical device reveals the manuscript for a few minutes, for total of 15 minutes of light per day.

About George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Since 1860, more than 85 million visitors have made George Washington’s Mount Vernon the most popular historic home in America. A privately-owned national treasure, Mount Vernon is maintained and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Since purchasing the estate from the Washington family and assuming stewardship in 1858, the Association has embraced a heroic mission to preserve, protect, and maintain the estate for the American people, relying exclusively on private donations, admission fees, and restaurant and retail proceeds. Through robust education and outreach programs, the Association expands awareness about the exceptional life and character of George Washington, sustaining his legacy through research, interpretation, and public education. In experiences on the estate and through its digital outreach platforms, Mount Vernon strives to preserve George Washington’s place in history as “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.”

With its latest initiative, The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Mount Vernon is affirming its status as the preeminent center of learning about George Washington, his life, character of leadership, and legacy. In addition to safeguarding original books and manuscripts, the Library serves as a center for leadership, where scholars, influencers, and other luminaries come together to talk about the past as well as the future, inspired by Washington’s extraordinary life, achievements, and character.  

About The Maryland Historical Society

Founded in 1844, The Maryland Historical Society Museum and Library occupies an entire city block in the Mount Vernon district of Baltimore. The society's mission is to "collect, preserve, and interpret the objects and materials that reflect Maryland's diverse cultural heritage." The Society is home to the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner and publishes a quarterly titled "Maryland Historical Magazine” and a semi-annual MdHS Newsletter. Visit

For more details, contact Marketing Director Laura Rodini at lrodini(at) or by phone: 410-685-3750 ext. 322.

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Laura Rodini
Maryland Historical Society
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