Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) was a successful attorney and amateur poet whose one notable verse, "The Star-Spangled Banner," became the national anthem of the United States.

Poet and attorney Francis Scott Key was a witness to the relentless bombing of Baltimore's Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812. Inspired by the sight of the battered American flag that flew over the fort throughout the conflict, he penned the lines of the future national anthem of the United States on the back of an envelope. His poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," soon appeared in newspapers across the country and was set to the tune of a popular English drinking song. Congress officially named it the national anthem in 1931.

Key was born on his family's 2,800-acre estate, Terra Rubra, near Frederick County, Maryland, on August 1, 1779. He was the son of John Ross Key, a soldier who had distinguished himself in battle during the Revolutionary War. The Keys were known for their hospitality, and in July 1791 President George Washington visited their home on his way to Philadelphia. As a boy, Key became an excellent horseman. He attended prep school at St. John's College in Annapolis, graduating in 1796. Key then remained at St. John's to earn a degree in law.

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A Religious Pacifist

Key established a law practice in Frederick in 1801. The following year he married Mary Tayloe Lloyd, who also came from a prominent Maryland family. The couple eventually had eleven children, six boys and five girls. In 1803 Key and his family moved to Georgetown, in the District of Columbia. Key became a partner in the law practice of his uncle, Philip Barton Key, taking over the practice two years later.

A deeply religious man, Key was an active member of St. John's Episcopal Church and sang with the Georgetown Glee Club. He even composed a popular hymn, "Lord, with Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee." His faith led him to maintain a pacifist stance when relations between England and the United States grew increasingly tense in the early 1810s. The British, then engaged in a war with France, frequently "impressed" American ships and crews into British service against their will. There were also disputes between British and American troops along the Canadian border and on the western frontier. Responding to the increasing British threat, the United States declared its "second war for independence" in 1812.

Became a Patriot and Enlisted

When England defeated France in 1814 and turned its full attention to fighting the United States, Key reversed his position against the war and became an avowed patriot. In 1814 he enlisted in the District of Columbia militia and became an aide to General Walter Smith. The American forces clustered around Baltimore, anticipating that it would be the main target of British attacks. Instead, the British landed near Washington, D.C., and in August 1814 they managed to capture the city and burn down the Capitol building and the White House. During the attack, Key's friend William Beanes, a Maryland physician and important patriot strategist, was captured and imprisoned aboard a British warship. The American military leaders decided to send Key to meet with the British and try to secure Beanes's release.

Key embarked on the mission on September 3, 1814. On his way, he stopped to retrieve letters written by British prisoners of war describing their good treatment by the Americans. On September 7, he sailed out to meet the British fleet at the mouth of the Potomac River. At first the captors refused to release Beanes, but they eventually agreed after reading the testimonials Key had secured. The two men's departure was delayed, however, to prevent them from revealing British plans to launch a full-scale attack on Baltimore. Their boat was put in tow behind the British fleet as it approached Fort McHenry.

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Poem Conveyed Patriotic Feelings

As sixteen British warships formed a semicircle around the fort, Key noticed a thirty-by-forty-two-foot American flag flying over it. The ships commenced bombing on September 13 and continued for the next twenty-four hours. Key watched from aboard his ship as some 1,800 shells exploded in and around the fort, lighting up the night sky. American forces on land and on sea counterattacked. When the shelling finally stopped it was still dark, and Key waited impatiently to learn how the fort had fared. At dawn he saw the American flag still flying defiantly over Fort McHenry, proving that the American forces had prevailed.

In the early morning hours of September 14, 1814, Key wrote a poem conveying his patriotic feelings about the battle. He and Beanes were allowed to return to Baltimore later that morning, where Key's poem was soon published as a broadside entitled "The Defense of Fort McHenry." The verse quickly gained popularity as it was reprinted in newspapers across the country and set to the tune of a popular song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." Key's song, renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1815, was adopted by the Union army during the Civil War and was declared the anthem of the American military during World War I. After several failed attempts, it was finally recognized by Congress as the national anthem of the United States in 1931.

A Respected Attorney

After the War of 1812, Key enjoyed a flourishing law practice. He was appointed district attorney for the District of Columbia in 1833 and held the post through 1841. In this position, Key negotiated several important agreements between the government and Native Americans. He also became active in the anti-slavery movement. Key became ill during a trip to Baltimore and died of pneumonia at the home of his daughter on January 11, 1843.

The "Star-Spangled Banner" has been criticized in some quarters, mostly due to its musical difficulty, and some minor attempts have been made to replace it as the national anthem. "No matter how many critics our anthem might have," composer John Philip Sousa asserted in Francis Scott Key and the Star Spangled Banner, "none of them can dispute the fact that it was a very satisfactory anthem during the World Wars and played an enormous part in arousing enthusiasm and patriotism. It would be as easy to make a stream run uphill as to secure a new national anthem…. The only possible chance that we might have a new national anthem would be when the eyes of all Americans are directed toward some particular cause and another genius captures the spirit of the moment in a thrilling song of patriotism. Until that time I do not believe the veneration for Francis Scott Key's anthem will ever be displaced." The flag that inspired Key, as well as his original manuscript, are on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

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Further Reading on Francis Scott Key

Silkett, John T., Francis Scott Key and the History of the Star Spangled Banner, Vintage American Publishing, 1978.

Weybright, Victor, Spangled Banner: The Story of Francis Scott Key, Farrar and Rinehart, 1935.