Francis Scott Key Biography

Poet, Lawyer(1779–1843)
Francis Scott Key was an attorney and poet who wrote the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner," the U.S. national anthem.

Synopsis

Born on August 1, 1779, in Frederick County, Maryland, Francis Scott Key became a lawyer who witnessed the British attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The fort withstood the day-long assault, inspiring Key to write a poem that would become the future U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." Key later served as a district attorney for Washington, D.C. He died on January 11, 1843.

Early Life and Career

Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779, in Frederick County, Maryland, to a wealthy clan on the plantation of Terra Rubra. He was educated at home until the age of 10 and then attended an Annapolis grammar school. He went on to study at St. John's College, ultimately returning to his home county to set up practice as a lawyer. Key wed Mary "Polly" Taylor Lloyd in the early 1800s, and the couple would go on to have 11 children. By 1805, he'd set up his legal practice in Georgetown, then an independent municipality within Washington, D.C. area.

War of 1812

By the early 1810s, the United States had entered into conflict with Britain over the kidnapping of U.S. seamen and the disruption of trade with France. The ensuing hostilities would come to be known as the War of 1812. Though opposed to the war due to his religious beliefs and believing that the disagreement could be settled without armed conflict, Key nonetheless served in the Georgetown Light Field Artillery.

British forces captured Washington, D.C., in 1814. Taken prisoner was a Dr. William Beanes, who also happened to be a colleague of Key. Due to his work as an attorney, Key was asked to help in the negotiation of Beanes' release and in the process traveled to Baltimore, where British naval forces were located along Chesapeake Bay. He, along with Colonel John Skinner, was able to secure Beanes' freedom, though they were not allowed to return to land until the British completed their bombardment of Fort McHenry.

Crafting 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

On September 13, the three at sea watched what would become a day-long assault. After continual bombing, to Key's surprise, the British weren't able to destroy the fort, and Key noted upon the dawning of the next morning a large U.S. flag being flown. (It had in fact been sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill at the request of the fort commander.)

The British ceased their attack and left the area. Key immediately wrote down the words for a poem that he would continue composing at an inn the next day. The work, which relied heavily on visualizations of what he witnessed, would come to be known as the "Defence of Fort M'Henry" and was printed in handbills and newspapers, including the Baltimore Patriot. The poem was later set to the tune of a drinking song by John Stafford Smith, "To Anacreon in Heaven," and came to be called "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Stance on Slavery

Key continued working in law and became Washington, D.C., district attorney in 1833. He also had a complex, some might say contradictory, stance on race. In his capacity as district attorney, he was noted to have overseen proceedings that upheld the system of slavery, prosecuting abolitionists. Key was a slave owner himself, though he went on record as saying that the system of slavery was full of sin and "a bed of torture." He also helped establish the American Colonization Society, which advocated the transport of African Americans to Africa. Information on Key's relationship to race and his D.C. legal career can be found in the Jefferson Morley book Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.

Song Becomes National Anthem

After falling ill with pleurisy, Key died on January 11, 1843, in Baltimore, Maryland, at the age of 63 and was laid to rest in nearby Mount Olivet Cemetery near the city of Frederick. "The Star-Spangled Banner" continued to be held up as a U.S. musical symbol though also facing critiques, with the song being labeled by some as violent and boasting unwieldy lyrics. Decades later, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson declared "The Star-Spangled Banner" should be played at official events. On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover along with Congress had the song declared the U.S. national anthem.

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