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Library of Congress

Happy Birthday, Francis Scott Key, Author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

August 01, 2010
by Liz Colville
Francis Scott Key was a Federalist, a lawyer, attorney general of Washington, D.C., a husband and the father of 11 children. An ancestor and namesake of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Key is best known for a rare demonstration of poetry: “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” otherwise known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Francis Scott Key’s Early Days

Francis Scott Key was born to a wealthy family in Frederick County, Maryland, on August 1, 1779. He was educated at a private school in Annapolis, Maryland, from a young age and was raised Episcopalian, becoming deeply religious as an adult.

Key had 11 children by his wife, Mary Tayloe Lloyd, whom he met while studying at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. They settled in Georgetown when Key and his uncle, Philip Barton Key, founded a law practice.

Writing the “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Key opposed the War of 1812 against Britain, but when his state was threatened, he joined a volunteer militia. During his service, he saw the White House, Capitol and other buildings burn.

He returned home in August 1814, just prior to the capture of his friend Dr. William Beanes by Gen. Robert Ross and Adm. George Cockburn of the British army, the event that would spark “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Key wanted to rescue his friend, and received a ship from President Madison to sail out to the British vessel holding Beanes. Key and Col. John C. Skinner convinced Ross to release Beanes, but the Americans had to be detained during the British attack on Baltimore.

From the ship, Key watched the Sept. 13-14 bombing attack of Fort McHenry, which flew a large American flag. The morning after the battle, Key saw that the flag was still flying, signifying that the fort had withstood the bombardment. It inspired Key to write the poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” later known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“The Defence of Fort McHenry” was revised several times during Key’s stay at the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore following the battle. He was encouraged to publish it by his wife’s brother-in-law.

Copies were printed and distributed to soldiers in and around Fort McHenry and Baltimore, along with instructions saying that it should be sung to the familiar tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The first known performance of the song was at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre on Oct. 19, 1814.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” grew to become one of the most popular patriotic songs and was played often during the Civil War. In 1889, the Navy began playing it at flag-raising ceremonies, and in 1917, the Navy and Army adopted it as the national anthem for ceremonial purposes.

In 1931, Congress passed a law declaring “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States. Officially, the song has four verses, though only the first verse is typically sung.

The Rest of the Story

Francis Scott Key went down in history for a single poem, but he was also an accomplished lawyer. From 1833 to 1841 he was district attorney of Washington, D.C., under Presidents Jackson and Van Buren.

He was both a slave owner and an “advocate for a solution to slavery,” according to the Maryland Online Encyclopedia; he argued cases on both sides of the argument. He raised money for a proposed African colony for blacks. He eventually freed his own slaves but had a single free black servant throughout his life. He died on Jan. 11, 1843.

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