Francis Scott Key

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Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key by Joseph Wood c1825.jpg
Francis Scott Key circa 1825
Born (1779-08-01)August 1, 1779
Carroll County, Maryland, U.S.
Died January 11, 1843(1843-01-11) (aged 63)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Nationality American
Ethnicity English
Occupation Poet, lawyer, district attorney
Religion Episcopalian
Children Philip Barton Key II
Alice Key Pendleton
Relatives Philip Barton Key, uncle
Francis Key Howard, grandson

Francis Scott Key (August 1, 1779 – January 11, 1843) was an American lawyer, author, and amateur poet, from Georgetown, who wrote the lyrics to the United States' national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Early life and family[edit]

Francis Scott Key was born to Ann Phoebe Penn Dagworthy (Charlton) and Captain John Ross Key at the family plantation Terra Rubra in what was Frederick County, Maryland (now Carroll County).[1] His father John Ross Key was a lawyer, a judge, and an officer in the Continental Army. His great-grandparents on his father's side were Philip Key and Susanna Barton Gardiner, both of whom were born in London and immigrated to Maryland in 1726.[2][better source needed]

He studied law at St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland and also learned under his uncle Philip Barton Key.[3] He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd on January 1, 1802.[1]

From 1818 until his death in 1843, Key was associated with the American Bible Society.[4]

Key was a founding member and active leader of the American Colonization Society, the primary goal of which was to send free African-Americans back to Africa.[5]

"The Star-Spangled Banner"[edit]

During the War of 1812, Key, accompanied by the British Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner, dined aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant, as the guests of three British officers: Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross. Skinner and Key were there to negotiate the release of prisoners, one of whom was Dr. William Beanes, a resident of Upper Marlboro, Maryland who had been arrested after putting rowdy stragglers under citizen's arrest. Skinner, Key, and Beanes were not allowed to return to their own sloop because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units and with the British intent to attack Baltimore. As a result of this, Key was unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on the night of September 13–14, 1814.[12]

Fort McHenry looking towards the position of the British ships (with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the distance on the upper left)

At dawn, Key was able to see an American flag still waving and reported this to the prisoners below deck. On the way back to Baltimore, he was inspired to write a poem describing his experience, "Defence of Fort M'Henry", which he published in the Patriot on September 20, 1814. He intended to fit it to the rhythms of composer John Stafford Smith's "To Anacreon in Heaven",[12] a popular tune Key had already used as a setting for his 1805 song "When the Warrior Returns," celebrating U.S. heroes of the First Barbary War. (Key used the "star spangled" flag imagery in the earlier song.)[13] It has become better known as "The Star-Spangled Banner". Under this name, the song was adopted as the American national anthem, first by an Executive Order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (which had little effect beyond requiring military bands to play it) and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.

Legal career[edit]

In 1832, Key served as the attorney for Sam Houston during his trial in the U.S. House of Representatives for assaulting another Congressman.[14] He published a prose work called The Power of Literature, and Its Connection with Religion in 1834.[3]

Key was appointed as a United States District Attorney, serving from 1833 to 1841.[15]

In 1835, Key prosecuted Richard Lawrence for his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President of the United States Andrew Jackson.

Pro-slavery activism[edit]

Key, a slave-owner himself,[16] used his position to suppress opponents of slavery. In 1833, he indicted Benjamin Lundy, editor of the anti-slavery publication, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, and his printer, William Greer, for libel after Lundy publishing an article that declared, "There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people in this district," referring to the District of Columbia." Lundy's article, Key said in the indictment, "was intended to injure, oppress, aggrieve, and vilify the good name, fame, credit & reputation of the Magistrates and constables" of Washington. Lundy left town rather than face trial; Greer was acquitted.[17]

In 1836, Key prosecuted New York doctor Reuben Crandall, brother of controversial Connecticut school teacher Prudence Crandall, for "seditious libel" for possessing a trunk full of anti-slavery publications in his Georgetown residence. In a trial that attracted nationwide attention, Key charged that Crandall's actions had the effect of instigating enslaved people to rebel. Crandall's attorneys acknowledged he opposed slavery but denied any intent or actions to encourage rebellion. Key, in his final address to the jury said:

"Are you willing, gentlemen, to abandon your country, to permit it to be taken from you, and occupied by the abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the negro? Or, gentlemen, on the other hand, are there laws in this community to defend you from the immediate abolitionist, who would open upon you the floodgates of such extensive wickedness and mischief?"

Crandall was acquitted.[18]

While an active legal defender of slavery, Key was considered a decent master. He emancipated seven slaves from his own household and was sometimes publicly critical of slavery's cruelties. He also sometimes helped blacks bring cases to the circuit court.[5]

Death and legacy[edit]

In 1843, Key died at the home of his daughter Elizabeth Howard in Baltimore from pleurisy[19] and was initially interred in Old Saint Paul's Cemetery in the vault of John Eager Howard. In 1866, his body was moved to his family plot in Frederick at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

The Howard family vault at Saint Paul's Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

The Key Monument Association erected a memorial in 1898 and the remains of both Francis Scott Key and his wife, Mary Tayloe Lloyd, were placed in a crypt in the base of the monument.

Despite several efforts to preserve it, the Francis Scott Key residence was ultimately dismantled in 1947. The residence had been located at 3516–18 M Street in Georgetown.[20]

Though Key had written poetry from time to time, often with heavily religious themes, these works were not collected and published until 14 years after his death.[3] Two of Key's religious poems used as Christian hymns include "Before the Lord We Bow" and "Lord, with Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee".[21]

In 1806, Key's sister, Anne Phoebe Charlton Key, married Roger B. Taney, who would later become Chief Justice of the United States. In 1846 his daughter Alice married U.S. Senator George H. Pendleton.[22] In 1859 Key's son Philip Barton Key II was shot and killed by Daniel Sickles – a U.S. Congressman who would serve as a general in the American Civil War – after he discovered that Philip Barton Key was having an affair with his wife.[23] Sickles was acquitted in the first use of the temporary insanity defense.[24] In 1861 Key's grandson Francis Key Howard was imprisoned in Fort McHenry with the Mayor of Baltimore George William Brown and other locals deemed pro-South.

Key was a distant cousin and the namesake of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. His direct descendants include geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, guitarist Dana Key, and American fashion designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild.[citation needed]

Monuments and memorials[edit]

Plaque commemorating the death of Francis Scott Key placed by the DAR in Baltimore.
Maryland Historical Society plaque marking the birthplace of Francis Scott Key


Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians sing The Star-Spangled Banner in 1942

A 1915 recording of the Star-Spangled Banner as sung by Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of Woodrow Wilson

Problems playing these files? See media help.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Francis Scott Key". Find A Grave. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  2. ^ Spangled Banner – The Story of Francis Scott Key By Victor Weybright
  3. ^ a b c Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature: 1607–1900. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1954: 300.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Morley, Jefferson. "'Land of the Free?' Francis Scott Key, Composer of National Anthem, Was Defender of Slavery". The Huffington Post. 
  6. ^ a b Ancestors of Francis Scott Key. (2011-05-18). Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  7. ^ Ancestry/Richard Key. Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  8. ^ John Ross. (1968-02-16). Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  9. ^ Alicia Arnold. (1968-02-16). Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  10. ^ Michael Arnold Jr. (1968-02-16). Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  11. ^ Anne Knipe. (1968-02-16). Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  12. ^ a b Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature: 1607–1900. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1954: 301.
  13. ^ When the Warrior Returns – Key. Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  14. ^ Sam Houston. Handbook of Texas Online.
  15. ^ "Francis Scott Key | Biography". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  16. ^ WYPR News. "Francis Scott Key: A Profile (Part 1)". WYPR. Retrieved 4 July 2013. 
  17. ^ Morley, Jefferson, Snow-Storm In August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (Nan Talese/Doubleday, New York, 2012), 81
  18. ^ Morley, Jefferson, Snow-Storm In August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (Nan Talese/Doubleday, New York, 2012), 211–220
  19. ^ Jason, Philip K.; Graves, Mark A. (2001). Encyclopedia of American war literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 197. 
  20. ^ Francis Scott Key Park Marker. Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  21. ^ "The Cyber Hymnal". Retrieved 2011-05-26. 
  22. ^ "George Hunt Pendleton". Ohio Civil War Central. March 2012. Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  23. ^ "Assassination of Philip Barton Key, by Daniel E. Sickles of New York". Hartford Daily Courant. March 1, 1959. Retrieved 2010-11-30. "For more than a year there have been floating rumors of improper intimacy between Mr. Key and Mrs. Sickles They have from time to time attended parties, the opera, and rode out together. Mr. Sickles has heard of these reports, but would never credit them until Thursday evening last. On that evening, just as a party was about breaking up at his house, Mr Sickles received among his papers..." 
  24. ^ Twain, Mark (2010). The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 566. ISBN 978-0-520-26719-0. 
  25. ^ "Francis Scott Key Park". Historical Marker Database. 2006-02-23. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  26. ^ "Francis Scott Key Elementary School, San Francisco, CA". 
  27. ^ a b "Francis Scott Key". New York Times. March 14, 1897. Retrieved 2008-02-17. "Francis Scott Key, the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," is to have a monument erected to his memory by the citizens of Baltimore, Md., the city in which he died. The monument will be in the form of a bronze statue of heroic size, with a suitable pedestal – the work of Alexander Doyle, a sculptor of this city. ... There is a monument to Key in Golden Gate Park. It was executed by William W. Story ..." 
  28. ^ "San Francisco Landmark 96: Francis Scott Key Monument, Golden Gate Park". Noehill in San Francisco. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 

External links[edit]