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Francis Scott Key

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Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key by Joseph Wood c1825.jpg
Francis Scott Key circa 1825
4th United States Attorney for the District of Columbia
In office
PresidentAndrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren
Preceded byThomas Swann
Succeeded byPhilip Richard Fendall II
Personal details
Born(1779-08-01)August 1, 1779
Frederick County, Maryland (now Carroll County)
DiedJanuary 11, 1843(1843-01-11) (aged 63)
Baltimore, Maryland
Resting placeMt. Olivet Cemetery
Spouse(s)Mary Tayloe Lloyd
Children11,[1] including Philip
RelativesPhilip Barton Key (uncle)
Francis Key Howard (grandson)
F. Scott Fitzgerald (cousin)
Roger B. Taney (brother-in-law)[2]
OccupationPoet, lawyer, district attorney

Francis Scott Key (August 1, 1779 – January 11, 1843)[3] was an American lawyer, author, and amateur poet from Frederick, Maryland, who is best known for writing the lyrics for the American national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Key observed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 during the War of 1812. He was inspired upon seeing the American flag still flying over the fort at dawn and wrote the poem "Defence of Fort M'Henry"; it was published within a week with the suggested tune of the popular song "To Anacreon in Heaven". The song with Key's lyrics became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and slowly gained in popularity as an unofficial anthem, finally achieving official status more than a century later under President Herbert Hoover as the national anthem. The national motto "In God We Trust" derives from a line in "The Star-Spangled Banner".[4][5]

Key was a lawyer in Maryland and Washington D.C. for four decades and worked on important cases, including the Burr conspiracy trial, and he argued numerous times before the Supreme Court. He was nominated for District Attorney for the District of Columbia by President Andrew Jackson, where he served from 1833 to 1841. Key was a devout Episcopalian.[citation needed]

Key owned slaves from 1800, during which time abolitionists ridiculed his words, claiming that America was more like the "Land of the Free and Home of the Oppressed".[6] He freed his slaves in the 1830s, paying one ex-slave as his farm foreman. He publicly criticized slavery and gave free legal representation to some slaves seeking freedom, but he also represented owners of runaway slaves. As District Attorney, he suppressed abolitionists and did not support an immediate end to slavery.[7] He was also a leader of the American Colonization Society which sent freed slaves to Africa.[8][9]

Key's brother-in-law and "longstanding, close personal and professional friend"[1]:iv was Roger Taney, who as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court wrote the Dred Scott decision, denying even the possibility of citizenship to African Americans and stating that they "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect".[10]

Early life[edit]

Mary Tayloe Lloyd

Key's father John Ross Key was a lawyer, a commissioned officer in the Continental Army, and a judge.[11] His mother Ann Pheobe Dagworthy Charlton was born February 6, 1756, to Arthur Charlton, a tavern keeper, and his wife, Eleanor Harrison of Frederick in the colony of Maryland.[11][12]

Coat of Arms of Francis Scott Key

Key grew up on the family plantation Terra Rubra in Frederick County, Maryland (now Carroll County).[13] He graduated from St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland in 1796 and read law under his uncle Philip Barton Key who was loyal to the British Crown during the War of Independence.[14] He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd on January 1, 1802.

"The Star-Spangled Banner"[edit]

During the War of 1812, Key and British Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner dined aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant as the guests of 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 jailing marauding British troops who were looting local farms. 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, and 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.[15]

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 waving, and he later wrote a poem about his experience entitled "Defence of Fort M'Henry" which was published in William Pechin's[16] American and Commercial Daily Advertiser on September 21, 1814. He took it to music publisher Thomas Carr, who adapted it to the rhythms of composer John Stafford Smith's "To Anacreon in Heaven",[15] a popular tune that Key had already used as a setting for his 1805 song "When the Warrior Returns", celebrating American heroes of the First Barbary War.[17] It was somewhat difficult to sing, yet it became increasingly popular, competing with "Hail, Columbia" (1796) as the de facto national anthem by the time of the Mexican–American War and the American Civil War. The song was finally adopted as the American national anthem more than a century after its first publication, first by an Executive Order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931 signed by President Herbert Hoover.[18]

The third stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner makes disparaging mention of blacks and demonstrates Key's opinion of their seeking freedom at the time.[19][20][21]

Legal career[edit]

Key law office on Court Street in Frederick, Maryland

Key was a leading attorney in Frederick, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., for many years, with an extensive real estate and trial practice. He and his family settled in Georgetown in 1805 or 1806, near the new national capital. He assisted his uncle Philip Barton Key in the sensational conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr and in the expulsion of Senator John Smith of Ohio. He made the first of his many arguments before the United States Supreme Court in 1807. In 1808, he assisted President Thomas Jefferson's attorney general in United States v. Peters.[22]

In 1829, Key assisted in the prosecution of Tobias Watkins, former U.S. Treasury auditor under President John Quincy Adams, for misappropriating public funds. He also handled the Petticoat affair concerning Secretary of War John Eaton,[23] and he served as the attorney for Sam Houston in 1832 during his trial for assaulting Representative William Stanbery of Ohio.[24] President Jackson nominated Key for Attorney for the District of Columbia in 1833, in which he served from 1833 to 1841 while also handling his own private legal cases.[25] In 1835, he prosecuted Richard Lawrence for his attempt to assassinate President Jackson at the top steps of the Capitol, the first attempt to kill an American president.

Key and slavery[edit]

Key purchased his first slave in 1800 or 1801 and owned six slaves in 1820.[26] He freed seven slaves in the 1830s, one of whom continued to work for him for wages as his farm's foreman, supervising several slaves.[27] Key also represented several slaves seeking their freedom, as well as several slave-owners seeking return of their runaway slaves.[28][29] Key was one of the executors of John Randolph of Roanoke's will, which freed his 400 slaves, and Key fought to enforce the will for the next decade and to provide the freed slaves with land to support themselves.[30]

Key publicly criticized slavery's cruelties, and a newspaper editorial stated that "he often volunteered to defend the downtrodden sons and daughters of Africa." The editor said that Key "convinced me that slavery was wrong—radically wrong."[31] Key was a founding member and active leader of the American Colonization Society, whose primary goal was to send free blacks to Africa.[28]


In the early 1830s American thinking on slavery changed quite suddenly. Considerable opposition to the American Colonization Society's project arose. Led by newspaper editor and publisher Wm. Lloyd Garrison, a growing portion of the population noted that only a small number of free blacks were actually moved, they faced brutal conditions in West Africa, with very high mortality, and free blacks made it clear that few of them wanted to move, and if they did, it would not be to Africa. The leaders of the American Colonization Society, including Key, were predominantly slaveowners. The Society was intended to preserve slavery, rather than eliminate it. In the words of philanthropist Gerrit Smith, it was "quite as much an Anti-Abolition, as Colonization Society".[32] "This Colonization Society had, by an invisible process, half conscious, half unconscious, been transformed into a serviceable organ and member of the Slave Power."

The alternative to the colonization of Africa, project of the American Colonization Society, was the total and immediate abolition of slavery in the United States. This Key was firmly against, and he used his position as District Attorney to attack abolitionists.[7] In 1833, he secured a grand jury indictment against Benjamin Lundy, editor of the anti-slavery publication the Genius of Universal Emancipation, and his printer, William Greer, for libel after Lundy published an article that declared, "There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people in this 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.[33]

In another unsuccessful prosecution, in August 1836 Key obtained an indictment against Dr. Reuben Crandall, brother of controversial Connecticut teacher Prudence Crandall, who had recently moved to the national capital. It accused Crandall of "seditious libel" after two marshals (who operated as slave catchers in their off hours) found Crandall had a trunk full of anti-slavery publications in his Georgetown residence/office, five days after the Snow riot, caused by rumors that a mentally ill slave had attempted to kill an elderly white woman. In an April 1837 trial that attracted nationwide attention, Key charged that Crandall's actions instigated slaves 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?"

The jury acquitted Crandall.[34][35]

This defeat, as well as family tragedies in 1835, diminished Key's political ambition. He resigned as District Attorney in 1840. He remained a staunch proponent of African colonization and a strong critic of the abolition movement until his death.[36]


Key was a devout and prominent Episcopalian. In his youth, he almost became an Episcopal priest rather than a lawyer. Throughout his life he sprinkled biblical references in his correspondence.[37] He was active in All Saints Parish in Frederick, Maryland, near his family's home. He also helped found or financially support several parishes in the new national capital, including St. John's Episcopal Church in Georgetown and Christ Church in Alexandria (at the time, in the District of Columbia).

From 1818 until his death in 1843, Key was associated with the American Bible Society.[38] He successfully opposed an abolitionist resolution presented to that group around 1838.

Key also helped found two Episcopal seminaries, one in Baltimore and the other across the Potomac River in Alexandria (the Virginia Theological Seminary). Key also published a prose work called The Power of Literature, and Its Connection with Religion in 1834.[14]

The US national motto "In God We Trust" was adapted from a phrase in Key's "Star-Spangled Banner", the fourth stanza of which includes the phrase, "And this be our motto: 'In God is our Trust'", leading some to speculate that the phrase was derived from the song.[39]

Death and legacy[edit]

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

On January 11, 1843, Key died at the home of his daughter Elizabeth Howard in Baltimore from pleurisy[40] at age 63. He was initially interred in Old Saint Paul's Cemetery in the vault of John Eager Howard but in 1866, his body was moved to his family plot in Frederick at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

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.[41]

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.[14] Two of his religious poems used as Christian hymns include "Before the Lord We Bow" and "Lord, with Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee".[42]

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 one daughter, Alice, married U.S. Senator George H. Pendleton[43] and another, Ellen Lloyd, married Simon F. Blunt. In 1859, Key's son Philip Barton Key II, who also served as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, was shot and killed by Daniel Sickles‍—‌a U.S. Representative from New York 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.[44] Sickles was acquitted in the first use of the temporary insanity defense.[45] 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.[46]

Monuments and memorials[edit]

Francis Scott Key Monument in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Plaque commemorating the death of Francis Scott Key placed by the DAR in Mount Vernon, Baltimore
Maryland Historical Society plaque marking the birthplace of Francis Scott Key


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Leepson, Marc, What so Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Appendix A, p. 202
  2. ^ "Roger Brooke Taney". NNDB: Tracking the Whole Entire World. Soylent Communications. Retrieved July 7, 2012.
  3. ^ Penton, Kemberly (September 14, 2016). "Remembering Francis Scott Key: The Man Behind America's National Anthem 'The Star-Spangled Banner'". Hall of Fame. Retrieved October 16, 2018.
  4. ^ Begley, Sarah (January 13, 2016). "How 'In God We Trust' Got on the Currency in the First Place". Time.
  5. ^ Fisher, Louis; Mourtada-Sabbah, Nada (Autumn 2002). "Adopting 'In God We Trust' As the U.S. National Motto". Journal of Church and State. 44 (4): 671–692. JSTOR 23920474.
  6. ^ "Where's the Debate on Francis Scott Key's Slave-Holding Legacy?". Smithsonian. Retrieved August 13, 2018.
  7. ^ a b "'Land of the Free?' Francis Scott Key, Composer of National Anthem, Was Defender of Slavery". Huffington Post. Retrieved September 22, 2019.
  8. ^ "The unexpected connection between slavery, NFL protests and the national anthem". CNN. Retrieved August 9, 2018.
  9. ^ "Francis Scott Key's life was a lot more complicated than just writing The Star-Spangled Banner". Washington Examiner. Retrieved August 9, 2018.
  10. ^ Magnusson, Martin (March 19, 2007). "Private: "No Rights Which the White Man was Bound to Respect"".
  11. ^ a b A Sketch of Francis Scott Key, with a Glimpse of His Ancestors - F. S. Key Smith
  12. ^ Key and Allied Families - By Julian C. Lane
  13. ^ Francis Scott Key: Patriotic Poet By Susan R. Gregson
  14. ^ a b c Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature: 1607–1900. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1954: 300.
  15. ^ a b Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature: 1607–1900. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1954: 301.
  16. ^ Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine, September 13, 1964
  17. ^ Mark Clague, Star-Spangled Mythbusting (June 5, 2014) at
  18. ^ "Star-Spangled Mythbusting".
  19. ^ Stiehm, Jamie (September 6, 2018). "The Star-Spangled Banner's' racist lyrics reflect its slave owner author, Francis Scott Key". The Undefeated. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  20. ^ Houston, Whitney. "Star Spangled Banner Super Bowl XXV". Google. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  21. ^ Campisi, Jessie; Willingham, A J (July 2018). "Behind the Lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner". CNN. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  22. ^ Leepson, pp. 16, 20–24
  23. ^ Leepson, pp. 116–122
  24. ^ Sam Houston. Handbook of Texas Online.
  25. ^ "Francis Scott Key | Biography". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Archived from the original on April 4, 2018. Retrieved July 9, 2012.
  26. ^ Leepson p. 25
  27. ^ Leepson pp. 130–131 post-Turner's rebellion emancipations of Romeo, William Ridout, Elizabeth Hicks, Clem Johnson.
  28. ^ a b Morley, Jefferson. "'Land of the Free?' Francis Scott Key, Composer of National Anthem, Was Defender of Slavery". HuffPost.
  29. ^ Leepson pp. 125
  30. ^ Leepson, p. 144
  31. ^ Leepson p. 26 citing Cincinnati Daily Gazette July 11, 1870
  32. ^ Smith, Hal H. "Historic Washington Homes." Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington. 1908.
  33. ^ 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
  34. ^ 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
  35. ^ Leepson, pp. 169–72, 181–85
  36. ^ Morley, Jefferson. "What role did the famous author of "The Star-Spangled Banner" play in the debate over American slavery?". The Globalist. Retrieved October 7, 2014.
  37. ^ Leepson, pp. x–xi.
  38. ^ "History of American Bible Society – American Bible Society". Archived from the original on July 23, 2010. Retrieved November 25, 2015.
  39. ^ Begley, Sarah (January 13, 2016). "How 'In God We Trust' Got on the Currency in the First Place". Time. Retrieved February 24, 2018.
  40. ^ Jason, Philip K.; Graves, Mark A. (2001). Encyclopedia of American war literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 197.
  41. ^ Francis Scott Key Park Marker. Retrieved September 11, 2011.
  42. ^ "The Cyber Hymnal". Retrieved May 26, 2011.
  43. ^ "George Hunt Pendleton". Ohio Civil War Central. March 2012. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
  44. ^ "Assassination of Philip Barton Key, by Daniel E. Sickles of New York". Hartford Daily Courant. March 1, 1959. Retrieved November 30, 2010. 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...
  45. ^ Twain, Mark (2010). The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 566. ISBN 978-0-520-26719-0.
  46. ^ "Francis Scott Key – Francis Scott Key Biography – Poem Hunter". Retrieved April 13, 2018.
  47. ^ "Restored Key Monument Rededicated". Heritage Preservation. Retrieved April 26, 2011. Charles Marburg gave $25,000 to his brother Theodore to commission a monument to his favorite poet, Francis Scott Key. The French sculptor Marius Jean Antonin Mercie was the selected artist. At the time, Mercié was known for European sculptures as well as the Robert E. Lee (1890) equestrian bronze in Richmond, Virginia, and collaboration on General Lafayette (1891) in the District of Columbia.
  48. ^ "Francis Scott Key Park". Historical Marker Database. February 23, 2006. Retrieved February 6, 2008.
  49. ^ "Francis Scott Key Bridge (I-695)". Maryland Transportation Authority. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
  50. ^ "St. John's College | Annapolis Concerts – Community Events – Music". Retrieved November 30, 2017.
  51. ^ "Francis Scott Key". Songhall. Songwriters Hall of Fame. Retrieved October 6, 2017.
  52. ^ Wood, Pamela (August 14, 2014). "Francis Scott Key legacy lives on in Frederick". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved October 30, 2018. Maryland's first governor, Thomas Johnson, is buried there, as is Barbara Fritchie
  53. ^ "History". Barbara Fritchie House. Retrieved October 30, 2018. She was a friend of Francis Scott Key
  54. ^ Gardener, Karen (July 1, 2012). "The Ballad of 'Barbara Frietchie:' Is her story truth, fiction or somewhere in between?". The Frederick News-Post. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  55. ^ "The name Byrd Stadium is no more, but other UMD buildings have discriminatory namesakes, too". The Diamondback. Retrieved November 3, 2017.
  56. ^ "Francis Scott Key (FSK) Hall | GW Housing | Division of Student Affairs | The George Washington University". Retrieved June 11, 2018.
  57. ^ "Francis Scott Key Elementary School, San Francisco, CA".
  58. ^ "Francis Scott Key Mall | Shopping Mall | Frederick, MD | Washington DC". Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  59. ^ The Ultimate Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A Fan's Guide to AAA, AA, A, and Independent League Stadiums. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781599216270.
  60. ^ a b "Francis Scott Key". The New York Times. March 14, 1897. Retrieved February 17, 2008. 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 ...
  61. ^ "San Francisco Landmark 96: Francis Scott Key Monument, Golden Gate Park". Noehill in San Francisco. Retrieved February 17, 2008.
  62. ^ "Refurbished Key Monument to Be Site on Star-Spangled Banner Walking Tour". Retrieved October 20, 2019.

External links[edit]