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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
Born (1779-08-01)August 1, 1779
Frederick County (now Carroll County), Maryland, U.S.
Died January 11, 1843(1843-01-11) (aged 63)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Resting place Mt. Olivet Cemetery
Nationality American
Occupation Poet, lawyer, district attorney
Spouse(s) Mary Tayloe Lloyd
Children Elizabeth Phoebe Howard
Maria Lloyd Steele
Francis Scott Key, Jr.
John Ross Key
Ann Arnold Turner
Edward Lloyd Key
Daniel Murray Key
Philip Barton Key II
Ellen Lloyd Blunt
Mary Alicia Lloyd Nevins Pendleton
Charles Henry Key[1]
Relatives Philip Barton Key, uncle
Francis Key Howard, grandson
F. Scott Fitzgerald, distant cousin
Philip Barton Key, Jr., first cousin

Francis Scott Key (August 1, 1779 – January 11, 1843) was an American lawyer, author, and amateur poet from Frederick, Maryland and later Georgetown, D.C., near Washington, D.C. who wrote the lyrics for a poem entitled at first "The Defence of Fort McHenry", which when set to an old English gentlemen's society tune,[discuss] eventually became the United States' national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Early life and family

Coat of Arms of Francis Scott Key

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 then part of Frederick County, now Carroll County, Maryland.[2][3] His father was a lawyer, judge, and officer in the Continental Army. His great-grandparents on his father's side, Philip Key and Susanna Barton Gardiner, were both born in London and then immigrated to Maryland in 1726.[4][better source needed]

Key graduated from St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland in 1796, and "read the law" under an uncle, Philip Barton Key who was (along with his wife) loyal to the British Crown during the War of Independence.[5] He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd on January 1, 1802.[3]

"The Star-Spangled Banner"

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 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. Thus, 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.[6]

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. Back in Baltimore and inspired, Key wrote a poem about his experience, "Defence of Fort M'Henry", which was soon published in William Pechin's[7] American and Commercial Daily Advertiser on September 21, 1814. He took it to Thomas Carr, a music publisher, who adapted it to the rhythms of composer John Stafford Smith's "To Anacreon in Heaven",[6] 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.[8] (Key used the "star-spangled" flag imagery in the earlier song.)[9] It has become better known as "The Star-Spangled Banner". Though somewhat difficult to sing, it became increasingly popular, competing with "Hail, Columbia" (1796) as the de facto national anthem by the time of the Mexican–American War and American Civil War. More than a century after its first publication, 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 what became known as the "Service Version") and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.[10]

Legal career

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 as well as trial practice. He and his family settled in Georgetown in 1805 or 1806, near the new national capital. There the young Key assisted his uncle, the prominent lawyer Philip Barton Key, such as in the sensational conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr and 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.[11]

In 1829, Key, a supporter of Andrew Jackson, assisted in the prosecution of Tobias Watkins, former U.S. Treasury auditor under former President John Quincy Adams for misappropriating public monies. He also handled the Petticoat affair concerning Secretary of War John Eaton, who had married a widowed saloonkeeper.[12] In 1832, he served as the attorney for Sam Houston, then a former U.S. Representative and Governor of Tennessee, during his trial for assaulting Representative William Stanbery of Ohio.[13]

President Jackson nominated Key for United States Attorney for the District of Columbia in 1833. After the U.S. Senate approved the nomination, he served from 1833 to 1841, while also handling his own private legal cases.[14] In 1835, in his most famous case, he prosecuted Richard Lawrence for his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Andrew Jackson at the entrance doors and top steps of the Capitol, the first attempt to kill an American chief executive.

Slavery and American Colonization Society

Key purchased his first slave in 1800 or 1801 and owned six slaves in 1820.[15] Mostly in the 1830s, Key manumitted (set free) seven slaves, one of whom (Clem Johnson) continued to work for him for wages as his farm's foreman, supervising several slaves.[16]

Throughout his career Key also represented several slaves seeking their freedom in court (for free), as well as several masters seeking return of their runaway slaves.[17][18] Key, Judge William Leigh of Halifax, and bishop William Meade were administrators of the will of their friend John Randolph of Roanoke, who died without children and left a will directing his executors to free his more than four hundred slaves. Over the next decade, beginning in 1833, the administrators fought to enforce the will and provide the freed slaves land to support themselves.[19]

Key publicly criticized slavery's cruelties, so much that after his death a newspaper editorial stated "So actively hostile was he to the peculiar institution that he was called 'The Nigger Lawyer' .... because he often volunteered to defend the downtrodden sons and daughters of Africa. Mr. Key convinced me that slavery was wrong—radically wrong."[20] In June 1842, Key attended the funeral of William Costin, a free, mixed race resident who had challenged Washington's surety bond laws.

Key was a founding member and active leader of the American Colonization Society and its predecessor, the influential Maryland branch, the primary goal of which was to send free African-Americans back to Africa.[17] However, he was removed from the board in 1833 as its policies shifted toward abolitionist.


Key used his position as U.S. Attorney to suppress abolitionists. 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.[21]

In August 1836, Key agreed to prosecute botanist and doctor Reuben Crandall, brother of controversial Connecticut school teacher Prudence Crandall, who had recently moved to the national capital. Key secured an indictment for "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, 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.[22][23]

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 antislavery movement until his death.[24]


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.[25] 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 Church in Georgetown and Christ Church in Alexandria.

From 1818 until his death in 1843, Key was associated with the American Bible Society.[26] 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, Virginia (the Virginia Theological Seminary). Key also published a prose work called The Power of Literature, and Its Connection with Religion in 1834.[5]

Death and legacy

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[27] 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.[28]

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.[5] Two of his religious poems used as Christian hymns include "Before the Lord We Bow" and "Lord, with Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee".[29]

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[30] and another, Ellen Lloyd, married Simon F. Blunt.[31] In 1859 Key's son Philip Barton Key II 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.[32] Sickles was acquitted in the first use of the temporary insanity defense.[33] 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

Francis Scott Key Monument in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
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


See also


  1. ^ Leepson, Marc, What so Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Appendix A, p. 202 (Google books preview)
  2. ^ Francis Scott Key: Patriotic Poet By Susan R. Gregson
  3. ^ a b "Francis Scott Key". Find A Grave. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  4. ^ Spangled Banner – The Story of Francis Scott Key By Victor Weybright
  5. ^ a b c Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature: 1607–1900. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1954: 300.
  6. ^ a b Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature: 1607–1900. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1954: 301.
  7. ^ Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine, Sept 13, 1964
  8. ^ Mark Clague, Star-Spangled Mythbusting (June 5, 2014) at
  9. ^ When the Warrior Returns – Key. Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  10. ^ "Star-Spangled Mythbusting". 
  11. ^ Leepson, pp. 16, 20-24
  12. ^ Leepson, pp. 116-122
  13. ^ Sam Houston. Handbook of Texas Online.
  14. ^ "Francis Scott Key | Biography". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  15. ^ Leepson p. 25
  16. ^ Leepson pp. 130-131 post-Turner's rebellion emancipations of Romeo, William Ridout, Elizabeth Hicks, Clem Johnson.
  17. ^ a b Morley, Jefferson. "'Land of the Free?' Francis Scott Key, Composer of National Anthem, Was Defender of Slavery". The Huffington Post. 
  18. ^ Leepson pp. 125 (successful in freeing Harry Quando),
  19. ^ Leepson, p. 144
  20. ^ Leepson p. 26 citing Cincinnati Daily Gazette July 11, 1870
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^ 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
  23. ^ Leepson, pp. 169-72, 181-85
  24. ^ Morley, Jefferson. "What role did the famous author of "The Star-Spangled Banner" play in the debate over American slavery?". The Globalist. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  25. ^ Leepson, pp. x-xi.
  26. ^ "History of American Bible Society - American Bible Society". Archived from the original on 23 July 2010. Retrieved 25 November 2015. 
  27. ^ Jason, Philip K.; Graves, Mark A. (2001). Encyclopedia of American war literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 197. 
  28. ^ Francis Scott Key Park Marker. Retrieved on 2011-09-11.
  29. ^ "The Cyber Hymnal". Retrieved 2011-05-26.
  30. ^ "George Hunt Pendleton". Ohio Civil War Central. March 2012. Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  31. ^ "Simon Fraser Blunt". Find A Grave. Retrieved November 24, 2015. 
  32. ^ "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... 
  33. ^ Twain, Mark (2010). The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 566. ISBN 978-0-520-26719-0. 
  34. ^ "Francis Scott Key Park". Historical Marker Database. 2006-02-23. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  35. ^ "St. John's College | Annapolis Concerts - Community Events - Music". Retrieved 2017-11-30. 
  36. ^ "Francis Scott Key". Songhall. Songwriters Hall of Fame. Retrieved 6 October 2017. 
  37. ^ "The name Byrd Stadium is no more, but other UMD buildings have discriminatory namesakes, too". The Diamondback. Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  38. ^ "Francis Scott Key Elementary School, San Francisco, CA". 
  39. ^ 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 ... 
  40. ^ "San Francisco Landmark 96: Francis Scott Key Monument, Golden Gate Park". Noehill in San Francisco. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 

External links

  • 2014 biography, What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life
  • Works by Francis Scott Key at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Francis Scott Key at Internet Archive
  • Works by Francis Scott Key at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Francis Scott Key at the Songwriters Hall of Fame
  • Short biography
  • Francis Scott Key biography at Cyber Hymnal
  • Preservation of the Residence of Francis Scott Key, Special Collections Research Center, Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, The George Washington University. This pamphlet was written by the Columbia Historical Society in an effort to save the Francis Scott Key home from destruction in the 1940s.
  • Booknotes interview with Irvin Molotsky on The Flag, The Poet and The Song, September 9, 2001.
  • Francis Scott Key at Find a Grave
  • "Francis Scott Key's OTHER Verse" – selections from Key's other poetry and verse.
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