Remembering Francis Scott Key: The Man Behind America's National Anthem 'The Star-Spangled Banner'


Moved by the sight of the mammoth flag flying over Fort McHenry after the bombardment, the amateur poet Francis Scott Key penned the initial verse of his song on the back of a letter in September 1814. He then finished the piece of art which later became the United States of America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

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Being a witness to the last foe fire to fall on the place, Francis Scott Key deserves the fullest attention. What has been forgotten about him is worth reminiscing. Key might be considered as one of the most famous person in American history. Although the fact the he wrote the nation’s hymn is being taught in schools, sadly, not many people remember him later in life.

AdvertisementThe life of Francis Scott Key as a lawyer

Born on August 1, 1779, in Maryland, Key became a successful attorney in his place and in Washington, D.C. He was then later appointed as the U.S. lawyer for the District of Columbia. Living in Georgetown from 1804 to 1833, he made his home together with his wife Mary and six sons and five daughters. At that time, the town of 5,000 people was seated just a few miles from the White House, the Capitol and the Federal buildings of Washington.

Looking back, Key established himself as an exemplar of the modern Washington attorney with a Georgetown home in the late 1820s. He was recognized in the town as a man with a reputation for good deeds.

Aside from being known for composing the immortal national song, he became a defender of slaves. From 1833 to 1840, he served as the Washington City’s District Attorney. He stood as the chief law enforcer during the time of bigotry. In Georgetown, a plaque stated that Key was an “active advocate of anti-slavery.”

He was a consummate insider in Washington also. Although he loathed politics, Key was a famous figure in the city. He was even described as an important player in the early republic and an influential attorney at the highest level.

Francis Scott Key ran a booming law practice, worked as a trusted advisor in the “Kitchen Cabine”t of Andrew Jackson. He prosecuted a number of cases, including the Richard Lawrence case of attempted assassination of Jackson. He also argued in over a hundred cases before the Supreme Court of the United States.

The life of Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812

On June 18, 1812, the United States of America declared war against Great Britain after a series of trade disagreements. Then in August 1814, the British attackers invaded Washington, D.C. They even burned the White House, Library of Congress and Capitol Building. The next target of the group was Key’s homeland, Baltimore. According to the reports, the flames from the burning structures were visible from 40 miles away in Georgetown.

President James Madison and his wife Dolley, together with his Cabinet, had fled to a safer place. Because of their haste to leave terror, they had ripped the Stuart portrait of US leader George Washington from the walls, leaving its frame.

With the help of a thunderstorm, the fires were then kept from spreading. The next day, more establishments and buildings were burned and again, a rainstorm dampened the flames. After doing their works, the British troops went back to their vessels in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

In the following days, the American forces equipped themselves for the assault in Baltimore, which at that time had 40,000 people. A word soon reached Francis Scott Key that the enemy had tooktaken with them the elderly and loved town physician, Dr. William Beanes. The doctor was taken captive in the British flagship TONNANT.

The people in the town feared that the much-loved physician Beanes would be hanged. So they asked Key to help and he then agreed. He arranged to meet the American agent, Col. John Skinner, to accompany him during the prisoner exchange.

On September 3, Key and Col. Skinner sailed from Baltimore while flying a banner of truce which was approved by President Maddison. On the seventh day of the month, they found and boarded the British flagship TONNANT to talk with General Ross and Admiral Alexander Cochrane.

At first, the officials refused to let Dr. Beanes out of the captivity, but Key and Col. Skinner handed a pouch of letters penned by wounded British prisoners. In the letters, the men wrote about the care they received from the Americans and even praised Dr. Beanes for his help to them.

The officials then relented upon reading the letters but still did not release the three Americans that moment. They heard about the United States preparations for the attack on Baltimore. Key and his mates were placed under guard and were forced to wait while the battle took place.

The life of Francis Scott Key as a poet

Americans definitely know these lines: “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air/gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” Hundred years ago, Key witnessed the British troop launching the rockets during the battle for Fort McHenry.

Before Key penned the lines, the British bombardment began and the said flag readily waited to meet the enemy. The attack continued for 25 hours with so mucjh firings and bombshells. September 13 marked the day when the rivals’ barrage and rockets lighted up the sky. The Americans, however, were able to sink 22 vessels of the foe. On that night, the cannonading halted, but at 1 a.m on the 14th, the attack roared to life.

Francis Scott Key, Colonel Skinner and Dr. Beanes witnessed the war with apprehension. They knew that as long as the bombings continued, Fort McHenry had not yet fallen. But long before the light of day emerged, a mysterious sudden silence came. The three Americans did not know that the British attackers on Baltimore abandoned the place and ordered a retreat.

In the predawn darkness, Key waited for the sight that would give an end to anxiety. He then saw the image of abandoned great flag. In a dawn’s early light, he peered through a spyglass and saw an American banner still waving over Fort McHenry after the fierce night of bombardment. With his patriotic fervor, Key wrote a poem. According to the records, he did not intend his verses to become poetry but penned it down as song lyrics.

Though he was not a songwriter, he still composed the verses as an amateur poet. He envisioned that it will accompany a famous song of the day. Marc Leepson, an author of Key’s biography, said that Key has a tune in his mind when he wrote the lines because the meter and rhymes exactly fit it.

The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem

Key wrote the first lines of the song on the back of a letter he kept in his pocket. Sailing back to Baltimore, he composed some other lines to finish the piece. His brother-in-law Judge J.H. Nicholson took it to a printer press to produce copies. It then circulated in Baltimore with the title, Defence of Fort M’Henry.

Two of the original copies survived. It was then printed in a newspaper in the Baltimore Patriot on September 20, 1814. It was also spread in Georgia and New Hampshire. To the lines was added a note: “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven.”

Then in October, a Baltimore actor sang the lyrics in a public performance. It was called, The Star-Spangled Banner. Along with the Yankee Doodle and Hail Columbia, Key’s masterpiece became a prevalent patriotic pride in the aftermath of the War of 1812. It was also used as an anthem for the Union troops during the Civil War.

It gained its popularity, which led to President Woodrow Wilson to sign a 1961 executive order that designates the song as the “national anthem of the United States,” but it was only intended for all military events.

Key’s song did not become the national anthem until more than a century after it was written. After the 40 attempts to pass the song but failed, a measure was approved by Congress and then was signed into law that formally designates The Star-Spangled Banner as the “United States National Anthem” on March 3, 1931.

The death of Francis Scott Key

Since May 30, 1949, the American flag has flown continuously over the monument that marks the site of Francis Scott’s birthplace in Teera Rubra Farm, Caroll County, Keymar, Maryland.

The copy of the song that Key penned in his hotel on September 14, 1814, remained in Nicholson family’s care for 93 years. In 1907, it was vended to Henry Walters of Baltimore. Then in 1934, it was purchased at auction in New York City from the Walters estate by the Walters Art Gallery for $26,400.

In 1953, the Walters Gallery sold the manuscript to Maryland Historical Society for $26,400 also. The other copy of the song was kept in the Library of Congress.

Francis Scott Key died on January 11, 1843, due to pleurisy. Today, the American flag that stood still at Fort McHenry in 1814 was housed at the Museum of American History in Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Photo source: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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