Francis Scott Key

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Francis Scott Key

Born August 1, 1779
Frederick County
(now Carroll County), Maryland

Died January 11, 1843
Baltimore, Maryland


Francis Scott Key was a successful attorney who served during the last year of the War of 1812 in the militia (small armies made up of troops residing in a particular state) of Washington, D.C. He only gained fame, however, after he wrote a poem that later became "The Star-Spangled Banner." Key was a witness to the British bombing of Fort McHenry. Inspired by the sight of the U.S. flag still flying after a bombardment that lasted twenty-four hours, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter. It later gained popularity around the country, and in 1931 it became the national anthem of the United States.

Grows up to become a lawyer

Francis Scott Key's grandfather arrived in the United States from England about 1720, settling in Maryland's Frederick County (now known as Carroll County). Key was born on the family's twenty-eight-hundred-acre estate, Terra Rubra, located near the town of Frederick, Maryland (about forty miles north of Washington, D.C.). His father, John Ross Key, had fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War (1775-83). Key grew to be a slender young man with dark blue eyes and a passionate nature who enjoyed horseback riding.

After graduating from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1796, Key studied law under Judge J. T. Chase. (In the early nineteenth century, those who wished to become lawyers underwent a period of training with an already established lawyer or judge rather than attending law school.) With his friend Roger B. Taney (1777-1864)—who would one day become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the nation's highest court—Key set up a law practice in Frederick in 1801. The next year he married Mary Tayloe Lloyd, the daughter of an army colonel, with whom he would have eleven children.

Key moves to Georgetown

In 1803 Key moved his law practice and his family to Georgetown, which is now a part of Washington, D.C. At that time, Georgetown had five thousand residents and was located only a few miles from the nation's capital. He had a successful law career and also was very active at St. John's Episcopal Church; he was a lay reader (a person who is not a minister but takes part in the service by reading from the Bible) and at one time even considered becoming a minister. Key also sang with the Georgetown Glee Club. An amateur poet, he wrote a hymn called "Lord, With Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee" that was still being sung nearly two centuries later.

During the first decade of the nineteenth century, tensions mounted between Great Britain and the United States. The war in Europe between Great Britain and its allies and France, under the leadership of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), had led to trade restrictions that many in the United States felt were unfair. In addition, Great Britain had been impressing American sailors (forcing them into the British navy) it claimed were British citizens, and some Americans also thought that the British were involved in stirring up trouble with the Native Americans in the western territories. All of these factors led to the United States declaring war with Great Britain in June 1812.

The British burn Washington, D.C.

During the first two years of the war, Key sided with members of the Federalist political party, who opposed the Republican administration of President James Madison (1751-1836; see biographical entry) and did not support the war effort. But in 1814 the nature of the war shifted when the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815) ended and Great Britain was able to devote more troops and resources to the conflict in North America. The British went on the offensive and seemed likely to invade several areas of the United States. Key now changed his own position on the war and enlisted in the militia of Washington, D.C., serving as an aide to General Walter Smith.

During the summer of 1814, Americans leaders believed that the British would attack Baltimore, an important East Coast shipping center with a large population. Therefore most of the U.S. forces in the region were sent to defend that city against attack. But in August 1814 Great Britain surprised the United States by marching toward Washington, D.C. After defeating a poorly prepared U.S. force at Bladensburg, Maryland (located just north of the capital), the British entered Washington, burning the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other government buildings. Less than two days later, they left Washington and headed north toward Baltimore.

Key negotiates William Beanes's release

While the British army was marching north, some of its soldiers became disorderly and left their regiments to raid the towns and countryside that lay between Washington and Baltimore. In the town of Upper Marlboro, an elderly physician named William Beanes (1749-1828) led a group of residents who took it upon themselves to round up some of these misbehaving British soldiers. But when British officers heard of their actions, they arrested Beanes and imprisoned him on one of their warships.

Beanes's friends appealed to Key to help them win the doctor's release. Accompanied by Colonel John S. Skinner, a U.S. government agent in charge of prisoner exchanges, Key sailed out on a ship that was flying a flag of truce (announcing a temporary halting of hostilities) to meet the British fleet at the mouth of the Potomac River. He met with Commodore Alexander Cochrane (1758-1832), the commander of the British naval forces in the Chesapeake Bay area, to discuss Beanes's release. At first the British refused to release Beanes, but after they read some letters from British prisoners attesting to their good treatment by the Americans, they let the doctor go.

At this moment, however, the British had already sent land forces to attack Baltimore and were about to begin a naval attack on nearby Fort McHenry. They told Key, Skinner, and Beanes that they would not be able to leave until after the battle. The Americans' ship was towed to Fort McHenry behind a British ship. As the British lined up their sixteen warships to begin bombing the fort, Key noticed that a huge American flag (it measure thirty feet by forty-two feet) was flying above it.

Key writes The Star-Spangled Banner

The bombardment began on September 13 and lasted for about twenty-four hours, with the British shooting both bombs and rockets (these were Congreve rockets, which made a bright red flare but tended to do little damage) at Fort McHenry. At the same time, U.S. land and naval forces fired on the British ships. Key and his friends waited through a tense night, wondering what the outcome would be. At dawn, Key saw that the huge U.S. flag was still flying. The British had been unable to penetrate the fort, and as their ground forces also had made no headway they retreated from the Baltimore area.

Intensely moved by the experience, Key was on his way back to shore when he began to write a poem based on his observations. He finished it after reaching his hotel in Baltimore. The next day, Key showed the poem to Joseph Hopper Nicholson (1770-1817), his wife's brother-in-law, who greatly admired it and took it to be printed. Originally titled "The Defence of Fort M'Henry," the poem was widely distributed and quickly gained popularity, even in areas of the country far from Baltimore. It was soon set to the tune of an old British drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven. When actor Ferdinand Durang sang the song in public during an October 1814 performance, he called it The Star-Spangled Banner.

After the war, Key's law practice continued to thrive. A highly intelligent man and an effective speaker, he served as District Attorney for the District of Columbia from 1833 to 1841 and also helped to negotiate some agreements between the United States government and various Native American groups (such as the Creeks in Alabama in 1833). He also became involved in the antislavery movement. During a trip to Baltimore in early 1843, Key became ill, and he died at the home of one of his daughters. After his death, a volume of Key's poetry was published, but none of its verses is as memorable as the one that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Key's famous song was sung by the Union Army during the Civil War (1861-65) and adopted as an anthem by the U.S. military during World War I (1914-18), but it did not become the nation's official anthem until it was recognized as such by Congress in 1931. Often criticized as a song that is very difficult for most people to sing, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has nevertheless not been seriously challenged as the national anthem. Monuments attesting to Key's contribution to American history have been erected at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, where he is buried, at Eutaw Place in Baltimore, and in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California.

For More Information


Furlong, William R., and Byron McCandless. So Proudly We Hail: The History of the United States Flag. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.

Kroll, Steven. By the Dawn's Early Light: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner. New York: Scholastic, 1994.

Silkett, John T. Francis Scott Key and the History of the Spar Spangled Banner. Washington, D.C.: Vintage American Publishing, 1978.

Sonneck, Oscar George Theodore. The Star Spangled Banner. New York: DeCapo, 1969.

Weybright, Victor. Spangled Banner: The Story of Francis Scott Key. NewYork: Farrar and Rinehart, 1935.

Web sites

War of 1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

Worley, Stephen L. Francis Scott Key. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

The Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,

Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,

What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,

As it fitfully blows, now conceals, now discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,

In full glory reflected now shines on the stream:

'Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion

A home and a country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wiped out their foul foot-step's pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!

Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."

And the star-spangled banner forever shall wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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Francis Scott Key

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