Skip to main content

Key, Francis Scott

Francis Scott Key

Born August 1, 1779 (Frederick County, Maryland)

Died January 11, 1843 (Baltimore, Maryland)

Songwriter, lawyer

Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the national anthem of the United States, the now-famous song called "The Star-Spangled Banner." Written in September 1814 during the Battle of Baltimore, the song was officially signed into law as the nation's anthem by President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) on March 3, 1931. Key was not a professional poet but rather a lawyer who later served as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia between 1833 and 1841. As the author of the American national anthem, Francis Scott Key has numerous monuments and landmarks dedicated to his memory.

"O! 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?" Francis Scott Key, from "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Exposure to notable figures

Francis Scott Key was born in Frederick County, Maryland, at Terra Rubra, his family's estate, named for the red earth on which it stood. Francis's mother was Ann Phoebe Penn Dagworthy Charlton, a well-educated woman from a wealthy family. She was a devout Christian who was both generous and hospitable. John Ross Key was an officer serving in the Continental Army when his son Francis was born in 1779 at the height of the American Revolution (1775–83). Ann taught Francis and his sister to read at an early age and often had the children read aloud from the family Bible.

At the age of ten, Francis began his formal education at a grammar school in Annapolis, Maryland. In the summer of 1791, young Francis was at home when President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) stopped at Terra Rubra to visit John Ross Key. Before continuing on his journey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the nation's capital city at that time, Washington delivered a speech from Terra Rubra's porch to the neighbors who had come from miles around to hear him.

Francis graduated from St. John's College in Annapolis when he was seventeen years old. He stayed in the city to study law under the direction of his uncle, Philip Barton Key. His uncle Philip had a deep influence on Francis and encouraged him to make a career in law, although Francis himself had preferred the church as a profession. By 1801, Francis Scott Key had opened a law practice in Frederick, Maryland. His partner in the law firm was Roger B. Taney (1777–1864), who had married Francis's sister, Ann Key. Taney later served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and administered the oath of office to President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) in 1861.

In 1802, Key married Mary Tayloe Lloyd, and they moved to Georgetown, a suburb of Washington, D.C. He rejoined his uncle in a successful law practice there. Francis and Mary, whom he affectionately called Polly, had eleven children. Francis was an amateur poet who wrote so many household memos and daily observations in rhyme that Mary seldom saved them. A deeply religious man, Key was very involved in the Episcopal Church for many years and served as a delegate to their general conventions. Key also served as a lay reader (a nonclergy given responsibility to conduct parts of a religious service) and often wrote hymns for the church and for his own personal pleasure. He did not consider himself to be a poet or lyricist. His pieces were not so much for publication as they were for the enjoyment of his family and friends.

The bombs bursting in air

Key was an influential Washington attorney at the time the War of 1812 (1812–15) broke out. The British landed troops in the Chesapeake Bay area and began a series of attacks on the United States in 1814. Key opposed the war because of his religious beliefs but served briefly as a lieutenant in the Georgetown Light Field Artillery in 1813. Though never trained to command, he was called on to assign field positions to American troops during the Battle of Bladensburg. Key completed his service on July 1, 1814, with a promotion to quartermaster.

After the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, they went on to Washington, D.C. There they burned stores and public buildings, including the Capitol, and then turned their attention to Baltimore. Baltimore was a busy port, and the British thought the city harbored privateers, civilians who used their own ships to harass and loot British merchant ships. Baltimore had earned the nickname "nest of pirates," because many of its shipowners were involved in seizing British ships and transporting their cargo to foreign ports. The British planned to take over the troublesome harbor and demoralize the Americans with another great defeat.

As the British withdrew from Washington to head for Baltimore, they detained a Maryland physician and local official named William Beanes (1749–1829) for arresting two drunken British soldiers who had fallen behind the main force. A group of Beanes's friends, which included Key, were concerned about Beanes's well-being. Key proceeded to attempt to negotiate the doctor's release. Knowing that the Royal Navy was in Chesapeake Bay and was likely holding Beanes on one of their ships, Key left the smoldering ruins in Washington and headed for Baltimore to meet with an American government agent who arranged for prisoner exchanges.

Aboard the HMS Surprise, Key successfully negotiated the physician's release from the British. However, because the British were preparing to land troops and launch an attack on Baltimore, the Americans were not permitted to return home until after the battle was over. Instead, Key and his associates were released under guard to their own ship, the Minden, which was anchored 8 miles downstream from Fort McHenry, the initial target of the British attack. There, they awaited the fate of their family and friends in Baltimore.

On September 13 the British bombardment of Fort McHenry began in earnest. The British hoped they would win a swift victory, and after an initial exchange, they drew just outside the range of the fort's cannon and continued the one-sided attack. Key spent the entire stormy night on the deck of the Minden, watching the British fleet pound the fort with rockets and mortar shells.

The Battle of Baltimore

Fort McHenry was one of the original forts guarding the city of Baltimore during the American Revolution. Located on Whetstone Point, it was first called Fort Whetstone until renamed for James McHenry (1753–1816), the secretary of war under President George Washington during his second term. When the War of 1812 began, Baltimore anticipated the possibility of a British attack and made defensive preparations as early as 1813. A huge earthen trench was dug along the eastern outskirts of the city to defend against attacks by land and gun barges were constructed for harbor defense. The city militia came out for periodic drills and the regular army assisted in the fortifications and was ready to defend the fort. However, the strong-hold's commander, Major George Armistead (1780–1818), wanted to go a step further.

Armistead wanted to have a flag so large that the British could see it from a distance. His request was taken to Mary Young Pickersgill (1776–1857), a Baltimore widow who had experience making ship flags. She agreed to do the job. The flag that Armistead wanted measured 30 feet by 42 feet. It would have fifteen stars and fifteen stripes representing the thirteen American colonies plus Vermont and Kentucky. Each star measured 24 inches from point to point, and each stripe was 2 feet wide. The flag required 400 yards of wool material, and Pickersgill, her daughter Caroline, and a friend had to sew each seam by hand. It became the largest battle flag in the world. To house such a large flag, Pickersgill received permission to use the nearby brewery floor and worked on the project each day until midnight. Pickersgill and her team finished the garrison flag, and a smaller one to fly in bad weather, in only six weeks during the summer of 1813.

The defenders of Fort McHenry flew the smaller flag throughout the stormy night of September 13 when they endured the British bombardment. On the morning of September 14, the fort's musicians played "Yankee Doodle" while Armistead's soldiers raised Pickersgill's majestic ensign. It was this larger flag that Francis Scott Key saw from 8 miles away as it waved in the breeze, signaling that the surviving troops at Fort McHenry had refused to surrender. Key was so inspired by this sight that he wrote the poem that would become "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Armistead was given the garrison flag in gratitude for his leadership in defending the fort. A few weeks after the battle, he cut off a piece of the flag to give to a widow who requested it in honor of her soldier husband, who had died defending the fort. Additional pieces were cut off to gratify the requests of others, and the flag remained the property of Armistead's descendants. In 1912, the flag was donated to the Smithsonian Institution on the condition that it would remain there forever. It now resides in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

When the first light of dawn broke on September 14, Key took up a telescope to see what had become of the fort. Catching the morning breeze, the garrison's oversize American flag was lifted up the flagpole in a gesture of defiance. The knowledge that Fort McHenry had not fallen inspired Key to quickly write down a set of verses describing what he had seen and heard and experienced that night. As the British withdrew downriver to pick up their soldiers on land, their ships' retreat signaled that the Battle of Baltimore was over (see box). Key composed his poem on the way to shore and revised the notes that night in his hotel room.

An anthem for the ages

The thirty-five-year-old poet and lawyer Francis Scott Key immediately sent his completed poem, entitled "The Defense of Fort McHenry," to a printer for duplication on handbills. Key had written his poem to match the tempo of the popular English song "To Anacreon in Heaven." It was normal practice to use well-known tunes as the foundations for other lyrics in early-nineteenth-century America, because musical instruments and performances were not yet common.

On September 21, the lyrics were printed in a Baltimore newspaper, and Key handed out the handbill to family and friends. However, expecting that would be the end of it, he

"The Star-Spangled Banner"

Not until 1861 did Congress form a committee to select an official song for the United States. The committee ran a public competition, hoping a citizen would produce a worthy song. However, no winner was ever selected, because there was general disagreement throughout the country about what the national song should be like. Other countries had anthems that the people could sing, often as a patriotic rally cry during times of war. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was somewhat warlike, but opponents to its adoption as the official national anthem of the United States argued that the song was based on a single event that held little importance in American history. They attacked the words as mediocre and complained that the tune was difficult to sing and almost impossible for parades to march to because of the song's cadence (tempo).

Those who supported "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem argued that its difficulties were its strongest virtues. They pointed out that the anthem would be kept fresh and powerful because only professional and competent musicians would be able to perform it. Supporters suggested that saving the national anthem for ceremonial occasions would elevate the dignity of both the song and the nation. A version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," composed by John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), was played by the U.S. armed forces military and naval bands in the 1890s.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) received a departmental demand for a ceremonial song to be used at official state functions. The song, or anthem, needed to give dignity and glamour to government ceremonies. Because "The Star-Spangled Banner" was widely accepted by the people as a favorite national song, President Wilson selected it to serve as an unofficial anthem on ceremonial occasions.

In the early 1930s, Congress finally proposed and adopted a bill naming "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the official national anthem of the United States. Passed by the House in 1930 and by the Senate the following year, the bill was signed by President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931. It stated: "Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, that the composition consisting of the words and music known as 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

had not even bothered to sign the handbill. The tune was immediately popular and was sung in many Baltimore taverns. Over time, it became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner" (see box). Key wrote the poem because witnessing the battle at Fort McHenry had deeply moved him; his words moved many other Americans and stirred their national pride. Although America would produce better poets throughout its history, Key, an amateur, was responsible for the lyrics that would eventually become the official anthem of the United States. However, for most of his lifetime, he received little public acknowledgment for the verses.

Key returned from Baltimore and continued his successful Washington law practice. He would go on to serve as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia between 1833 and 1841. President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37; see entry in volume 1) sent Key to Alabama in 1833 to seek a settlement between state and federal governments over Creek Indian lands.

Francis Scott Key remained active in his church and in society until his death. He died of pleurisy (a lung disease) on January 11, 1843, while visiting his daughter's home in Baltimore. He was interred in the family vault, but his body was moved in 1866 to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland. A collection of his poems was published in 1857, and several monuments were erected in his honor. Monuments for Key are located in San Francisco, California, at Golden Gate Park; at Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore; and in the cemetery in which he is buried. Bridges in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore also bear his name.

For More Information


Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Short History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Lord, Walter. The Dawn's Early Light. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. Reprint, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Weybright, Victor. Spangled Banner: The Story of Francis Scott Key. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935.

Whitehorne, Joseph A. The Battle for Baltimore, 1814. Baltimore, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1997.

Web Sites

"Fort McHenry: Birthplace of Our National Anthem." Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. (accessed on August 14, 2005).

"Mary Young Pickersgill." The National Flag Day Foundation, Inc. (accessed on August 14, 2005).

"Star-Spangled Banner." The Smithsonian. (accessed on August 14, 2005).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Key, Francis Scott." Shaping of America, 1783-1815 Reference Library. . 18 Jul. 2019 <>.

"Key, Francis Scott." Shaping of America, 1783-1815 Reference Library. . (July 18, 2019).

"Key, Francis Scott." Shaping of America, 1783-1815 Reference Library. . Retrieved July 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.