Francis Scott Key: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Francis Scott Key is best known today as the author of 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' now the national anthem of the United States. Learn about Key's life as a prominent attorney and hymn writer as well as the back story behind the song.

Family, Education, and Religion

Though he came from a prominent family, no one could have imagined that the young Francis Scott Key would find himself aboard a British ship in 1814 helplessly watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry, leading him to author the future national anthem of the United States. The author of 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' Francis Scott Key, was born in 1779 in Maryland on the Terra Rubra plantation. His father, John Ross Key, served in the American Revolutionary War and was later a judge. Though Key considered becoming an Episcopal priest, the young Key attended St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland and then studied law under his uncle, Philip Barton Key, in Baltimore. Key remained in Baltimore for several years as a leading attorney. He married in 1802, and he and his wife had a whopping eleven children. One of his sons, Philip Barton Key II, had a high-profile affair while working as an attorney in the District of Columbia and was murdered by the woman's husband, who happened to be a United States congressman.

Whatever Key's occupation, he was never far removed from religious activities. In 1820, he helped found the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society to promote Episcopal missionary activity in the western territories. Three years later, he was one of the chief founders of the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary, later renamed the Virginia Theological Seminary. He played an active role in the American Bible Society, wrote several hymns, and worked on the committee to prepare a new Episcopal hymnal.

Francis Scott Key
Painting of Francis Scott Key

The Star-Spangled Banner

The outbreak of the War of 1812 triggered a chain of events in Key's life that he could not have imagined nor predicted. Though Key was opposed to war on religious grounds, he served briefly in Captain George Peters' Georgetown Light Field Artillery. A noted attorney, Key was asked to negotiate the release of Dr. William Beanes, an American physician and friend, who was imprisoned during the siege of Baltimore. With the help of Colonel John Skinners, who handled prisoner exchanges, and a letter from President James Madison, Key successfully negotiated Beanes' release aboard the British warship HMS Tonnant. However, given that the Americans knew too much about the impending British attack on Fort McHenry, the coastal fort that protected Baltimore harbor, the American men were relocated to a British supply ship and not permitted to return to shore until after the assault. On the night of September 13-14, 1814, the British bombed Fort McHenry for nearly 24 hours, but Key could only watch from the British ship. In the morning, Key was astonished that the fort had survived the attack, and the still wavering American flag (designed by noted flag designer Mary Young Pickersgill) inspired him to put his experiences into words.

Francis Scott Key helplessly watching the bombing of Fort McHenry
Francis Scott Key Watching Fort McHenry

While still on the ship, Key scribbled the opening lines on a sheet of paper; later, he completed the entire text at the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore. Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge John H. Nicholson, who suggested putting it to music. He had music publisher Thomas Carr assist him, who in turn arranged it to the tune of 'To Anacreon In Heaven,' a popular ballad by John Stafford Smith. Nicholson printed the song on a broadside and then had it serialized in several newspapers as the 'Defense of Fort McHenry.' The first printing with words and music was on September 20, 1814. It quickly became a hit, but it was not until October 1814 when it was sung in a Baltimore play that it was referred to as 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Key's song did not become the official national anthem though until 1931 by an act of Congress. It is important to keep in mind that Key had no intention of creating the future national anthem when he penned his words. His poem was literally nothing more than his personal reflections on the war. History, though, often turns on such minor details.

Mary Young Pickersgills Flag that flew over Fort McHenry
Flag at Fort McHenry

Key on Slavery and Emancipation

Like many of his generation, Key had a mixed legacy regarding slavery. He owned slaves and occasionally freed some of them. However, he thought the sudden emancipation of slaves that abolitionists advocated was a bad idea, and he supported the American Colonization Society as an alternative solution. It was established in 1816 to relocate slaves to Liberia, Africa. For some, it was an act of kindness, but for others like Key, it was an easy solution to relocate slaves to Africa to ease racial tensions in the United States. Though he openly opposed slavery as evil and expressed his desire to see Maryland become a free state, as an attorney he often sided with slave owners.

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