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Francis Scott Key

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Title: Francis Scott Key  
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Subject: The Star-Spangled Banner, War of 1812, Frederick County, Maryland, Frederick, Maryland, Flag of the United States
Collection: 1779 Births, 1843 Deaths, 19Th-Century American Poets, American Bible Society, American Episcopalians, American Male Poets, American People of English Descent, American Prosecutors, American United Brethren in Christ, Burials at Mount Olivet Cemetery (Frederick, Maryland), Key Family of Maryland, Lawyers from Baltimore, Maryland, Maryland Lawyers, National Anthem Writers, People from Baltimore, Maryland, People from Carroll County, Maryland, Songwriters Hall of Fame Inductees, St. John's College (Annapolis/Santa Fe) Alumni, United States Attorneys for the District of Columbia
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Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key circa 1825
Born (1779-08-01)August 1, 1779
Carroll County, Maryland, U.S.
Died January 11, 1843(1843-01-11) (aged 63)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Nationality American
Ethnicity English
Occupation Poet, lawyer, district attorney
Religion Episcopalian
Spouse(s) Mary Tayloe Lloyd
Children Philip Barton Key II
Alice Key Pendleton
Relatives Philip Barton Key, uncle
Francis Key Howard, grandson
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2nd cousin

Francis Scott Key (August 1, 1779 – January 11, 1843) was an American lawyer, author, and amateur poet, from national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".


  • Early life and family 1
  • "The Star-Spangled Banner" 2
  • Legal career 3
    • Slavery and American Colonization Society 3.1
    • Anti-Abolitionist 3.2
  • Religion 4
  • Death and legacy 5
  • Monuments and memorials 6
  • Media 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Early life and family

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 Frederick County, Maryland (now Carroll County).[1] His father John Ross Key was a lawyer, a judge, and an officer in the Continental Army. His great-grandparents on his father's side were Philip Key and Susanna Barton Gardiner, both of whom were born in London and immigrated to Maryland in 1726.[2]

Key graduated from St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland and also read law under his uncle Philip Barton Key.[3] He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd on January 1, 1802.[1]

"The Star-Spangled Banner"

During the 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.[4]

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 and reported this to the prisoners below deck. 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[5] the 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",[4] 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.[6] (Key used the "star spangled" flag imagery in the earlier song.)[7] It has become better known as "The Star-Spangled Banner". Though somewhat difficult to sing, it became increasingly popular, competing with "Hail, Colombia" (1796) as the de facto national anthem by 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.[8]

Legal career

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, including in the sensational conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr and the expulsion of Senator John Smith of Ohio. Key made the first of his many arguments before the United States Supreme Court in 1807. In 1808 Key assisted President Thomas Jefferson's attorney general in United States v. Peters[9]

A supporter of 7th President Andrew Jackson, Key, in 1829 assisted in the prosecution of Tobias Watkins, former U.S. Treasury auditor under former 6th President John Quincy Adams for misappropriating public monies, and also handled a scandal concerning the new Secretary of War, John Henry Eaton who had married a widowed saloonkeeper.[10] In 1832, Key served as the attorney for U.S. Representative (congressman), Sam Houston (1793-1863), during his trial in the U.S. House of Representatives for assaulting another Congressman in the House chambers at the Capitol.[11]

President Jackson nominated Key for United States Attorney for the District of Columbia in 1833. After the U.S. Senate approved the nomination, Key served from 1833 to 1841, while also handling his own private legal cases.[12] In 1835, in his most famous case, Key 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.[13] Mostly in the 1830s, Key manumitted seven slaves, one of whom (Clem Johnson) continued to work for him for wages as his farm's foreman, supervising several slaves.[14]

Key throughout his career also represented several slaves seeking their freedom in court (for free), as well as several masters seeking return of their runaway human property.[15][16] 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.[17]

Key was considered a decent master, and 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."[18]

Key was a founding member and active leader of the American Colonization Society, and its predecessor influential Maryland branch, the primary goal of which was to send free African-Americans back to Africa.[15] However, he was removed from the board in 1833 as its policies shifted toward abolitionist.


A slave-owner himself,[19] Key used his position as U.S. Attorney to suppress abolitionists. In 1833, Key caused a grand jury to indict 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.[20]

In August 1836, Key agreed to prosecute botanist and doctor Reuben Crandall, brother of controversial Connecticut school teacher
  • Francis Scott Key Monument in Baltimore
  • Two bridges are named in his honor. The first is the Whitehurst Freeway), was located on M Street NW, in the area between the Key Bridge and the intersection of M Street and Whitehurst Freeway. The location is illustrated on a sign in the Francis Scott Key park.[32]
Plaque commemorating the death of Francis Scott Key placed by the DAR in Baltimore.

Monuments and memorials

Key was a distant cousin and the namesake of Dana Key, and American fashion designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild.

In 1806, Key's sister, Anne Phoebe Charlton Key, married George William Brown and other locals deemed pro-South.

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.[3] Two of Key's religious poems used as Christian hymns include "Before the Lord We Bow" and "Lord, with Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee".[28]

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.[27]

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.

The Howard family vault at Saint Paul's Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1843, Key died at the home of his daughter Elizabeth Howard in Baltimore from pleurisy[26] and was initially interred in Old Saint Paul's Cemetery in the vault of John Eager Howard. In 1866, his body was moved to his family plot in Frederick at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Death and legacy

Key also helped found two Episcopal seminaries, one in Baltimore, as well as the Virginia Theological Seminary across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. Key also published a prose work called The Power of Literature, and Its Connection with Religion in 1834.[3]

From 1818 until his death in 1843, Key was associated with the American Bible Society.[25] Circa 1838, he successfully opposed an abolitionist resolution presented to that group.

Key was a devout and prominent Trinity Church in Washington, D.C. and Christ Church in Alexandria.


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.[23]

[22][21]A jury acquitted Crandall. "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?"
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