Francis Scott Key

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Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key by Joseph Wood c1825.jpg
Francis Scott Key circa 1825
4th United States Attorney for the District of Columbia
In office
President Andrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren
Preceded by Thomas Swann
Succeeded by Philip Richard Fendall II
Personal details
Born(1779-08-01)August 1, 1779
Frederick County, Maryland (now Carroll County)
DiedJanuary 11, 1843(1843-01-11) (aged 63)
Baltimore, Maryland
Resting placeMt. Olivet Cemetery
Spouse(s)Mary Tayloe Lloyd
Children11, [1] including Philip
Relatives Philip Barton Key (uncle)
Francis Key Howard (grandson)
F. Scott Fitzgerald (cousin)
Roger B. Taney (brother-in-law) [2]
OccupationPoet, lawyer, district attorney

Francis Scott Key (August 1, 1779  January 11, 1843) [3] was an American lawyer, author, and amateur poet from Frederick, Maryland, who is best known for writing the lyrics for the American national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner". [4] [5]


Key observed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 during the War of 1812. He was inspired upon seeing the American flag still flying over the fort at dawn and wrote the poem "Defence of Fort M'Henry"; it was published within a week with the suggested tune of the popular song "To Anacreon in Heaven". The song with Key's lyrics became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and slowly gained in popularity as an unofficial anthem, finally achieving official status more than a century later under President Herbert Hoover as the national anthem. The national motto "In God We Trust" derives from a line in "The Star-Spangled Banner". [6] [7]

Key was a lawyer in Maryland and Washington D.C. for four decades and worked on important cases, including the Burr conspiracy trial, and he argued numerous times before the Supreme Court. He was nominated for District Attorney for the District of Columbia by President Andrew Jackson, where he served from 1833 to 1841. Key was a devout Episcopalian.

Key owned slaves from 1800, during which time abolitionists ridiculed his words, claiming that America was more like the "Land of the Free and Home of the Oppressed". [8] As District Attorney, he suppressed abolitionists and did not support an immediate end to slavery. [9] He was also a leader of the American Colonization Society which sent freed slaves to Africa. [10] [11] He freed some of his slaves in the 1830s, paying one ex-slave as his farm foreman. He publicly criticized slavery and gave free legal representation to some slaves seeking freedom, but he also represented owners of runaway slaves.

Early life

Mary Tayloe Lloyd Mary Tayloe Lloyd (Mrs. Francis Scott Key).jpg
Mary Tayloe Lloyd

Key's father John Ross Key was a lawyer, a commissioned officer in the Continental Army, and a judge. [12] His mother Ann Phoebe Dagworthy Charlton was born February 6, 1756, to Arthur Charlton, a tavern keeper, and his wife, Eleanor Harrison of Frederick in the colony of Maryland. [12] [13]

Coat of Arms of Francis Scott Key Coat of Arms of Francis Scott Key.svg
Coat of Arms of Francis Scott Key

Key grew up on the family plantation Terra Rubra in Frederick County, Maryland (now Carroll County). [14] He graduated from St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland, in 1796 and read law under his uncle Philip Barton Key who was loyal to the British Crown during the War of Independence. [15] He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd on January 1, 1802.

"The Star-Spangled Banner"

During the War of 1812, Key and British Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner dined aboard the HMS Tonnant as the guests of Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Major General 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 British troops who were taking food from 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 their intention to launch an attack upon Baltimore, and 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 1314, 1814. [16]

Fort McHenry looking towards the position of the British ships (with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the distance on the upper left) Fort mc henry cannon Baltimore.jpg
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 waving, and he later wrote a poem about his experience entitled "Defence of Fort M'Henry" which was published in William Pechin's [17] American and Commercial Daily Advertiser on September 21, 1814. He took it to music publisher Thomas Carr, who adapted it to the rhythms of composer John Stafford Smith's "To Anacreon in Heaven", [16] a popular tune that Key had already used as a setting for his 1805 song "When the Warrior Returns", celebrating American heroes of the First Barbary War. [18] It was somewhat difficult to sing, yet it became increasingly popular, competing with "Hail, Columbia" (1796) as the de facto national anthem by the time of the Mexican–American War and the American Civil War. The song was finally adopted as the American national anthem more than a century after its first publication, first by an Executive Order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931 signed by President Herbert Hoover. [19]

The third stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner makes disparaging mention of blacks and demonstrates Key's opinion of their seeking freedom at the time by escaping to the British, who promised them freedom from American enslavement. [20] [21] [22]

Key law office on Court Street in Frederick, Maryland Francis Scott Key law office Frederick MD1.jpg
Key law office on Court Street in Frederick, Maryland

Key was a leading attorney in Frederick, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., for many years, with an extensive real estate and trial practice. He and his family settled in Georgetown in 1805 or 1806, near the new national capital. He assisted his uncle Philip Barton Key in the sensational conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr and in the expulsion of Senator John Smith of Ohio. He made the first of his many arguments before the United States Supreme Court in 1807. In 1808, he assisted President Thomas Jefferson's attorney general in United States v. Peters. [23]

In 1829, Key assisted in the prosecution of Tobias Watkins, former U.S. Treasury auditor under President John Quincy Adams, for misappropriating public funds. He also handled the Petticoat affair concerning Secretary of War John Eaton, [24] and he served as the attorney for Sam Houston in 1832 during his trial for assaulting Representative William Stanbery of Ohio. [25] After years as an adviser to President Jackson, Key was nominated by the President to District Attorney for the District of Columbia in 1833. [26] He served from 1833 to 1841 while also handling his own private legal cases. [27] In 1835, he prosecuted Richard Lawrence for his attempt to assassinate President Jackson at the top steps of the Capitol, the first attempt to kill an American president.

Key and slavery

Key purchased his first slave in 1800 or 1801 and owned six slaves in 1820. [28] He freed seven slaves in the 1830s, one of whom continued to work for him for wages as his farm's foreman, supervising several slaves. [29] Key also represented several slaves seeking their freedom, as well as several slave-owners seeking return of their runaway slaves. [9] [30] Key was one of the executors of John Randolph of Roanoke's will, which freed his 400 slaves, and Key fought to enforce the will for the next decade and to provide the freed slaves with land to support themselves. [31]

Key is known to have publicly criticized slavery's cruelties, and a newspaper editorial stated that "he often volunteered to defend the downtrodden sons and daughters of Africa." The editor said that Key "convinced me that slavery was wrong—radically wrong". [32]

A quote increasingly credited to Key stating that free blacks are "a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community" is erroneous. [33] The quote is taken from an 1838 letter that Key wrote to Reverend Benjamin Tappan of Maine who had sent Key a questionnaire about the attitudes of Southern religious institutions about slavery. Rather than representing a statement by Key identifying his personal thoughts, the words quoted are offered by Key to describe the attitudes of others who assert that formerly enslaved blacks could not remain in the U.S. as paid laborers. This was the official policy of the American Colonization Society. Key was an ACS leader and fundraiser for the organization, but he himself did not send the men and women he freed to Africa upon their emancipation. The original confusion around this quote arises from ambiguities in the 1937 biography of Key by Edward S. Delaplaine. [34]

Key was a founding member and active leader of the American Colonization Society (ACS), whose primary goal was to send free blacks to Africa. [9] Though many free blacks were born in the United States by this time, historians argue that upper-class American society, of which Key was a part, could never "envision a multiracial society". [35] The ACS was not supported by most abolitionists or free blacks of the time, but the organization's work would eventually lead to the creation of Liberia in 1847. [26] [35]


In the early 1830s American thinking on slavery changed quite abruptly. Considerable opposition to the American Colonization Society's project emerged. Led by newspaper editor and publisher Wm. Lloyd Garrison, a growing portion of the population noted that only a very small number of free blacks were actually moved, and they faced brutal conditions in West Africa, with very high mortality. Free blacks made it clear that few of them wanted to move, and if they did, it would be to Canada, Mexico, or Central America, not Africa. The leaders of the American Colonization Society, including Key, were predominantly slaveowners. The Society was intended to preserve slavery, rather than eliminate it. In the words of philanthropist Gerrit Smith, it was "quite as much an Anti-Abolition, as Colonization Society". [36] "This Colonization Society had, by an invisible process, half conscious, half unconscious, been transformed into a serviceable organ and member of the Slave Power."

The alternative to the colonization of Africa, project of the American Colonization Society, was the total and immediate abolition of slavery in the United States. This Key was firmly against, with or without slaveowner compensation, and he used his position as District Attorney to attack abolitionists. [9] In 1833, he secured a grand jury indictment against Benjamin Lundy, editor of the anti-slavery publication 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. [37]

Prosecution of Reuben Crandall

In a larger unsuccessful prosecution, in August 1836 Key obtained an indictment against Dr. Reuben Crandall, brother of controversial Connecticut teacher Prudence Crandall, who had recently moved to Washington, D.C. It accused Crandall of "seditious libel" after two marshals (who operated as slave catchers in their off hours) found Crandall had a trunk full of anti-slavery publications in his Georgetown residence/office, five days after the Snow riot, caused by rumors that a mentally ill slave had attempted to kill an elderly white woman. In an April 1837 trial that attracted nationwide attention and that congressmen attended, Key charged that Crandall's publications instigated slaves to rebel. Crandall's attorneys acknowledged he opposed slavery, but denied any intent or actions to encourage rebellion. Evidence was introduced that the anti-slavery publications were packing materials used by his landlady in shipping his possessions to him. He had not "published" anything; he had given one copy to one man who had asked for it.

Key, in his final address to the jury said:

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?"

The jury acquitted Crandall. [38] [39] This public and humiliating 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 abolition movement until his death. [40]

Crandall died shortly after his acquittal of pneumonia contracted in the Washington jail.


Key was a devout and prominent Episcopalian. In his youth, he almost became an Episcopal priest rather than a lawyer. [41] Throughout his life he sprinkled biblical references in his correspondence. [42] He was active in All Saints Parish in Frederick, Maryland, near his family's home. He also helped found or financially support several parishes in the new national capital, including St. John's Episcopal Church in Georgetown and Christ Church in Alexandria (at the time, in the District of Columbia).

From 1818 until his death in 1843, Key was associated with the American Bible Society. [43] He successfully opposed an abolitionist resolution presented to that group around 1838.

Key also helped found two Episcopal seminaries, one in Baltimore and the other across the Potomac River in Alexandria (the Virginia Theological Seminary). Key also published a prose work called The Power of Literature, and Its Connection with Religion in 1834. [15]

The US national motto "In God We Trust" was adapted from a phrase in Key's "Star-Spangled Banner", the fourth stanza of which includes the phrase, "And this be our motto: 'In God is our Trust'", leading some to speculate that the phrase was derived from the song. [44]

Death and legacy

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

On January 11, 1843, Key died at the home of his daughter Elizabeth Howard in Baltimore from pleurisy [45] at age 63. He was initially interred in Old Saint Paul's Cemetery in the vault of John Eager Howard but in 1866, his body was moved to his family plot in Frederick at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

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.

Despite several efforts to preserve it, the Francis Scott Key residence was ultimately dismantled in 1947. The residence had been located at 351618 M Street in Georgetown. [46]

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. [15] Two of his religious poems used as Christian hymns include "Before the Lord We Bow" and "Lord, with Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee". [47]

In 1806, Key's sister, Anne Phoebe Charlton Key, married Roger B. Taney, who would later become Chief Justice of the United States. In 1846 one daughter, Alice, married U.S. Senator George H. Pendleton [48] and another, Ellen Lloyd, married Simon F. Blunt. In 1859, Key's son Philip Barton Key II, who also served as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, was shot and killed by Daniel Sickles a U.S. Representative from New York who would serve as a general in the American Civil War after he discovered that Philip Barton Key was having an affair with his wife. [49] Sickles was acquitted in the first use of the temporary insanity defense. [50] In 1861, Key's grandson Francis Key Howard was imprisoned in Fort McHenry with the Mayor of Baltimore George William Brown and other locals deemed to be Confederate sympathizers.

Key was a distant cousin and the namesake of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. His direct descendants include geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, guitarist Dana Key, and American fashion designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild. [51]

Monuments and memorials

Francis Scott Key Monument in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco Francis Scott Key Monument San Francisco December 2016 panorama.jpg
Francis Scott Key Monument in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Plaque commemorating the death of Francis Scott Key placed by the DAR in Mount Vernon, Baltimore Key plaque.png
Plaque commemorating the death of Francis Scott Key placed by the DAR in Mount Vernon, Baltimore
Maryland Historical Society plaque marking the birthplace of Francis Scott Key TerraRubra.jpg
Maryland Historical Society plaque marking the birthplace of Francis Scott Key


See also

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  33. "An Erroneous Francis Scott Key Quote". Star Spangled Music Foundation. Retrieved June 27, 2020. In response to a question asking why some Colonizationists thought that slaves should not be emancipated, Key says (as reprinted in an 1839 pamphlet by Augustus Palmer): "It is, I believe, universally so thought by them. I never heard a contrary opinion, except that some conceived, some time ago, that the territory of our country, to the West, might be set apart for them. But few, comparatively adopted this idea; and I never hear it advocated now. This opinion is founded on the conviction that their labor, however it might be needed, could not be secured, but by a severer system of constraint than that of slavery—that they would constitute a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that could afflict a community. I do not suppose, however, that they would object to their reception in the free States, if they chose to make preparations for their comfortable settlement among them."
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  52. "Restored Key Monument Rededicated". Heritage Preservation . Retrieved April 26, 2011. Charles Marburg gave $25,000 to his brother Theodore to commission a monument to his favorite poet, Francis Scott Key. The French sculptor Marius Jean Antonin Mercie was the selected artist. At the time, Mercié was known for European sculptures as well as the Robert E. Lee (1890) equestrian bronze in Richmond, Virginia, and collaboration on General Lafayette (1891) in the District of Columbia.
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  54. "Francis Scott Key Bridge (I-695)". Maryland Transportation Authority. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
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  58. "History". Barbara Fritchie House. Retrieved October 30, 2018. She was a friend of Francis Scott Key
  59. Gardener, Karen (July 1, 2012). "The Ballad of 'Barbara Frietchie:' Is her story truth, fiction or somewhere in between?". The Frederick News-Post. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  60. "The name Byrd Stadium is no more, but other UMD buildings have discriminatory namesakes, too". The Diamondback. Retrieved November 3, 2017.
  61. "Francis Scott Key (FSK) Hall | GW Housing | Division of Student Affairs". The George Washington University. Retrieved June 11, 2018.
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  63. "Francis Scott Key Mall" . Retrieved April 7, 2018.
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  65. 1 2 "Francis Scott Key". The New York Times . March 14, 1897. Retrieved February 17, 2008. Francis Scott Key, the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," is to have a monument erected to his memory by the citizens of Baltimore, Md., the city in which he died. The monument will be in the form of a bronze statue of heroic size, with a suitable pedestal – the work of Alexander Doyle, a sculptor of this city. ... There is a monument to Key in Golden Gate Park. It was executed by William W. Story ...
  66. "San Francisco Landmark 96: Francis Scott Key Monument, Golden Gate Park". Noehill in San Francisco. Retrieved February 17, 2008.
  67. "Refurbished Key Monument to Be Site on Star-Spangled Banner Walking Tour". City of Baltimore. Retrieved October 20, 2019.
  68. "Protest updates: Protesters tear down 2 statues in Golden Gate Park". San Francisco Chronicle. June 20, 2020. Retrieved June 20, 2020.