Birthday: August 1, 1779
Died At Age: 63
Sun Sign: Leo
Born Country: United States
Born in: Frederick County, Maryland, United States
Famous as: Lawyer
Spouse/Ex-: Mary Tayloe Lloyd (m. 1802)
father: John Ross Key
mother: Ann Phoebe Penn Dagworthy
siblings: Anne Arnold Phoebe Charlton Key, John Alfred Key
children: Elizabeth Howard, Philip Barton Key II
Died on: January 11, 1843
place of death: Baltimore
Cause of Death: Lung Inflammation
U.S. State: Maryland
education: St. John's College
awards: Songwriters Hall of Fame
Francis Scott Key was an American lawyer and amateur poet, best known as the writer of the national anthem of the United States, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Born into a prominent family of plantation owners of Maryland, he later studied law and practiced in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Because of his religious views, he was against the War of 1812 and believed that the conflict could be resolved without an armed battle. Yet, he served in the ‘Georgetown Light Field Artillery.’ He was sent to mediate the release of a Maryland physician named Dr. Beanes, who was taken prisoner by the British. Key was detained on a British ship during the bombardment on ‘Fort McHenry’ of Baltimore. After the day-long attack, when Key saw the American flag flying on the fort, he wrote ‘Defense of Fort McHenry,’ which became the official American national anthem in 1931. He practiced as a lawyer for nearly 4 decades and often appeared at the ‘Supreme Court.’ He was appointed as the ‘Attorney for the District of Columbia.’ He was involved in many religious activities. Key was married to Mary Tayloe Lloyd, with whom he had 11 children. He died of pleurisy at 63.
Childhood & Early Life
Key was born on August 1, 1779, at the ‘Terra Rubra’ plantation, in Frederick County (now, Carroll County), Maryland, into a wealthy family of plantation owners. His father, John Ross Key, was a lawyer and a judge who had also served as a commissioned officer in the ‘Continental Army’ during the American Revolutionary War. His mother’s name was Ann Pheobe Dagworthy Charlton.
Key was homeschooled till 10 and then attended the ‘Annapolis Grammar School.’ Later, he joined ‘St. John’s College,’ Annapolis, Maryland, and graduated in 1796. Pious by nature, he wished to be an Episcopal priest. However, he later studied law under his uncle, Philip Barton Key (and also under Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase), and became a lawyer in 1801.
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Key soon established himself as a competent lawyer with a successful legal practice in Frederick, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. In 1805, he settled with his family in Georgetown, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Key was part of several important cases, including the ‘Burr Conspiracy,’ in which former vice president Aaron Burr was accused of treason. Key assisted his uncle, Philip Barton Key, in this case. Occasionally, he argued cases at the ‘Supreme Court.’ He also worked as an assistant to President Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general.
In 1810, the U.S. and Britain faced conflicts, as Britain tried to control America’s trade with France. American trade was interrupted, and their seamen were kidnapped. This led to further hostilities and culminated in the War of 1812.
Because of his religious beliefs, Key was opposed to the war. According to him, the hostilities could have been settled without a battle. Despite his reservations, he enlisted in the army in 1813 and served under Captain George Peters as part of the ‘Georgetown Light Field Artillery.’ He was also a witness to the Battle of Bladensburg, outside Washington, D.C. (August 1814).
After invading Chesapeake Bay in August 1814, the British entered Washington, D.C. and set the presidential house on fire. Fortunately, President James Madison and others had already moved to a safer place. After this incident, an attack on Baltimore was anticipated.
At the time, the town physician of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Dr. William Beanes, who had detained the British troops plundering the locals, was taken prisoner by the British. Unsuccessful in negotiating his release, his family and friends requested Key to intervene. He obtained permission to mediate, from President Madison, and also got letters from British prisoners about the benevolence of Dr. Beanes. With Colonel John Skinner, who had earlier arranged exchange of prisoners with the British, Key set out with a flag of truce in an American cartel ship, on September 3 that year. They reached the British vessel ‘HMS Tonnant’ at the mouth of Potomac River on September 7.
Key and Skinner met Major General Robert Ross and Rear-Admiral George Cockburn regarding the release of Dr. Beanes. Though they initially refused, after reading the letters from the wounded British prisoners, stating that they were treated well by the physician, the British officers agreed to release Beanes. However, by then, the three Americans already knew a lot about the impending British attack on ‘Fort McHenry’ in the Baltimore harbor. Thus, the three of them were temporarily detained and moved to a British supply ship.
Key, Beanes, and Skinner could do nothing but watch the day-long (25-hour-long) bombardment of ‘Fort McHenry,’ which started on September 13 and continued till the early hours of September 14. When Key saw the flag still flying high on ‘Fort McHenry,’ in the early morning light, the sight inspired Key. He thus wrote down the words that came to his mind on the back of a letter in his pocket.
After returning to Baltimore, Key completed the poem at the ‘Indian Queen Hotel.’ Key gave it to his brother-in-law, Judge John Nicholson, who took out prints and distributed it around. The poem was titled ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’ and was published in the ‘Baltimore Patriot’ on September 20, 1814. It was set to the tune of ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’ by musician Thomas Carr. It became a popular patriotic song and came to be known as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ an unofficial anthem. President Woodrow Wilson announced in 1916 that it would be played at official proceedings, and on March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover proclaimed it as the official national anthem of the United States.
After the war, Key continued with his legal practice. He appeared in important cases such as the prosecution of former U.S. treasury auditor Tobias Watkins, the ‘Petticoat Affair’ scandal involving Secretary of War John Eaton (1829–1831), and the trial of soldier-politician Sam Houston (1832).
In 1833, Key was appointed as the ‘Attorney for the District of Columbia’ by President Jackson. He worked in that capacity till 1841. He handled the case of the first assassination attempt on an American president, when Richard Lawrence was indicted (1835) for trying to assassinate President Jackson.
Key had mixed views on slavery. As the district attorney, he was involved in the prosecution of abolitionists. He belonged to a family that owned slaves. However, in his personal opinion, the slavery system was “full of sin.” In 1830, he set free seven of his slaves and employed one of them as the foreman on his farm. Though a slave-owner, he treated them humanely. He was one of the founders and an active member of ‘The American Colonization Society,’ which aimed at sending the freed slaves back to a colony on the west coast of Africa (present-day Liberia).
During his later years, he became a supporter of the ‘Democratic Party’ and of President Andrew Jackson. He was one of the advisors of Jackson, though did not hold any official position.
Key was always involved in religious activities and was instrumental in founding the ‘Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society’ (1820). He was one of the founders of the ‘Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary’ (1823), which was later called the ‘Virginia Theological Seminary.’ He was also an active participant of the ‘American Bible Society.’ Most of the poems he wrote had religion as their theme.
On January 1, 1802, he married Mary Tayloe “Polly” Lloyd. They had 11 children: six sons and five daughters.
He suffered from pleurisy and died on January 11, 1843, at his daughter Elizabeth Howard’s home in Baltimore. He was interred in the ‘Mount Olivet Cemetery,’ Frederick, Maryland.