Francis Scott Key was born August 1, 1779 on the Key family 1,865 acre plantation Terra Rubra in what is now Carroll County, Maryland.
His father John Ross Key was a lawyer, a judge, and an officer in the Continental Army.
Francis learned law from his uncle Philip Barton Key and attended law school at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland.
Francis considered the ministry more than once in his life, but upon graduation joined his uncle’s law firm until he was able to set up his own practice in Georgetown around 1805.
Georgetown was a quiet town of some 5,000 just a few miles from the nations capitol.
The tranquility usually found there was broken when the War of 1812 broke out.
The British captured Washington, D.C. and set fire to both the White House and the Capitol building.
The British Navy then entered the Chesapeake Bay with intentions of interrupting trade while preparing for an assault on Baltimore.
When Francis learned that his friend and much loved elderly physician, Dr. William Beanes, had become a hostage on the British flagship Tonnant, Francis Key joined Colonel John Stuart Skinner (the agent for American/British prisoner exchanges) on a mission approved by President Madison.
On the afternoon of September 7, 1814, the two men set sail from Baltimore aboard the sloop HMS Minden, flying a flag of truce.
Key and Skinner were taken aboard the HMS Tonnant and met with British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, British Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and British Major General Robert Ross.
At first, the British officers refused to release Dr. Beanes, but relented after Key showed them a letter written by wounded British prisoners praising Beanes for their kind treatment. However, after negotiations, dinner, and more negotiations over drinks while the British officers discussed war plans, the prisoner release was approved.
Once they were joined by Dr. Beanes, though, they were not allowed to return to Baltimore because they had heard too much about British plans and had become too familiar with the strength and position of British ships.
As a result, the three men were placed under guard and forced to wait out the attack behind the British Fleet, first aboard HMS Surprise and later HMS Minden.
It was from this position in Chesapeake Bay that Francis Scott Key was forced to spend a long rainy night unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.
Then on the morning of September 14, 1814, after a mysterious silence during the predawn hours, Francis Scott Key’s anxiety was finally broken when daylight came and Fort McHenry’s American flag was still there, waving triumphantly in the breeze!
Fort McHenry had not surrendered!
On his way back to Baltimore, this magical moment inspired the 35 year old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key to write, on the back of a letter he carried in his pocket, the first few lines to a poem that would become central to our national anthem today.
“Defence of Fort McHenry”
At twilight on September 16, 1814, Francis Scott Key and Skinner were released in Baltimore.
Francis completed his poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and entitled it “Defence of Fort McHenry”.
During the British bombardment, HMS Erebus provided some of the “rockets’ red glare”.
HMS Meteor provided at least some of the “bombs bursting in air”.
According to the historian Robin Blackburn, the words “the hireling and slave” allude to the fact that the British attackers had many ex-slaves in their ranks, who had been promised liberty and demanded to be placed in the battle line “where they might expect to meet their former masters”.
On September 17, 1814, Francis Scott Key then gave his completed poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, who saw that the words fit the popular melody “The Anacreontic Song”, by English composer John Stafford Smith. This was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London.
Nicholson took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously made the first known broadside printing the same day; of these, two known copies still survive.
Then on September 20, 1814, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the poem, with the note “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven”.
Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title “The Star-Spangled Banner”, although it was originally called “Defence of Fort McHenry”.
The Star Spangled Banner
Key’s poem had been renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and its first public performance took place in October of 1814, when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang it at Captain McCauley’s tavern. Washington Irving, then editor of The Analectic Magazine in Philadelphia, reprinted the song in November of 1814.
“The Star-spangled Banner” soon became a popular patriotic song, with seventeen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it.
With a range of one and a half octaves, the song is known for being difficult to sing.
Although the poem has four stanzas, only the first is commonly sung today.
Francis Scott Key became a United States District Attorney and appeared many times before the Supreme Court.
His wife Mary, their six sons and five daughters, all continued to live in Georgetown until around 1833.
Then on January 11, 1843, Francis Scott Key died while visiting his daughter Elizabeth Howard in Baltimore from pleurisy 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.
The song gained popularity throughout the 19th century and bands played it during public events, such as July 4th celebrations.
Then on July 27, 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed General Order #374, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag.
The Key Monument Association erected a memorial to Francis Scott Key in 1898 and the remains of both Francis Scott Key and his wife were placed in a crypt at the base of the monument.
Under the name, The Star Spangled Banner, Key’s 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 it) and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.
Today, there are also cenotaphs of Francis Scott Key at Fort McHenry, on Eutaw Street in Baltimore and at the Presidio in San Francisco, California.
The original Fort McHenry American flag that inspired Francis Scott Key, with its fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, had been made by Mary Young Pickersgill together with other workers in her home on Baltimore’s Pratt Street. The flag later came to be known as the Star Spangled Banner Flag and is today on display in the National Museum of American History, a treasure of the Smithsonian Institution. It was restored in 1914 by Amelia Fowler, and again in 1998 as part of an ongoing conservation program.
Now WE know em