“As an opponent of war who would nonetheless write the most patriotic of all our national songs,
Francis Scott Key is enshrined in America’s iconography as a paragon of patriotism on par with Betsy Ross, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and John Hancockindividuals who hold exalted places in American history for performing one memorable act. For Key, it was writing “The Star-Spangled Banner” under the most dramatic (and unlikely) of circumstances: while watching the all-night September 13-14, 1814, Battle of Baltimore from the deck of a British warship in that city’s harbor.
But there was much more to Francis Scott Key than “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The son of a prominent, prosperous Maryland family, he led a fascinating and full life in a portentous era of American history.
One of the most famous, admired, and accomplished men in the early American Republic, Key was a patriotic, pious, hard-working, and well-connected Washington, D.C., lawyer. He had a thriving private legal practice; argued more than a hundred cases before the Supreme Court; and served as U.S. Attorney in Washington for eight years. A confidant of President Andrew Jackson, Key was a member of Old Hickory’s kitchen cabinet and handled many sensitive legal matters for the Jackson Administration.
What So Proudly We Hailed, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Key’s writing The Star-Spangled Banner, is the first biography of Francis Scott Key in more than seventy-five years.
The book describes in detail how the 35-year-old Washington lawyer found himself in Baltimore Harbor on the night of September 13-14, 2014. It goes on to recount the mysterious circumstances surrounding how the poem he wrote, first titled “The Defense of Ft. M’Henry,” morphed into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and became our National Anthem.
Francis Scott Key was a founding member and one of the leaders of the American Colonization Society from its birth in 1816 until his death in 1843. The ACS was the group that sent free blacks to a colony in West Africa, which would become the nation of Liberia. It was an extremely controversial endeavor, one that Key and its other proponents claimed would end slave trafficking. But abolitionists abhorred the colonization idea, saying it was little more than a way to rid the nation of freed blacks.
Slavery, in fact, played a big role in Key’s life from the day he was born until the day he died. The man who penned the words “the land of the free and the home of the brave” had a complicated relationship with the institution of slaveryperhaps the defining issue of the decades leading up to the Civil War.
He grew up in a large slave-owning family, and himself owed slaves throughout his adult life. However, Key spoke out against slave trafficking, was well known for representing free blacks and slaves pro bono in the Washington, D.C., courts, and expended years of effort promoting the idea of African colonization.
Francis Scott Key was a pious family manhe and his wife Polly had eleven children, three of whom died during his lifetime. He was an active and avid member of the Episcopal Churchand at one time seriously thought of going into the priesthood. He was adamantly against the U.S. going to war against England in 1812, but changed his mind in 1813 when the British started raids along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland. He volunteered for two short stints in a Georgetown militia unit, and was in the line of fire during the disastrous August 1814 Battle of Bladensburg outside Washington, D.C., after which the victorious British burned the White House and other public buildings in Washington, D.C.
Key, who was appointed by Andrew Jackson as U.S. Attorney in Washington and served in that office from 1833-1841, was involved in several landmark court cases during his long and distinguished legal career. That included his prosecution in 1835 of Richard Lawrence, a mentally unstable man who made the first assassination attempt on a U.S. President when he tried to kill Andrew Jackson on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Despite heavy pressure from President Jackson, Key dismissed rumors that Lawrence was part of a political plot and steered the prosecution toward an insanity defense.
Key represented the United States in the famed Antelope Supreme Court case in 1825, in which he argued that U.S. laws prohibiting international slave trade trumped other nations’ slavery laws on the high seas. And Key defended Sam Houston in a sensation month-long trial in 1832 after he had severely beaten a member of Congress.
In short, Francis Scott Key lived a full life, deeply engaged in the most important issues of his time. His burst of poetic patriotic fervor on that September night in 1814 enshrined the name Francis Scott Key in the ranks of the nation’s iconographic figures.
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