Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779, on his parents’ plantation in Frederick, Maryland. The plantation was called "Terra Rubra" (Latin for "red land") because of its red clay soil. The plantation covered 3,000 acres of forests, fields, and streams and was a beautiful place to grow up. Francis’s father, John Key, was a judge who traveled from town to town to listen to court cases.
Key and his younger sister received their early education at home because there were no schools nearby. At age ten, Key was sent to St. John’s Grammar School in Annapolis, where he lived with his great aunt. He went on to St. John’s College, where he graduated at the top of his class. Then he studied law in Annapolis with Judge Jeremiah Case, on the advice of his Uncle Philip (a lawyer).
Key’s Uncle Philip introduced him to a young woman named Mary Taylor Lloyd. Key nicknamed her "Polly" and enjoyed writing poetry for her. In 1800, Key became a lawyer and set up his practice in Frederick, Maryland. In 1802, he and Polly got married and soon after moved to Washington, D.C., where Uncle Philip had invited Francis to be his law partner.
In his first big case, Key defended Aaron Burr, who had been Vice-President of the United States during Thomas Jefferson’s first term in office. Burr and two other men had been arrested for teason because they were caught taking men and guns to the Southwest. Some people thought that Burr was trying to take over land to found a new nation. Many lawyers refused to defend them, but Key believed that everyone deserves a fair trial, and he won their case.
Key was not just a great public speaker; he helped people, too, even if they couldn’t pay him for his services. Even though he and his family owned slaves, Key thought slavery was wrong. He took court cases for slaves who were trying to win their freedom. But this public figure had a private side, too: he liked to write poetry for his wife and children.
The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, after many arguments about trade during a war between Great Britain and France. After the British defeated France in early1814, they attacked the United States. In August of 1814, British soldiers burned the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Then they tried to capture Baltimore.
Key joined the Army. He learned that a friend of his, Dr. William Beanes, had been captured by the British. With the approval of President James Madison and the assistance of Colonel John S. Skinner, Key managed to locate the ship holding Beanes and negotiate a release, but Key, Skinner, and Beanes were held as prisoners for a few days, until the British were ready to attack Baltimore. The British then returned the three men to their small boat, minus the sails. Without sails, all they could do was sit and watch the British attack Baltimore’s Fort McHenry.
During the battle, the three men stayed in the cabin of their boat, except for when Key occasionally emerged to look for the American flag over Fort McHenry. Seeing the flag there meant the Americans were still in control. During the stormy night, Key emerged again to look for the flag. It was wet and drooping, but it was still there. Early the next morning, both the battle and the rain were over when Key looked out again. The American flag was still flying over Ft. McHenry. Against all odds, the United States had won the battle.
Key felt the desire to write a poem stirring within him, and he began to write it while on the boat. Then the British returned the sails so that the three men could finally go home. Key finished the poem that evening, and set it to an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven" by John Stafford Smith. A newspaper, the Baltimore American, printed the poem right away. It was first called "The Defence [sic] of Fort McHenry." The first printing of the song did not include Key’s name, but gave credit to the poet only as "a gentleman of Maryland."
Soon, though, everyone was calling the song "The Star-Spangled Banner," and both the song and Key became famous. The United States Army and Navy chose the song as their official song, and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the song should be played on all official occasions. Then, in 1931, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was made the national anthem of the United States. Today, it is played at schools, before sporting events, and whenever a United States athlete receives a gold medal in the Olympics, as well as at all official national functions.
After his adventure, Key continued to work as a lawyer—he became a district attorney. He died in his sleep on January 11, 1843, at the home of his daughter Elizabeth in Baltimore.
Books About Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key: Poet and Patriot by Lillie Patterson, Victor Dowd (Chelsea House Publishing, 1991). This is an easy-to-read biography of Key with illustrations, for readers age nine to twelve.
Francis Scott Key by Melissa Whitcraft Franklin (Watts Publishing, 1994). This is a very accessible biography of Key with good photos and illustrations.