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About Famous People!


Francis Scott Key

By John T. Marck



Francis Scott Key was born August 1, 1779 on the family estate, "Terra Rubra," a 1,865 acre plantation located then, in Frederick County, but today in Carroll County, Maryland. Francis was the son of John Ross Key and Ann Phoebe Penn Dagworthy Charlton. His great-grandfather was Philip Key, an Englishman, who came to Maryland in 1726. Francis had one sister, Anne Phoebe Carlton Key, who later married Roger Brooke Taney.

In 1789, at the age of ten, Francis was sent to Annapolis to obtain an education. He entered St. John's College, and due to little dormitory space, he lived with his blind grandmother, Ann Ross Key, and his great-aunt and uncle, Dr. and Mrs. Upton Scott. Key's middle name was given to him as a tribute to his great-uncle, Dr. Scott. The Georgian house owned by the Scotts, is on Shipwright Street, and is in pretty much the same condition today as it was in the 1700s. It is said that this is the home of Richard Carvel's grandfather in Winston Churchill's famous Annapolis romance. Dr. Scott originally came to Maryland as the personal physician to Royal Governor Sharpe. Scott fled Maryland for Ireland as a Tory refugee during the American Revolutionary War. Tories were outlawed in Maryland, and many were hanged. Tories were those persons that during the Revolution favored the side of the English.

When Key entered St. John's College at the age of ten, he did so at the grammar school section. Upon completion, he progressed to the intermediate section, then called the "French School." He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1796, and later earned a second degree, Master of Arts, on November 12, 1800.

Key had an interest and desire to study law, in part through encouragement from his father, also a lawyer. Additionally, his father was a Justice of the Peace, and Associate Justice of his Judicial District, which comprised Allegany, Washington, and Frederick Counties. Philip Barton Key, Francis's uncle, was also an attorney, and arranged for Francis to study law under his friend, Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase in 1800. While studying under Judge Chase, Francis met Roger Brooke Taney, and the two became close friends. In later years, Taney, became a chief justice and is remembered for his famous "Dred Scott Decision."

A year later, in 1801, Francis opened his own law practice in Frederick. On January 19, 1802, Francis married Mary Tayloe Lloyd, the daughter of Colonel Edward Lloyd, at the "Chase House" owned by Colonel Lloyd in Annapolis. Together, Francis and Mary had eleven children; six sons and five daughters. Following their marriage, Francis and Mary moved from Frederick to Georgetown, where Key went into practice with his uncle Philip.

The incident which led to Key's celebrated poem began during the War of 1812 during the Battle of Baltimore's in its harbor. A pacifist at heart, Key had no desire for war. Following the passage by Congress of the War Act in 1812, Key became a lieutenant and quarter-master in a field company. In September, 1814, Dr. William Beanes, a physician from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, who had caused the arrest of a disorderly band of British soldiers, was unjustly captured. In retaliation against Dr. Beanes, British Admiral Sir George Cockburn sent a detachment of troops who broke into Dr. Beanes' house, and dragged him from his bed. Transporting him to their ship, he was thrown in irons. The event was a disgrace; however his release could not be secured. Cockburn threatened to hang him from a yardarm, and friends of Key insisted that he intervene. Under a flag of truce, Key boarded an American sloop with Colonel John S. Skinner, and approached the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay. Although Key was indifferently received, he possessed documents which described the care with which the captured doctor had treated wounded British soldiers. These documents, and pleas from Key swayed the argument and Cockburn released Beanes. By this time, the battle had begun, and the three Americans were detained on the British ship, being forced to watch the bombardment of Fort McHenry from within enemy lines.

Over Fort McHenry flew a tremendous flag. Observing the battle on the 13th, Key watched the flashes of light from the rockets and bombs. During the attack on September 13-14, 1814, Key stayed on deck in suspense, wondering what the outcome of the battle would be. At daybreak on the 14th, Key was overjoyed to find the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry. Additionally, the British had decided not to attack Hampstead Hill. The British invasion had failed. British troops pulled back and by the 15th, departed.

Francis Scott Key, during the battle, jotted notes aboard the ship on an envelope which described his feelings and emotions as he watched the bombardment at Fort McHenry, and his concern for the flag. This poem was originally titled "The Defense of Fort McHenry." That night at the Indian Queen Inn, a Baltimore hotel, Key wrote out the remainder of his poem.

Key, upon finishing his poem, gave his copy to his brother-in-law, Judge J.H. Nicholson. Nicholson suggested the tune "Anacreon in Heaven" and had the poem printed, copies of which two survive today. First published in the Baltimore Patriot on September 20, 1814, it became known across the country as "Star-Spangled Banner." Eventually, Congress on March 3, 1931, made "Star-Spangled Banner" the official National Anthem of the United States. The copy that key wrote in the Indian Queen Inn on September 14, 1814, remained in the Nicholson family for 93 years. In 1907 it was sold to Henry Walters of Baltimore. In 1934 it was bought at auction in New York from the Walters estate by the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, for $26,000. The Walters Gallery in 1953 sold it to the Maryland Historical Society for the same price. It is displayed there today. The complete poem is as follows:


O say, can you see by the dawn's early light

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming ?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming !

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

O say, does that Star-spangled Banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave ?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mist of the deep

Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,

What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses ?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam--

In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream;

'Tis the Star-spangled Banner, O long may it wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave !

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand

Between their loved homes and the foe's desolation !

Bless with victory and peace, may our heav'n-rescused land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just--

And this be our motto: "In God is our trust !"

And the Star-spangled Banner in triumph shall wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The flag that Francis Scott Key saw during the bombardment is preserved in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The 30 X 42-foot flag has fifteen alternate red and white stripes and fifteen stars for the original 13 states, and Kentucky and Vermont. The flag was made by Mary Young Pickersgill from Baltimore. Her original house, c.1793, a National Historic Landmark originally known as the Baltimore Flag House, and known today as the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and Museum, was restored in 1953 and is now a museum. It is located at 844 East Pratt Street, Baltimore, Maryland.

Following the War of 1812, Francis, being a very religious person, considered entering the clergy. From 1814 to 1826, he was a delegate to the general conventions of the Episcopal Church, and was the lay reader at St. John's Church in Georgetown.

Key was an effective speaker, with a quick logical mind. As an attorney he had extensive practice in the federal courts. Consequently, he was a United States attorney for the District of Columbia from 1833 to 1841. In this position, President Andrew Jackson, in October 1833, sent him to Alabama where he negotiated a settlement between the state and federal governments over the Creek Indian Lands.

In the middle 1830s, Key moved from Georgetown to Washington, D.C. On January 11, 1843, Francis Scott Key died of pleurisy at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Charles Howard, at Mt. Vernon Place, Baltimore. His body was first placed in the Howard family vault at St. Paul's Cemetery, Baltimore, then transferred to Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Frederick, in 1866.

Francis Scott Key was a slender man with dark blue eyes, who loved riding horses, and was generous in nature. In his lifetime he wrote many poems, all of which he considered more of a hobby, than serious writing. In 1857, a collection of his poems was published posthumously titled, "Poems of the Late Francis Scott Key, Esq."

Today there are monuments dedicated to his memory at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Frederick, Maryland (pictured below) Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Eutaw Place in Baltimore, and in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California.


Copyright 1993+ by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.

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