Francis Scott Key 1779-1843
"The star-spangled banner - O long may it wave"


Francis Scott Key 1779-1843

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer from Maryland, and the author of the national anthem of the United States, The Star-Spangled Banner.

Image Above

Francis Scott Key

Library of Congress

Key's family was financially comfortable. His parents owned the large estate Terra Rubra at Keymar, then Frederick County, today's Carroll County, Maryland.

Key's father, John Ross Key, was a well-known judge.

Key himself became a respected and influential figure in the world of law and politics of his days. Although a prolific writer, he is not remembered for his poems.


Francis Scott Key — Brief Biography

August 1, 1779 - Birth in Frederick county, Maryland, U.S.

Terra Rubra, Keymar, Maryland - Birthplace of Francis Scott Key
Terra Rubra, Keymar, Maryland — Birthplace of Francis Scott Key
1755, Keysville Bruceville Road, Keymar, Carroll County
The original mansion was torn down in the 1850s.
And yes, there were outbuildings on the estate for slaves.
See also
Land of the Free?
Photo: Wiki


1789 Grammar school
1796 Studies law at St. John's College while working in his uncle's (Philip Barton Key) law firm at Annapolis
1801 Practices law at Frederick, Maryland
1802 Own law practice in Georgetown, D.C.
January 19, 1802 Marries Marie Tayloe "Polly" Lloyd. The couple will be "blessed" with 11 children (6 sons, 5 daughters).
1805 Key writes the lyrics of a song he titles When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar. He sets it to the exact same tune that he will be choosing for his 1814 song Defence of Fort M'Henry, aka The Star-Spangled Banner. It is the Anacreontic Song, also called  To Anacreon in Heaven.
June 18, 1812 The War of 1812 begins
September 13/14, 1814 British Bombardment of Fort McHenry, part of the Battle of Baltimore (September 12-14,1814)
February 17, 1815 The War of 1812 ends
1833 Key becomes United States Attorney for the District of Columbia
1835 U.S. Attorney Francis Scott Key charges the failed assassin of President Andrew Jackson with assault with intent to kill.
January 11, 1843 Death at Baltimore while visiting his daughter. The cause of death was pleurisy, which is the inflammation of the pleura, or lung lining.

Pleura of the Lungs (Lung Lining)
Pleura of the Lungs (Lung Lining)
Copyright Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Post Mortem  
1857 Publication of a collection of Key's other poems. None of them outstanding.
March 3, 1931 President Herbert Hoover signs into law the bill H.R. 14, making Key's song the national anthem of the United States. Driving force behind this bill were war veterans and Representative John Linthicum of Maryland. This decision was not undisputed. Some said the song was difficult to sing due to its range and its rather complicated lyrics. Others disapproved of the fact that the lyrics spoke of war.
1947 Key’s Georgetown house, where he lived with his wife Polly and his 11 children, was removed to make way for a highway.
May 30, 1949 By a joint resolution of Congress, a flag flies continuously over a monument marking Key's birthplace in Keymar, Maryland.


Defence of Fort M'Henry

After the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, in which the British routed the Americans, 65-year-old physician Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, was captured by the British and held onboard the HMS Tonnant in the Chesapeake Bay.

Beanes was a friend of the Key family, and 35-year-old Francis Scott Key obtained permission to try to negotiate Dr. Beanes' release from the British.

On September 7, 1814, Key and the U.S. deputy for prisoner exchange, Col. John Skinner, boarded the HMS Tonnant. After negotiations, British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross gave permission to release Beanes.

However, Key, Skinner, and Beanes were ordered to stay put because the British were ready to commence their attack on Baltimore.

A bombardment of Fort McHenry, a fort protecting the harbor of Baltimore, begun on September 13, 1814. Key was situated just a few miles upriver from the fort.

Fort McHenry Today
Fort McHenry Today
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Maryland
About 3 miles from the center of Baltimore, off U.S. 301 and Md. 2, on East Fort Avenue;
address: 2400 East Fort Avenue Baltimore, MD 21230-5393.
Fort McHenry was first established in 1925 as a National Park and redesignated by Congress in 1939 as a National Monument and Historic Shrine.
It includes the pentagonal brick fort and surrounding area of slightly more than 43 acres.

After 25 hours of non-stop bombardment all through the night of September 13-14, 1814, Key expected that the fort was taken. However, the next morning he noticed that the American flag was still flying over Fort McHenry.

Then and there, with the tune of the Anacreontic Song in mind, he scribbled down, on the back of an envelope, the initial verse of a song he called Defence of Fort M'Henry.

Here is the moment of inspiration:

Francis Scott Key onboard watching the Star-Spangled Banner September 14, 1814
The Star Spangled Banner
Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland.
Percy Moran / Library of Congress


Back on land, Key polished and finished his lyrics.

It was soon published by the Baltimore Patriot, as mentioned, set to the tune of an English drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven.

Defence of Fort McHenry - Key's Poem
Defence of Fort McHenry
This is the first known printing of Key's poem.
Called a broadside, it was probably printed in Baltimore on Sept. 17, 1814.
Maryland Historical Society


The poem was published, everyone already knew the tune, and its patriotic sentiment got traction. Within weeks Key's song, soon renamed The Star-Spangled Banner, appeared in newspapers up and down the East Coast.

Here she goes:

The Star-Spangled Banner

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s 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 mists 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 in 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!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth 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 lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when 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.


For more about the Attack of Fort McHenry check this event in the timeline of the War of 1812.


... and while we're at it:

To Anacreon in Heaven

Key's poem was set to the music of the British song To Anacreon in Heaven, also called The Anacreontic Song. It was composed around 1775 by John Stafford Smith and served as the "constitutional song" of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen's music club, founded in 1766, which met at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand, London.

Who was Anacreon?

An ancient Greek poet, who lived around 582-485 BCE. Anacreon processed in his writing, among other things and certainly more delicately than his successors, all aspects of a good night out.

George J. Hagar / The Standard American Encyclopedia  / University of South Florida

Who was John Stafford Smith?

A musician from Gloucester, England.

John Stafford Smith 1750-1836
John Stafford Smith 1750-1836
Thomas Illman (after William Behnes) / Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London

Oxford's Dictionary of National Biography says that Smith "almost certainly composed this song", which is good enough for us.

Now, some say that this was a British drinking song, others, who might or might not be patriotic purists, say it was just a British song.

Here are the original lyrics, judge for yourself. Bacchus, by the way, is the Greek god of wine, ecstasy, and celebrations, which could perhaps serve as a hint.

To ANACREON in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this Answer arriv'd from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"No longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
"And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS's Vine.

The news through OLYMPUS immediately flew;
When OLD THUNDER pretended to give himself Airs_
If these Mortals are suffer'd their Scheme to pursue,
The Devil a Goddess will stay above Stairs.
"Hark! already they cry,
"In Transports of Joy
"Away to the Sons of ANACREON we'll fly,
"And there, with good Fellows, we'll learn to intwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS'S Vine.

"The YELLOW-HAIR'D GOD and his nine fusty Maids
"From HELICON'S Banks will incontinent flee,
"IDALIA will boast but of tenantless Shades,
"And the bi-forked Hill a mere Desart will be
"My Thunder, no fear on't,
"Shall soon do it's Errand,
"And, dam'me! I'll swinge the Ringleaders I warrant,
"I'll trim the young Dogs, for thus daring to twine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS'S Vine.

APOLLO rose up; and said, "Pr'ythee ne'er quarrel,
"Good King of the Gods with my Vot'ries below:
"Your Thunder is useless_then, shewing his Laurel,
Cry'd. "Sic evitabile fulmen, you know!
"Then over each Head
"My Laurels I'll spread
"So my Sons from your Crackers no Mischief shall dread,
"Whilst snug in their Club-Room, they Jovially twine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS'S Vine.

Next MOMUS got up, with his risible Phiz,
And swore with APOLLO he'd cheerfull join_
"The full Tide of Harmony still shall be his,
"But the Song, and the Catch, & the Laugh shall bemine
"Then, JOVE, be not jealous
Of these honest Fellows,
Cry'd JOVE, "We relent, since the Truth you now tell us;
"And swear, by OLD STYX, that they long shall entwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS'S Vine.

Ye Sons of ANACREON, then, join Hand in Hand;
Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love!
'Tis your's to support what's so happily plann'd;
You've the Sanction of Gods, and the FIAT of JOVE.
While thus we agree
Our Toast let it be.
May our Club flourish happy, united and free!
And long may the Sons of ANACREON intwine
The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS'S Vine.


The Anacreontic Song
The Anacreontic Song
Words by Ralph Tomlinson, music by John Stafford Smith, about 1775.


What Was the National Anthem Before The Star-Spangled Banner?

The Star-Spangled Banner became the official American national anthem in 1931. Before that, there was no official national anthem.

Unofficially, The Star-Spangled Banner was often used, during the Civil War for example, both, the North and the South played and sang The Star-Spangled Banner.

It took World War I and renewed patriotism to make this anthem official.

Now, about that flag . . .


The Flag at Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry was under the command of Major George Armistead. Armistead himself had ordered the garrison's flag from Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore flag maker.

Ever so diligent in her business, Pickersgill had a government contract and was assisted by her daughter, two nieces, and an indentured African-American girl.

The flag had the impressive proportions of 30 by 42 feet. All 15 stars measured two feet across, and its 15 stripes had a width of two feet.

Was this the flag that flew during the attack on Fort McHenry?

Probably not. During the bombardment, the fort most likely raised their 17 by 25 foot storm flag, also the work of Mrs. Pickersgill.

Check the delivery date and price of the flags in the timeline of the War of 1812.

Storm flag raised or not, the flag that Key saw at dawn on September 14, 1814, was the massive one.

Says militiaman Isaac Monroe of the Baltimore Fencibles,

Our morning gun was fired, the flag hoisted, [and] Yankee Doodle played.

Today, this flag is one of the greatest treasures of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

A conservator works on the Star-Spangled Banner in 1914
A conservator works on the Star-Spangled Banner in 1914
Corbis / Smithsonian


Here is the flag of 1814 and the 1948 flag right next to each other.

3 cent stamp honoring Francis Scott Key, issued August 9, 1948
Key's Stamp
3 cent stamp honoring Francis Scott Key, issued August 9, 1948
illustrating Key's portrait, the old Key home, the flag of 1814, the flag in 1948, and Fort McHenry
Smithsonian National Postal Museum


Star-Spangled Banner Trivia

Firstly, yes, that's a question mark at the end of the first "home of the brave." It makes sense not being sure while "bombs bursting in air."

Secondly, "the rockets' red glare" refers to Congreve rockets, used by the British in the attack and named after Sir William Congreve, who had created the world's first rocket weapons system and initiated the modern process of research and development in rocketry.

This is Sir Congreve Jr.:

Sir William Congreve 1772-1828
Sir William Congreve 1772-1828
Oil on canvas by James Lonsdale, c.1812
Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London


And this is one of his rockets in action:

Congreve Rockets
Congreve Rockets
The Congreve rocket was used with a 16-foot guide stick for stabilization. It had a range of 0.5 to 2 miles, or 0.8 to 3.2 kilometers, depending on its size.
Charles Hubbell / NASA

Now, last but not least . . .


Francis Scott Key and Slavery

Interesting tidbit here from the Smithsonian Magazine, September 2004, Francis Scott Key, the Reluctant Patriot, an article by Norman Gelb:

A religious man, Key believed slavery sinful; he campaigned for suppression of the slave trade. “Where else, except in slavery,” he asked, “was ever such a bed of torture prepared?” Yet the same man, who coined the expression “the land of the free,” was himself an owner of slaves who defended in court slaveholders’ rights to own human property.

Key believed that the best solution was for African-Americans to “return” to Africa—although by then most had been born in the United States. He was a founding member of the American Colonization Society, the organization dedicated to that objective; its efforts led to the creation of an independent Liberia on the west coast of Africa in 1847. Although the society’s efforts were directed at the small percentage of free blacks, Key believed that the great majority of slaves would eventually join the exodus. That assumption, of course, proved to be a delusion. “Ultimately,” says historian Egerton, “the proponents of colonization represent a failure of imagination. They simply cannot envision a multiracial society. The concept of moving people around as a solution was widespread and being applied to Indians as well.”


Let's wrap it up with a quote from Joseph Rodman Drake, a young poet from New York City, who lived 1795-1820.

Forever float that standard sheet!

Where breathes the foe but falls before us,

With Freedom’s soil beneath our feet,

And Freedom’s banner streaming o’er us?


That's right. Another question mark. Think about it.


And here is more on Stars and Stripes




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