The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key pic
Francis Scott Key, article title
O, thus be it ever when freeman shall stand,
Between their lov’d homes and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vic’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us as 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!
-from The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key, 1814

Francis Scott Key, born in Frederick County, Maryland August 1, 1779, attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, read law with his uncle, and began practicing law in Frederick. He soon moved his office to Bridge Street in Georgetown. He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd (nicknamed “Polly”) in 1802, and they had 11 children, 6 sons and 5 daughters (and a few generations later a namesake great grandnephew, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby and other classic tales of America’s Jazz Age).

In September 1814, at the height of war with the British, a doctor, William Beanes, became a prisoner of the British. Key volunteered his services to President James Madison, offering to negotiate Beanes’s release. With Colonel J. S. Skinner, he traveled to Baltimore and on September 13 met with British officers aboard a ship in the Chesapeake Bay. Though successful in securing the doctor’s release, Key, Beanes, and Skinner found themselves caught in the middle of the Battle of North Point and had to stay aboard the ship. It was from there that Key observed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry.

When the bombing stopped and the sky cleared, Key saw that despite the heavy punishment endured by the fort and its men, the flag above it still flew. An enthusiastic amateur poet and hymn writer, he took a scrap of paper from his pocket and scribbled the first draft of a poem, “Defence of Fort McHenry" He finished the poem September 16 in his Baltimore hotel room.

Key’s brother-in-law, Judge Joseph Nicholson, offered the poem to a local paper, which printed it on the 17th, retitled "The Star-Spangled Banner." Someone put it to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular drinking song. It was frequently performed at the Holliday Street Theater and became quite popular during Key’s lifetime. He took his fame in stride. At a dinner in his honor, he proposed a toast to those who had inspired the song by fighting gallantly to protect the flag, the fort, the city, and the nation — “The Defenders of the Star-Spangled Banner; what they would not strike to a foe, they will never sell to traitors."

Over a hundred years later, in 1931, through the efforts of two Baltimoreans, Mrs. Reuben Holloway, who lobbied Congress, and Congressman J. Charles Linthicum (4th District), who introduced the necessary legislation, Key’s poem and the English drinking song became our national anthem.  

Although it probably didn’t originate at the Holliday Street Theatre, there’s a tradition in Baltimore that during the singing of the national anthem at Baltimore Orioles baseball games, the crowd yells out the “O” in “OH say does that star spangled banner yet wave…”

Most Americans know nothing of Key, except for the story of how he came to write our National Anthem. Much of his prominence during his life, however, came from his work as a lawyer. He served as U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C. from 1833-1841, practiced in the federal courts, and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He enjoyed the respect of peers and those in high public office. President Andrew Jackson, for example, called upon him to travel to Alabama to negotiate a land dispute. 

A deeply religious man and a lay reader in the Episcopal Church, Key had considered becoming a clergyman and had opposed the War of 1812 on religious grounds. He often accompanied his pastor on trips to comfort those who were ill or imprisoned. He wrote hymns, including “Lord, with glowing heart I'd praise thee,” a song still found in hymn collections today.

Francis Scott Key also had a sense of humor, and some of his poems contain humorous rhymes and puns, as illustrated in the lines below, from a poem addressed to a judge.

May it please your honor to hear the petition
Of a poor old mare in a miserable condition,
Who has come this cold night to beg that your honor
Will consider her ease and take pity upon her.
Her master has turned her out in the street,
And the stones are too hard to lie down on, or eat;
Entertainment for horses she sees every where,
But, alas! there is none, as it seems, for a mare.
She has wandered about, cold, hungry, and weary,
And can’t even get in the Penitentiary.”

from Petition for a Habeas Corpus
to the Honorable James Sewall Morsell…

Key died of pleurisy in January,1843 at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Charles Brooks, on the site of what is now the Mount Vernon Methodist Church in downtown Baltimore. He is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland.

There’s been talk for years about changing America’s national anthem from “The Star Spangled Banner,” which some people think too war-like, to Katherine Bates’s “America the Beautiful,” but then people would travel to Falmouth, Massachusetts, where Bates lived, rather than to Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry in whose shadow Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.” And although Baltimoreans always stand for the national anthem, they won’t stand for that.

Places of interest: