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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: O’ Say Did You Know…

By Tom Morrow

America’s most popular song was written by a lyricist who wrote only one tune, and that wasn’t even meant as a musical piece – it was a poem.

The poet was Francis Scott Key who was born Aug. 1, 1779. He was a slave-owning American lawyer, author, and amateur poet from Georgetown, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Key wrote that poem, which became the lyrics to our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Key was born on the family plantation, Terra Rubra, in what was then part of Frederick County, now Carroll County, Maryland. His father, Capt. John Ross Key, was a lawyer, judge, and officer in the Continental Army. Francis Key graduated from St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland and also read law under his uncle Philip Barton Key. He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd on Jan. 1, 1802.

During the War of 1812, Key, accompanied by the British Prisoner Exchange Agent, Col. John Stuart Skinner, dined aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant, as the guests of three British officers: Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross. Colonel Skinner and Key were there to negotiate the release of U.S. prisoners, one of whom was Dr. William Beanes, a resident of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He had been arrested after jailing marauding British troops who were looting local farms. Skinner, Key, and Beanes were not allowed to return to their own ship because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units, as well as the British intent to attack Baltimore. Thus, Key was unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on the night of Sept. 13-14, 1814.

At dawn, Key was able to see an American flag still waving and reported this to the American prisoners below deck. Back in Baltimore and inspired, Key wrote a poem about his experience, “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which was soon published in William Pechin’s the American and Commercial Daily Advertiser on Sept. 21, 1814. He took the poem to Thomas Carr, a music publisher, who adapted it to the rhythms of composer John Stafford Smith’s “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular tune Key had already used as a setting for his 1805 song “When the Warrior Returns,” celebrating U.S. heroes of the First Barbary Coast War. (Key used the “star spangled” flag imagery in the earlier song.) It has become better known today as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Though somewhat difficult to sing, it became increasingly popular, competing with “Hail, Columbia” (1796) as the de facto national anthem by the Mexican-American War and American Civil War.

More than a century after its first publication, the song was adopted as the American national anthem, first in 1916, by an Executive Order from President Woodrow Wilson, (which had little effect beyond requiring military bands to play what became known as the “Service Version”) and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.

Ironically, in 1861, during the beginning of the American Civil War, Key’s grandson, Francis Key Howard, was imprisoned in Fort McHenry with the Mayor of Baltimore, George William Brown and other locals deemed to be pro-South.

Key was a distant cousin and the namesake of famed 20th century author F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.

In 1843, Key died at the home of his daughter Elizabeth Howard in Baltimore from pleurisy and was initially interred in Old Saint Paul’s Cemetery in the vault of John Eager Howard. In 1866, his body was moved to his family plot in Frederick at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Despite several efforts to preserve it, the Francis Scott Key Georgetown residence was ultimately dismantled in 1947. The residence had been located at 3516–18 M Street. The Ft. McHenry Star Spangled Banner is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

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