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Francis Scott Key looks out on the namesake of his poem, the Star-Spangled Banner. (© Niday Picture Library / Alamy)

Francis Scott Key, the Reluctant Patriot

The Washington lawyer was an unlikely candidate to write the national anthem; he was against America’s entry into the War of 1812 from the outset

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One by one, the buildings at the heart of the American government went up in flames. On the evening of August 24, 1814, British troops torched the Capitol, the Treasury, the President’s House (not yet called the White House). All burned ferociously, as did the structures housing the War and the State departments. Battle-hardened redcoats had overwhelmed and scattered the largely untrained and poorly led American militiamen and regulars deployed to stop them from reaching the capital. President James Madison, along with his attorney general and secretary of state, had fled to safety across the Potomac River. Reporting news of the rout, the LondonCourier crowed: “War America would have, and war she has got.”

As the flames rose across the capital on that sweltering August evening, the American government’s decision two years earlier to declare war on Britain—in a conflict that would come to be known as the War of 1812—seemed foolhardy and self-destructive. England remained a mighty world power, while the fledgling United States was strapped for cash, plagued by domestic discord and militarily weak. Donald Hickey, author of The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, says, “The Army was understaffed, untrained, poorly equipped and led by superannuated and incompetent officers. The Navy was just plain outmatched by the Royal Navy.”

The British had been largely responsible for provoking hostilities. Locked in a fierce struggle for global domination with Emperor Napoleon’s France, they brazenly interfered with neutral America’s lucrative maritime commerce with Europe by seizing American ships and forcing kidnapped American seamen to meet the need for manpower on British naval vessels. “At this point,” says historian Douglas Egerton, author of Gabriel’s Rebellion and other works on antebellum America, “England still regarded American trade as part of their domain—even after the Revolution. Britain wanted to prevent American foodstuffs and other goods from reaching France; they needed to cut off that trade in order to help them win against Napoleon.”

No matter how unequal the balance of power was between the United States and Great Britain, President Madison nevertheless condemned Britain’s “progressive usurpations and accumulating wrongs,” asserting that such outrages would not be tolerated by a nation that had earned its right to international respect through victory in the American Revolution three decades earlier.

From the moment hostilities commenced, in July 1812, British naval ships engaged U.S. vessels along the Eastern Seaboard, and British and American forces began skirmishing along the Northwest frontier and in Canada. In Congress, the hawks advocated an attempt to annex Canada, thereby reducing British influence in the contested Northwest. Thomas Jefferson, the former president, predicted that such a venture would be “a mere matter of marching.”

The torching of the capital was said to be in retaliation for the burning of buildings in York (near present-day Toronto) by American troops earlier in the war. Now, dismay and anxiety reverberated across the country. Would New York be next? Philadelphia? The Royal Navy could put troops ashore anywhere along the AtlanticCoast.

Despite such forebodings, the burning of Washington did not herald disaster for the floundering American cause. Instead, it turned out to be the prelude to one of the most celebrated expressions of patriotic fervor in the young country’s history: Francis Scott Key’s composition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written following the British attack on BaltimoreHarbor three weeks after the assault on the capital.

After setting Washington ablaze and raiding adjoining Alexandria, Virginia, the British turned on Baltimore, 40 miles north. They confidently expected America’s third largest city (exceeded in population only by New York and Philadelphia) to fall as easily as the capital. A Royal Navy fleet proceeded from the Chesapeake Bay into the wide mouth of the PatapscoRiver and positioned itself to bombard FortMcHenry at the entrance to BaltimoreHarbor. It was to be a coordinated land-sea operation. Once the fort had been silenced, British strategists predicted, the redcoats would take and plunder Baltimore, attempting to underscore the futility of any further challenge by the Americans.

The British launched a withering bombardment of FortMcHenry on a rainy September 13. For much of the onslaught, shells and rockets fell on the fort at the rate of almost one a minute. American major George Armistead, commander of FortMcHenry, estimated that “from fifteen to eighteen hundred shells” were fired during the attack.

At the time, Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old Washington lawyer and writer of occasional verse, found himself detained on a British ship within sight of the fort. The son of a distinguished judge, he had been born into a family of wealthy plantation owners based in Keymar, Maryland.

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