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

Francis Scott Key looks out on the namesake of his poem, the Star-Spangled Banner. (© Niday Picture Library / Alamy)
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No thoroughly detailed account of this extraordinary moment exists, but we do know that Key was still aboard the Tonnant when he began composing a verse about the experience—and his relief at seeing the Stars and Stripes still waving. He used the only writing paper at hand: the back of a letter he pulled from his pocket. He had not yet learned that the British commander who’d been Beanes’ liberator, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, had been killed by a sniper en route to Baltimore. Almost immediately, the entire British fleet began to withdraw. Key and his companions, including Beanes, were released. On their passage back to shore, Key expanded the few lines he had scrawled. In his lodging at a Baltimore inn the following day, he polished his draft into four stanzas.

Key’s brother-in-law Joseph Nicholson, a commander of a militia at FortMcHenry, had the poem printed for distribution to the public. Entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the verse was accompanied by a suggestion that it be set to the music of an English drinking song. Before the week was out, the poem had been reprinted in the pages of the Baltimore Patriot newspaper, which pronounced it a “beautiful and animating effusion” that is destined “long to outlive the impulse which produced it.” Rechristened “The Star-Spangled Banner” soon thereafter, Key’s words were, within weeks, appearing in newspapers across the nation.

In England, news of the setback in Baltimore was met with dismay. The London Times called it a “lamentable event.” The British public had grown increasingly critical of the conflict, their frustration compounded by crippling losses to the British economy; the suspension of lucrative trade with America, coupled with the staggering costs Britain had incurred during its war with Napoleon’s France, had spread hardship across the land. “The tax burden on British citizens was crushing,” says historian Hickey. “England had been at war with France for over two decades.”

The United States was counting costs too. Confronted with a war-induced financial crisis and the realization that no substantial benefits were likely to accrue as a result of the conflict, President Madison and Congress accepted that the time had come to reach a peace settlement. Negotiations, conducted on neutral ground in Belgium at Ghent, were rapidly concluded; a treaty that provided neither country with major concessions was signed December 24, 1814. No significant territorial exchanges took place. The United States tacitly accepted its failure to annex Canada. As for British harassment of American maritime commerce, most of that had lapsed when the British-French Napoleonic Wars ended with the defeat of the French emperor a few months earlier.

Although neither side achieved decisive or lasting military gain, the conflict did have beneficial consequences for the United States. The nation emerged stronger at least internationally. No matter how poorly prepared the United States had been, the government’s readiness to take up arms against a mighty foe substantially enhanced American prestige abroad. Former president Thomas Jefferson said the war demonstrated that “our government . . . can stand the shock of war.” Delaware senator James Bayard expressed a commonly held sentiment when he vowed: “It will be a long time before we are disturbed again by any of the powers of Europe.” Indeed, within a decade, Madison’s successor, James Monroe, formulated the Monroe Doctrine, which put “European powers” on notice that the United States would tolerate no further colonization in the “American continents.”

The war had domestic consequences as well. Hickey believes that America actually lost the war “because we did not achieve our war aims—perhaps most significantly, we failed to achieve our territorial ambition to conquer or annex Canada.” In Hickey’s estimation, Madison showed himself to be “one of the weakest war presidents in America’s history” for failing to work effectively with Congress, control his cabinet or provide coherent leadership.

But in the public mind his successes—the defense of Fort McHenry and the defeat, against all odds, of a Royal Navy squadron on Lake Champlain—outweighed his shortcomings. The greatest boost to American self-esteem was Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans, which took place after the war had officially ended—the peace treaty having been signed in far-off Belgium more than a week earlier. “Americans were aware of the many failures in the war,” says C. Edward Skeen, author of Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812, but “to end the war on a high note certainly pumped up American pride,” particularly since “most counted simple survival [in the war] as a victory.”

Patriotic emotions had the effect of diminishing, at least temporarily, the political and regional rivalries that had divided Americans since the founding of the nation. Former secretary of the treasury Albert Gallatin, one of the United States negotiators at Ghent, believed his countrymen now felt more American than ever. “They feel and act,” he said, “more like a nation.”

That emergent sense of national identity had also acquired a potent emblem. Before the bombardment in BaltimoreHarbor, the Stars and Stripes had possessed little transcendent significance: it functioned primarily as a banner to identify garrisons or forts. Now the flag—and Key’s song inextricably linked to it—had become an emotionally charged symbol.

Key’s “land of the free and the home of the brave” soon became a fixture of political campaigns and a staple of July fourth celebrations. Still, more than a century would pass from its composition until the moment in 1931 when President Herbert Hoover officially proclaimed it the national anthem of the United States. Even then, critics protested that the lyrics, lengthy and ornate, were too unfamiliar to much of the public. Others objected that Key’s poem extolled military glory, equating patriotism “with killing and being killed . . . with intense hatreds and fury and violence,” as Clyde Miller, dean of ColumbiaUniversity’s Teachers College, said in 1930. The New York Herald Tribune wrote that the song had “words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing.” Detractors, including New York civic leader Albert S. Bard, argued that “America the Beautiful” would make for a more suitable, more singable anthem.


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