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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Despite the carping, Congress and Hoover conferred official status on “The Star-Spangled Banner” on March 3, 1931. Proponents had carried the day only after a campaign that featured two sopranos, backed by a Navy band, demonstrated the song’s “singability” before the House Judiciary Committee.

As for the huge flag that inspired the writing of the anthem, it came into fort commander Armistead’s hands not long after the Battle of Fort McHenry and remained in his family’s possession until 1907, when his grandson, Eben Appleton, offered it to the Smithsonian Institution. Today, Smithsonian experts are painstakingly conserving the flag. Enclosed in a climate-controlled laboratory, it is the centerpiece of an exhibition at the National Museum of American History. The treatment, which has taken five years, is expected to be completed this year.

Although Francis Scott key was a prolific writer, the only one of his poems to stand the test of time was “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Although it would ultimately elevate him into the pantheon of American heroes, Key was known during his lifetime primarily as a respected figure in legal and political circles. As a friend and adviser to President Andrew Jackson, he helped defuse pre-Civil War confrontations between the federal government and the state of Alabama.

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.”

When Key died at 63 on January 11, 1843, the Baltimore American declared that “so long as patriotism dwells amongst us, so long will this Song be the theme of our Nation.” Across America, statues have been erected to his memory. Key’s Georgetown house—where he lived with his wife, Polly, and 11 children—was removed to make way for a highway in 1947. The two-story brick dwelling, a national landmark by any measure, was dismantled and put in storage. By 1955, the building, down to the last brick, had disappeared from its storage site; it is presumed lost to history. By a joint resolution of Congress, a flag has flown continuously since May 30, 1949, over a monument marking his birthplace in Keymar, Maryland. It celebrates Key’s important role in shaping, as historians Bruce and William B. Catton once wrote, Americans’ belief “not merely in themselves but also in their future . . . lying just beyond the western horizon.”


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