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Reflections from History and Faith: Francis Scott Key & The Star Spangled Banner

By Jeff Olson

This week I want to highlight the 206th anniversary of our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, and briefly touch on its history and that of its author.   

Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779 at the family plantation “Terra Rubra” in what was Frederick County, Maryland. He studied law at St. John’s College in Annapolis, and married Mary Tayloe “Polly” Lloyd in 1802. The couple would go on to have 11 children. By 1805 Key had set up his legal practice in Georgetown, part of Washington, D.C. He was a deeply religious man, so much so that at one time he almost gave up his law practice to enter the ministry. Instead, he resolved to become involved in the Episcopal Church.

During the first decade of the 19th century, the United States was at odds with Great Britain over its attempts to restrict U.S. trade with France, the Royal Navy’s impressment of American seamen, and America’s desire to expand its territory. Though opposed to what would become the War of 1812, due to his religious convictions and believing that the disagreement could be settled without armed conflict, Francis Scott Key nonetheless served in the Georgetown Light Field Artillery.

British forces captured Washington, D.C. in August 1814. Dr. William Beanes, an elderly and much loved town physician who was also a colleague of Key’s, was taken prisoner. As a well-known lawyer, Key was approved by President James Madison to help in the negotiation of Beanes’ release which required him to travel to Baltimore. There, British naval forces were located along Chesapeake Bay where Beanes was held captive aboard the British flagship Tonnant. Key, along with Colonel John Skinner, was able to secure Beanes’ freedom, though they were not allowed to return to land until the British completed their bombardment of Fort McHenry.

On September 13, 1814 the three men watched the 25 hour-long assault, but the British failed to destroy the fort. Sometime in the night, the British ceased their attack and left the area, estimating that Baltimore was too costly a prize. The next morning Key noticed with pride a U.S. flag still flying above the fort, a large (30 by 42 feet) flag sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill at the request of the fort commander, Major George Armistead. Having been so inspired, Key began to write on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. While sailing back to Baltimore, he composed more lines and finished the poem in his lodgings at the Indian Queen Hotel. The work would come to be known as the Defence of Fort M’Henry and was printed in handbills and newspapers, including the Baltimore Patriot. The poem was later set to the tune of a song composed by John Stafford Smith, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and came to be called The Star-Spangled Banner. On March 3, 1931, by an official act of Congress, it became the national anthem of the United States.

After the war, Francis Scott Key continued working in law. In 1816, he helped found the American Colonization Society that promoted the emigration of African Americans from the United States to Africa. He came from a family of slave owners and Key personally owned slaves until he freed them in 1830. He argued a number of cases before the Supreme Court. One of those involved the capture of the Spanish slave ship Antelope off the coast of Florida with nearly 300 African slaves. He served as defense attorney for the Africans. Spending his own money, he fought to free the slaves in an expensive legal battle which lasted for seven years. In his argument before the high court in 1825, facing six justices (four of whom were slave owners), Key stated that by the law of nature, all men are free. Unfortunately he lost the case but he was able to raise a substantial sum of money to help the Africans, some of whom were returned to Africa.

Key became Washington, D.C. District Attorney in 1833 and in 1841 helped former President John Quincy Adams free 53 African slaves in the Amistad Case. Key served as Vice President of the National Bible Society from 1817 until his death in 1843 and served as a board member of the American Sunday School Union. In Key’s words, “The patriot who feels himself in the service of God, who acknowledges Him in all his ways, has the promise of Almighty direction, and will find His Word in his greatest darkness, ‘a lantern to his feet and a lamp unto his paths’…He will therefore seek to establish for his country in the eyes of the world, such a character as shall make her not unworthy of the name of a Christian nation.”

Postscript: As I awoke on the pleasant morning of this writing, the sunrise and my imagination took me back 200 years to “dawn’s early light” when a patriot and amateur poet was so inspired. I then re-visited his humanity, patriotism, artistry, frailties and all – and as I read the last verse of his poem found myself inspired and reminded of the greatness of God and the history of his providence and blessings on our nation. “O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand, Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation! Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation…..And this be our motto: In God is our trust…”

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