Francis Scott Key, an author, amateur poet, and lawyer, is a very important person (VIP) in American history because he wrote the words to our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He was born on August 1, 1779, on the family plantation “Terra Rubra” in what was Frederick County, Maryland (now Carroll County, Maryland). His parents were Ann Phoebe Penn Dagworthy (Charlton) and Captain John Ross Key. His father was a lawyer, a judge, and an officer in the Continental Army. His great-grandparents were Philip Key and Susanna Barton Gardiner, both of whom were born in London and immigrated to Maryland in 1726. Francis studied law at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and he also studied under the direction of his uncle Philip Barton Key.
During the War of 1812, Key was a guest aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant. He was accompanied by the British Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner, and the two men dined with three British officers: Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross.
Colonel Skinner and Key were aboard the ship to negotiate the release of prisoners. One of the prisoners was Dr. William Beanes, a resident of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, who had been arrested after putting rowdy British soldiers under citizen’s arrest. Because Skinner, Key, and Beanes had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units as well as the British plans to attack Baltimore, they were not allowed to leave the ship. This is the reason why Key was aboard the British ship and watched the bombing of the American forces at Fort McHenry on the night of September 13-14, 1814, during the Battle of Baltimore.
Key saw an American flag still waving at dawn and reported this news to the prisoners below deck. On his way back to Baltimore, he wrote of his experience in the inspired words of a poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry. He published the poem in the Patriot on September 20, 1814, with the intention of putting his words to the music of John Stafford Smith. His poem is better known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “the song was adopted as the American national anthem, first by an Executive Order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (which had little effect beyond requiring military bands to play it) and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.
Key was associated with the American Bible Society from 1818 until his death in 1843. In 1832, he served as the attorney for Sam Houston during his trial in the U.S. House of Representatives for assaulting another Congressman. He was appointed as a United States District Attorney (1833-1841) and used his position to suppress opponents of slavery. Key prosecuted Richard Lawrence in 1835 for his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Andrew Jackson.
Francis Scott Key died on January 11, 1843, from pleurisy at the home of his daughter Elizabeth Howard in Baltimore. He was buried in Old Saint Paul’s Cemetery in the vault of John Eager Howard. His body was later moved to his family plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick. Keys poetry was collected and published 14 years after his death. The Key Monument Association erected a memorial in 1898, and the remains of both Francis Scott Key and his wife, Mary Tayloe Lloyd, were placed in a crypt in the base of the monument.
Family members of Francis Scott Key include Mary Tayloe Lloyd (his wife), Anne Phoebe Charlton Key (his sister married to Roger B. Taney, who would become U.S. Chief Justice), Alice (his daughter who married U.S. Senator George H. Pendleton in 1846), Philip Barton Key II (his son who was shot and killed by Daniel Sickles, U.S. Congressman, because he had an affair with Sickles wife, and Francis Key Howard (his grandson who was imprisoned in Fort McHenry in 1861 for being pro-South). He was also a distant relative and the namesake of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. Geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, guitarist Dana Key, and American fashion designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild are all direct descendants of Francis Scott Key.
The Francis Scott Key residence, located at 3516-18 M Street in Georgetown, was dismantled in 1947. Key has the honor of having the following memorials named after him: 1) Francis Scott Key Monument in Baltimore, Maryland. 2) Francis Scott Key Bridge between the Rosslyn section of Arlington County, Virginia, and Georgetown in Washington, D.C., near the site of his dismantled home. The location is illustrated on a sign in the Francis Scott Key Park. 3) Francis Scott Key Bridge, part of the Baltimore Beltway crossing the outer harbor of Baltimore, Maryland, and located at the approximate point where the British anchored to shell Fort McHenry. 4) Francis Scott Key Auditorium at St. John’s College, Annapolis, his alma mater (1796). 5) He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. 6) Francis Scott Key Hall at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a residence hall named in his honor at the George Washington University. 8) Francis Scott Key junior high school in Brooklyn, New York. 9) Francis Scott Key High School in rural Carroll County, Maryland. 10) Francis Scott Key Middle School (at least three). 11) Francis Scott Key Elementary School (several, including schools in California, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C.). 12) Francis Scott Key School in Philadelphia. 13) Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick County, Maryland. 14) The Frederick Keys minor league baseball team – a Baltimore affiliate. 15) A monument to Key in San Francisco. 16) The USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657), a U.S. Navy submarine.