You heard the story so many times growing up, you can recite it by memory. Francis Scott Key was detained on a boat by the British as they attacked Fort McHenry outside Baltimore. He couldn't tell during the dark night whether the Americans inside the fort had given up. When dawn revealed the American flag still flying, he was so inspired he wrote a poem whose words became "The Star Spangled Banner," our national anthem.
And it's all true. But then, as soon as Key's poem was published, he vanished from history as abruptly as he appeared. Which is a shame, according to Key scholar and filmmaker Philip Marshall. "Americans need to know that Key made a huge contribution to the American story, that he was also flawed and a real person just like anyone else."
Since Sept. 13 and 14 marks the 203rd anniversary of the attack on Fort McHenry and the penning of what became our national tune, it's a great time to look at the rest of Key's life.
Here's something you probably didn't know: his friends and family called him Frank, which was a big improvement over Francis. Though they had to be careful to not say his first and last names too fast, lest "Frank Key" come out "Frankie." And let's face it, saying the lyrics were written by Frank Key just doesn't have the same impressive ring as Francis Scott Key, does it?
Regardless, Frank's poem spread like wildfire, making him an overnight celebrity. He was also a high profile lawyer who crossed paths with many famous people. For example, he was part of Andrew Jackson's famous Kitchen Cabinet, unofficial advisers who played a hugely influential role in that memorable era. He defended a young Sam Houston in court over beating up a congressman from Ohio. Eventually becoming U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Key went on to prosecute the man who tried to kill Jackson in the country's first presidential assassination attempt.
A devout Episcopalian (who had almost become a priest as a young man), he helped found two seminaries and wrote a book about poetry's influence on religion.
A loving husband, he fathered eleven children. One son drowned as a child, causing Key to suffer a spiritual crisis. Years after his own death another son, Philip Barton Key II, had an affair with a congressman's wife. The jealous husband shot and killed the younger Key in Lafayette Park near the White House, then went free thanks to the first use of the temporary insanity legal defense. (Speaking of family, author F. Scott Fitzgerald was a distant relative.)
Then there was Key's highly-complicated relationship with slavery. He was a slave owner who also opposed the practice. He personally owned six slaves. While he eventually set them all free, no effort was made to do likewise for the large number of slaves his wife inherited and who worked the farm that provided a big part of the family's income. On several occasions, Key represented slaves trying to win their freedom in court, for free. He was also actively involved in the American Colonialization Society, which helped found the colony of Liberia in Africa.
Yet Key was also bitterly opposed to the abolitionist movement and used his position as U.S. Attorney to challenge it. Right up until this death in 1843 at age 63, he strongly supported the colonization of former slaves in Africa and resisted the abolition of slavery. Try explaining that contradiction!
Key's life was a fascinating tale of ups and downs, triumphs and perplexities. It's the subject of a new documentary called "F. S. Key After the Song" airing on public television stations during September.
And you thought he just wrote a famous poem!
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com
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