Francis Scott Key was born in Maryland to a wealthy plantation-owning family. Educated in Annapolis and at St. John’s College, he became a well-known lawyer with a practice in Georgetown. Key is best known for his role in commemorating the War of 1812 with a poem, “Defence of Fort M'Henry,” which was later set to the tune of a popular British drinking song and became “The Star Spangled Banner.” Deeply religious, Key opposed the war even as he served in the Georgetown Light Field Artillery. When his friend and colleague Dr. William Beanes was taken captive by British forces in 1814, Key was enlisted to help. Key and Colonel John Skinner, who had assisted in prisoner exchanges before, boarded the British ship HMS Tonnant where Beanes was being held. They arranged for the prisoner exchange but weren’t permitted to leave until the British had finished their attack on Fort McHenry. On September 13, 1814 Key watched the daylong bombardment from the British vessel. When the British finally quit firing, Key looked toward the fort and, as his poem exclaims, “the flag was still there!,” signalling that the British Navy failed to take the fort. Key’s poem was printed in newspapers and distributed as a handbill. It became the national anthem in 1931.
After the War of 1812 ended, Key returned to his life as a lawyer. An amateur poet, he continued to write poetry. In 1857, a collection of Key’s poetry was published with a forward by Roger Brooke Taney, the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Poems by Francis Scott Key
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