Francis Scott Key


Born: August 1, 1779,

Frederick, Maryland


Died: January 11, 1843,

Baltimore, Maryland

Francis Scott Key was born on his family’s estate of "Terra Rubra." He attended grammar school and later graduated at the top of his class from St. Johns College in Annapolis at age 17. Key became a respected lawyer in Georgetown. He lived there between 1804 and approximately 1833 with his wife Mary, their six sons and five daughters.

In August of 1814 the British invaded and captured Washington. They set fire to the Capitol and the White House, the flames visible 40 miles away in Baltimore. President James Madison, his wife Dolley, and his Cabinet had escaped to a safer location. In their haste to leave they ripped the portrait of George Washington from the walls without its frame!

Key’s friend Dr. William Beanes was taken prisoner by the British army soon after its departure from Washington and was being held on the British flagship Tonnant.

On the morning of September 3rd, Key left for Baltimore to procure the services of Colonel John Skinner, an American agent for prisoner of war exchange. Together, aboard a sloop flying a flag of truce approved by President Madison, they met the British fleet. On September 7th they found and boarded the Tonnant to confer with Gen. Ross and Admiral Alexander Cochrane. Key successfully negotiated the doctor’s release, but was held in custody with Skinner and Beanes by the British until after the attack on Baltimore.

At 7:00 a.m. on the morning of September 13, 1814, the British bombardment of Fort McHenry commenced. Key's ship was 8 miles below the fort during the bombardment, under the authority of a British warship. It was from this vantage that Key witnessed the British attack on Fort McHenry.

Key, Col. Skinner, and Dr. Beanes anxiously watched the battle. They knew that as long as the shelling continued, Fort McHenry had not surrendered. Unbeknownst to the three Americans was the fact that the British land assault on Baltimore, as well as the naval attack, had failed.

Before the dawn, Key and his friends waited for a sight that would end his anxiety: the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. When daylight finally came, "the flag was still there!"

An amateur poet, Key began to write on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. Sailing back to Baltimore he composed more lines and, from his room at the Indian Queen Hotel, he finished the poem. His brother-in-law, Judge J. H. Nicholson, took the poem to a printer and copies were circulated around Baltimore under the title "Defence of Fort M’Henry." Ironically, the verses were set to an old English drinking song by John Stafford Smith, "Anacreon in Heaven." Soon, though, everyone was calling the song "The Star-Spangled Banner." Both the song and Key became famous.

After the famous battle Key returned to home and family and became a district attorney. Francis Scott Key died in his sleep on January 11, 1843 of pleurisy, at the home of his daughter Elizabeth in Baltimore.