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Francis Scott Key
Portrait of Francis Scott Key by Charles Willson Peale.
Courtesy Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key was born to a family of substantial wealth on August 1, 1779, at the family estate, Terra Rubra, in the Monocacy Valley of western Maryland. At the age of 10, he entered the grammar school operated by St. John's College, in Annapolis, Md., and at 17 received his degree. Key remained in Annapolis to study law in the office of his uncle, Philip Barton Key, and to court Miss Mary Tayloe Lloyd, his future wife. In 1800, Key returned to western Maryland, and opened a law office in Frederick, not far from his birthplace. Five years later, at the suggestion of Philip Key, he moved to Georgetown, a suburb of Washington.

The decision proved to be fortunate. Key soon developed a lucrative law practice. He frequently appeared before the Supreme Court of the United States to argue cases significant in American legal history, and during Andrew Jackson's administration he was appointed United States district attorney.

Key did not permit his law practice to consume all his energies, however. He was also an active social worker. He helped organize the Lancaster Society for the free education of poor children in Georgetown. He was a charter member of the American Colonization Society, and he gave liberal financial support to those organizations he deemed worthy. Friends and strangers found him warm-hearted, generous, and eager to assist them in any way he could.

Francis Scott Key's benevolent nature was that of a profoundly religious man. At one time he seriously considered abandoning law for the ministry. He finally resolved, however, to seek solace for his conscience as an active member of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Throughout the span of his life, Key showed extreme tolerance toward other sects and creeds. His deeply religious outlook is reflected in his speeches, correspondence, and serious poetry. This deep-rooted piety, with his intense attachment to his country, conditioned Key's emotional response to the dramatic moment when he wrote the poem for which he is known—"The Star-Spangled Banner."

Although Key vigorously opposed the War of 1812, chiefly on religious grounds, he joined the Georgetown Field Artillery Company in 1813 and performed a tour of duty of 13 days. In 1814, he served as a volunteer aide to Gen. Walter Smith, who commanded a militia force during the American military debacle at Bladensburg.

On January 11, 1843, while visiting his married daughter in Baltimore, Key died of pleurisy. He was buried in Baltimore, but, in 1866, his body was removed to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Md., thus complying with a wish expressed by him.


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