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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Francis Scott Key and the
Writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Francis Scott Key, a successful 35-year old lawyer and amateur poet, witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry from an American ship anchored about eight miles away in the Patapsco River.  A Maryland native, Key had a successful law practice in the District of Columbia.  As a member of the opposition party, he opposed the War of 1812 for political reasons.  As a devout Christian, he had moral objections to the attempted invasion of Canada.  In 1813, he wrote a friend that he would rather see the American flag lowered in disgrace than have it stand for persecution and dishonor.1

 

By the time a large British fleet moved into the Chesapeake Bay in August 1814, Key found he had changed his mind.  He was present at the humiliating American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg.  He also witnessed the burning of the Capitol and the other public buildings in Washington.  He wanted the war to end, but thought there was “no hope for peace.”2

 

An errand of mercy brought Key to the Patapsco.  Key was trying to obtain the release of a prominent local doctor whom the British had taken prisoner.  On September 5, he set out from Baltimore to meet the British fleet.  The officers on board the British flagship agreed to release Dr. Beanes, but they would not let the Americans return to Baltimore until after the coming battle. They sent the men back to their small ship, which was kept under armed guard.  Helplessly, Key watched the British bombard Fort McHenry.  Early in the morning of September 14, Key noticed that the British had stopped firing.  He strained to see whether the flag had been struck (taken down), which would mean that the fort had surrendered.

 

At about the same time, Fort McHenry’s garrison raised a huge flag.  Major Armistead had specifically asked for a “flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”  The enemy was duly impressed.  Robert Barrett, a young midshipman on a British warship, commented on the “superb and splendid ensign.”  When Key saw the flag, he realized that the fort had survived the bombardment.  Baltimore was safe.

 

Many years later, he described his feelings,

 

Through the clouds of war, the stars of that banner still shone in my view. . . .  Then, in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke, and “Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?” was its question.  With it came an inspiration not to be resisted; and even though it had been a hanging matter to make a song, I must have written it.  Let the praise, then, if any be due, be given, not to me, who only did what I could not help doing, not to the writer, but to the inspirers of the song!3

 

Key scribbled down the first words of his song on the back of a piece of paper and finished it back on shore.  He took the draft to Judge Nicholson, a relative by marriage who had served at Fort McHenry during the bombardment.  Nicholson liked it very much.  He may have been the person who took it to the Baltimore American.  That newspaper immediately printed it as a large poster-like broadside and began distributing it around Baltimore.  Each man at Fort McHenry received a copy.  The text appeared in the Baltimore Patriot on September 20 and the Baltimore American the following day.  By mid-October, at least 17 other newspapers on the East Coast had published the new song.  Some time during the first two weeks of November, it was set to music as “The Star Spangled Banner.”

 

The original broadside said that Key’s poem should be performed to the tune “Anacreon in Heaven.”  This tune was popular in the United States at the time and Key himself had already written one set of lyrics for it.  It was originally composed in the mid-1770s as the club song for “The Anacreontic Society,” a group of gentlemen in London who liked to get together to perform music, eat a good supper, drink some wine, and generally enjoy themselves.  The president of this highly respectable group usually sang the song as a solo after the supper.

 

Francis Scott Key died on January 11, 1843.  Flags flew at half-mast in mourning in Baltimore and Washington.  The Baltimore American published his obituary two days later.  It said, “So long as patriotism dwells among us, so long will this song be the theme of our nation.”

Questions for Reading 2

1.
How did Francis Scott Key happen to be a witness to the bombardment of Fort McHenry?

2. How had Key’s views on the war changed since the previous year? What events had contributed to the change?

3. Why do you think the British refused to let the Americans return home until after the battle? Does that seem like a reasonable thing for them to do?

4. How did Key describe his feelings on the morning of September 14? Why do you think he said nothing about his earlier opposition to the war?

5. What do you think he meant when he said that he had to write the song, “even though it had been a hanging matter”? Who does he think should get the real credit for it? Do you agree?

Reading 2 was adapted from materials on the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine website and from Lonn Taylor, Kathleen M. Kendrick, and Jeffrey L, Brodie, The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of An American Icon (New York: HarperCollins for the Smithsonian Institution, 2008).

1Lonn Taylor, Kathleen M. Kendrick, and Jeffrey L. Brodie, The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon (New York: HarperCollins, for the Smithsonian Institution, 2008), 40.
2
Ibid
.
3Quoted in Harold I. Lessem and George C. MacKenzie, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Maryland (Washington: National Park Service, 1954, reprinted 1961); available online, Section h, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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