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Francis Scott Key

National Portrait Gallery
Born Frederick County, Maryland

On September 13, 1814, as the War of 1812 embarked on its third year, Francis Scott Key an established Georgetown lawyer, traveled to Baltimore to negotiate the release of a hostage. Upon boarding a ship in the city’s harbor, he was detained by British forces during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which lasted into the night. The next morning, Key saw the fort’s American flag had not been removed. Inspired by the sight, he wrote the poem “Defence of Fort M‘Henry,” which was set to a British tune and subsequently renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson began playing the song at official events, and in 1931, Congress adapted it as the national anthem.

This painting was made when Key and the artist Rembrandt Peale were young men. Key graduated from college in 1796, and Peale, a son of the renowned Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale, had recently shadowed his father during a portrait session with George Washington.

Nacido en el Condado de Frederick, Maryland

El 13 de septiembre de 1814, cuando la Guerra de 1812 entraba en su tercer año, Francis Scott Key, un reconocido abogado de Georgetown, viajó a Baltimore a negociar la liberación de un rehén. Al abordar un barco en el puerto de la ciudad, fue detenido por fuerzas británicas durante el bombardeo del Fuerte Mc Henry, que continuó hasta entrada la noche. A la mañana siguiente, Key vio que en el fuerte todavía ondeaba la bandera estadounidense. Inspirado por esta imagen, escribió el poema “La defensa del Fuerte M’Henry”, el cual se musicalizó usando una tonada británica y luego recibió el nuevo título de “The Star-Spangled Banner” (La bandera tachonada de estrellas). En 1916, el presidente Woodrow Wilson empezó a hacer tocar la canción en actos oficiales, y en 1931 el Congreso la adoptó como himno nacional.

Esta pintura se hizo cuando Key y el artista Rembrandt Peale eran ambos jóvenes. Key terminó su educación universitaria en 1796; Peale, hijo del renombrado artista de Filadelfia Charles Willson Peale, había acompañado a su padre recientemente en una sesión para pintar del natural a George Washington.

Francis Scott Key

National Museum of American History

3c Francis Scott Key single

National Postal Museum
mint

3c Francis Scott Key single

National Postal Museum
mint; perf 11 x 10.5

4c Francis Scott Key Quote single

National Postal Museum
This American Credo issue stamp was issued to re-emphasize the ideals upon which America was founded and to honor those great Americans who wrote or uttered the credos. This stamp features a quotation from Francis Scott Key. The line is from Key’s poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which was later put to song, named “The Star-Spangled Banner” and in 1931 was officially adopted as the national anthem of the United States. The stamp also features a small image of a cluster of star bursts and Key’s signature.

United States; America; Francis Scott Key; ideals; credo; lawyer; author; poet; War of 1812; Fort McHenry; Baltimore; Maryland; song; lyric; stars; quotation; signature

3c Francis Scott Key plate proof

National Postal Museum
Certified plate proofs are the last printed proof of the plate before printing the stamps at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. These plate proofs are each unique, with the approval signatures and date. For postal scholars these plates provide important production information in the plate margin inscriptions, including guidelines, plate numbers, and initials of the siderographer, or person who created the plate from a transfer roll.

Plate No.23835

Denomination: 3c

Subject: Francis Scott Key and American Flags of 1814 and 1948

Color: rose pink

4c Francis Scott Key Quotation plate proof

National Postal Museum
Certified plate proofs are the last printed proof of the plate before printing the stamps at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. These plate proofs are each unique, with the approval signatures and date. For postal scholars these plates provide important production information in the plate margin inscriptions, including guidelines, plate numbers, and initials of the siderographer, or person who created the plate from a transfer roll.

Plate No.26683

Denomination: 4c

Subject: Francis Scott Key Quotation, American Credo Issue

Color: carmine & dark blue

Francis Scott Key Monument [sculpture] / (photographed by Detroit Publishing Company)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On photo mount label: Sculpture, American. Francis Scott Key Monument. Baltimore. Detroit Pub. Co. 073434. Classification number: 282. Accession: 46562. On photograph, lower left: COPR. DETROIT PUBLISHING CO.

1 photographic print : b&w, 9 x 7 in. (trimmed), mounted on 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. board.

The Battle of Fort McHenry, through Francis Scott Key's Eyes

Smithsonian Channel
When the British army held Francis Scott Key captive aboard one of their warships during the Battle of Baltimore, they could never have guessed his stay would inspire their enemy's most-patriotic song. From: A STAR-SPANGLED STORY: Battle For America http://bit.ly/1hzJPpn

Where did Francis Scott Key write the song that became our national anthem?

National Museum of American History
You may not have heard of Baltimore's Indian Queen Hotel, but it plays an important role in the story of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Liz Williams of Gadsby's Tavern Museum shares the story.

Where’s the Debate on Francis Scott Key’s Slave-Holding Legacy?

Smithsonian Magazine

Every 4th of July, I ask my family to sit down in front of the radio as if we’re tuning in to one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, the nationally broadcasted speeches the 32nd president made between 1933 and 1934. Ours is a family tradition of listening while National Public Radio personalities recite the Declaration of Independence.

Though the exercise works better in my head than it does in practice—it is always a challenge to get my nine- and six-year kids to sit quietly on a day promising parades and fireworks—I never fail to get something out of the experience.

And I think my children do as well.

We take a bit of time to contemplate the words and ideals that defined the nation. Something about paying attention solely to spoken words for a few minutes provokes deep discussion.

It is instructive and moving to hear the entire text in all its beautiful eloquence and with all the inherent irony of its rhetoric of freedom and equality contrasting with the realities of slavery and the treachery practiced on the “merciless Indian savages.”

When we consider the legacy of the Declaration and its author, Thomas Jefferson, we confront and debate this compelling paradox—that the man who trumpeted the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” owned some 175 slaves.

We note the paradox underlying Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration. It comes up all the time, as in the smash Broadway hit Hamilton when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton takes Jefferson down a peg or two:

A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting

Francis Scott Key, a slaveholding lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family, wrote the song that would in 1931 become the national anthem and proclaim our nation “the land of the free.” (Wikimedia Commons, Joseph Wood, c. 1825)

However, we fail to do the same with our national anthem’s composer Francis Scott Key. “All Men are Created Equal” and “The Land of the Free”—both those mottoes sprang from the pens of men with quite narrow views of equality and freedom.

The seeming contradictions between Jefferson’s slaveholding history, deeply racist personal views, his support of the institution in his political life, and his assertion of human rights in the Declaration, in many ways parallel Key's story.

In 1814, Key was a slaveholding lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family, who thanks to a system of human bondage had grown rich and powerful.

When he wrote the poem that would, in 1931, become the national anthem and proclaim our nation “the land of the free,” like Jefferson, Key not only profited from slaves, he harbored racist conceptions of American citizenship and human potential. Africans in America, he said, were: “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

A few weeks after British troops in the War of 1812 stunned and demoralized America by attacking Washington and setting the Capitol building and the White House ablaze on August 24, 1814; the British turned their attention to the vital seaport of Baltimore.

While Key was composing the line "O'er the land of the free," it is likely that black slaves were trying to reach British ships in Baltimore Harbor. They knew that they were far more likely to find freedom and liberty under the Union Jack than they were under the “Star-Spangled Banner.” (Wikimedia Commons)

On September 13, 1814, British warships commenced an attack on Fort McHenry, which protected the city’s harbor. For 25 hours bombs and rockets rained down on the fort, while Americans, still wondering whether their newfound freedom would really be so short-lived, awaited news of Baltimore’s fate.

Key, stuck aboard a British ship where he had been negotiating a prisoner release and barred by the officers of the HMS Tonnant from leaving because he knew too much about their position, could only watch the battle and hope for the best.

By the “dawn’s early light” of the next day, Key saw the huge garrison flag, now on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, waving above Fort McHenry and he realized that the Americans had survived the battle and stopped the enemy advance.

The poem he wrote celebrated that Star-Spangled Banner as a symbol of the resilience and triumph of the United States.

Ironically, while Key was composing the line "O'er the land of the free," it is likely that black slaves were trying to reach British ships in Baltimore Harbor. They knew that they were far more likely to find freedom and liberty under the Union Jack than they were under the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Additionally, Key used his office as the District Attorney for the City of Washington from 1833 to 1840 to defend slavery, attacking the abolitionist movement in several high-profile cases.

In the mid-1830s, the movement was gaining momentum and with it came increased violence, particularly from pro-slavery mobs attacking free blacks and white abolitionists, and other methods to silence the growing cries for abolition. In a House of Representatives and United States Senate inundated with petitions from abolitionists calling for the ending or restriction of slavery, pro-slavery Congressmen looked for a way to suppress the voices of abolitionists.

In 1836, the House passed a series of “gag rules” to table all anti-slavery petitions and prevent them from being read or discussed, raising the ire of people like John Quincy Adams, who saw restricting debate an assault on a basic First Amendment right of citizens to protest and petition.

The original manuscript of Francis Scott Key's "Star-Spangled Banner," published 1914 (Wikimedia Commons, Maryland Historical Society)

In the same year, shortly after a race riot in Washington, D.C. when an angry white mob set upon a well-known free black restaurant owner, Key likewise sought to crack down on the free speech of abolitionists he believed were riling things up in the city. Key prosecuted a New York doctor living in Georgetown for possessing abolitionist pamphlets.

In the resulting case, U.S. v. Reuben Crandall, Key made national headlines by asking whether the property rights of slaveholders outweighed the free speech rights of those arguing for slavery’s abolishment. Key hoped to silence abolitionists, who, he charged, wished to “associate and amalgamate with the negro.”

Though Crandall’s offense was nothing more than possessing abolitionist literature, Key felt that abolitionists’ free speech rights were so dangerous that he sought, unsuccessfully, to have Crandall hanged.

So why, unlike Jefferson, does Key get a pass—why this seeming contradiction?

Perhaps it is because the writer of the Declaration of Independence was also a president. And we judge, re-examine and reconsider the legacy of our presidents fairly rigorously.

Lincoln certainly gets taken to task despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and the Gettysburg Address. Many Americans are acutely aware of the ways in which his record conflicts with the myth of the “Great Emancipator.”

However, while Key may not be as notable as a president, his poem is, and that was enough to make abolitionists ridicule his words during his lifetime by sneering that America was truly the “Land of the Free and Home of the Oppressed.”

Though we may have collectively forgotten Key’s backstory, it’s interesting to consider why this contradiction, which was so well known in the 19th century, has not survived in our national memory.

In fact, as the phrase that ends the song is so well-known, it’s also just odd to me that we rarely hear anyone take Key and the anthem to task for the simple fact that it would be so easy—“brave” rhymes with “slave,” for goodness sake.

The Star-Spangled Banner in 1873, photographed in the Boston Navy Yard (Wikimedia Commons, George Henry Preble)

How is it that neither Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X nor Public Enemy came up with lesser-known hip hop artist Brother Ali’s line, “land of the thief, home of the slave?”

Even when Malcolm X observed that this American motto was flawed, as he did in a speech in Ghana in May 1964, the irony of the background of its author and the exaltation of its ideals does not arise. “Anytime you think that America is the land of the free,” Malcolm told the African audience, “you come there and take off your national dress and be mistaken for an American Negro, and you will find out you’re not in the land of the free.” In this speech, however, despite being such an expert at pointing out inconsistencies, he doesn’t add, “in fact, ‘land of the free’ was written by a slaveholder!”

Does it matter if the author of a powerful and inspirational composition in the past held views and did things with which we would not agree today and which we would consider antithetical to the very American ideals his writing professed? Do we hold the Declaration of Independence to a higher standard than the Star-Spangled Banner?

We constantly make new meaning from our past. Recently, we have seen numerous examples of our rethinking of how we publicly remember the history of the Confederacy, or whether Harriet Tubman should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Historian Pauline Maier argues that Lincoln played a huge role in reinterpreting the Declaration and making it into a motto or an “ancient faith” shared by all Americans.

In 1856 Lincoln suggested Americans needed to “re-adopt the Declaration of Independence and with it the practices and policies which harmonize with it.” Though we may have forgotten Key’s racism while we remember Jefferson’s, we have similarly washed it away from the song by adopting it as something to live up to.

Every time Jackie Robinson stood on the baselines as the anthem was played, or when Civil Rights Movement activists had the flag ripped out of their hands as they peacefully marched, or when my dad saluted the flag at a segregated army base in Alabama fighting for a nation that didn’t respect him, the song became less Key’s and more ours.

Though we should remember the flaws and failings that often animate our history, to me at least, they do not need to define it. We should remember that if, 200 years after it was declared so by a slaveholder and enemy of free speech, the United States is “the land of the free,” that is because of “the brave” who have called it home since dawn’s early light in September 1814.

Key Bridge in Winter

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Unidentified Man

National Portrait Gallery

0.03 Key and American Flags of 1814 and 1948 design file

Smithsonian Libraries
Francis Scott Key Issue

Fragments of the Star Spangled Banner

National Museum of American History
Physical Description

Three wool bunting fragments with raveled edges.

Specific History

These three fragments were cut from the flag that flew from Fort McHenry in 1814. This was the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner. In 1880 the fragments were presented to William Carter by Eben Appleton, the grandson of the commander of Fort McHenry. Carter, a local historian, carried the Star Spangled Banner in a parade during Baltimore’s Sesquicentennial Celebration on 13 October 1880. As the flag was being packed for shipment to New York, Appleton cut three pieces and gave them to Carter. Carter’s daughter gave them to the Maryland Historical Society who donated them to the Smithsonian.

Poetry and Our National Anthem

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson analyzes the 'The Star Spangled Banner' for use of poetic devices. Students will express the meaning of the national anthem in their own words and write their own poetry relating to the flag or other historical event. Part of the online exhibit The Star Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem. Targets grades 6-8.

Spreading the News

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson in which students follow a guided Internet hunt as they play the role of a newspaper reporter trying to research, write, and publish an article about the history of the Star Spangled Banner. Intended to teach how to better synthesize ideas and facts in written and artistic products. Part of the resource, 'Making the Star Spangled Banner.' Targets grades 3-5.

Interactive Star-Spangled Banner

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Interactive flag from the online exhibit The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem. Allows exploration of the features of the flag, clicking on hotspots, and zooming in to see details.

Star-Spangled Banner

National Museum of American History

How to Use this Resource in Your Classroom: Interactive Flag

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Teacher's guide on how to examine objects for historical information, ask historical questions, research answers to historical questions, and present findings. Uses the interactive Star Spangled Banner in the Star Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem online exhibit. Targets grades 6-12.

A History of the War of 1812 and The Star-Spangled Banner

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson on the often-forgotten War of 1812. Using this activity, students will be able to cite the origins and outcome of the War of 1812 and place the creation of the Star Spangled Banner in a chronological framework. Includes background, vocabulary, discussion questions, and extension activities. Part of the online exhibit The Star Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem.

How to Use this Resource in Your Classroom: Collect Stars Activity

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Teacher's guide for using the Collect Stars activity from the online exhibit The Star Spangled Banner: The Flag that inspired the National Anthem in the classroom. Helps students cite the origins and outcome of the War of 1812 and be able to place the creation and preservation of the Star Spangled Banner in a chronological framework.

How to Use this Resource in Your Classroom: Share Your Story

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson related to a contributor-based 'Share Your Story' photo collage where visitors explore what the American flag means to them and create their own content to share with others. Step-by-step instructions for using the Flickr site, handouts for students to use during discussion and brainstorming, and a template to help submit photographs and captions are included. This lesson is part of the online exhibit The Star Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem.
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