Monday, November 28th, 2011 at 11:52am

Francis Scott Key

Posted by Robert Bianchetto

1779-1843 (lung infection)

Key wrote one of the most popular songs in American history and didn’t make a cent off it!

Francis Scott Key was an American who was present when the British fleet bombarded Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. He wasn’t defending the fort, but rather he was being held prisoner aboard a British ship where he watched in horror as the American fort was blasted with cannon. From this vantage point he was able to see that the fort was not destroyed after twenty-four hours of bombardment and it motivated him to jot down a quick poem. That poem later became the anthem of the United States, and that makes him an Important American.

Key was born into a fancy religious family in Maryland, and the family money helped put him through law school. By the age of seventeen Key had passed the bar exam and was working at a law firm in Annapolis. While practicing law Key kept up his religious beliefs by regularly reading the Bible. His education as well as his familiarity with the Bible made Key a pretty good writer and he occasionally wrote up his own hymns. In 1805 Key was successful enough that he was able to open up his own law office in Washington, D.C., and by 1814 he was the District Attorney for the city.

The War of 1812 (between the U.S. and Britain) broke out in June of 1812 and for the first two years the British were so busy in Europe (fighting against Napoleon) that they didn’t have the resources to send troops to the United States. By the summer of 1814 Napoleon had been beat down and the British quickly sent troops and ships to invade the United States. On August 24th the British successfully captured the White House, and while in the area they happened to arrest Dr. William Beanes. Beanes was held prisoner onboard a British ship and some of his friends asked Key to talk to the British since he was renowned for his lawyering skills. On September 5th Key was allowed to go aboard the ship and talk some sense into the British. While they did agree to release Beanes Key was told it would have to wait until after the British fleet blew up Fort McHenry, which was just outside Washington, D.C. They had to wait around for a week because the British didn’t start the attack until September 13th.

Key is shocked that the flag was still there

What followed was twenty-four hours of cannon balls being thrown at the American fort, and all Key could do was stand on the deck of the British ship and watch. As night closed in he saw that the American flag was still flying above the fort, and in the morning he was amazed to see that it had survived the bombardment. The British soon gave up and left the area, convinced they didn’t have enough firepower to bring down the fort. This scene inspired Key to write a poem which he called “Defense of Fort McHenry upon returning to Maryland and it was published in the local paper on September 20th. Key originally wrote it to a verse that was similar to another poem/song he wrote titled “When the Warrior Returns”, which referred to Stephen Decatur’s victory over the Barbary Pirates. The poem became better known as “The Star Spangled Banner” and by the end of 1814 it had been set to music and was being sung at homes and taverns nationwide. The song didn’t become America’s national anthem until 1931 when President Herbert Hoover signed a law stating that the song was the new anthem.

Thankfully the original poem didn’t become the anthem or sports games would last much longer

After writing his famous poem, Key continued to lawyer it up and had some pretty high-profile cases before the Supreme Court, including being the lead prosecutor against Richard Lawrence, who attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson. He also continued to write poems and hymns in his spare time. He eventually retired from law to his family’s farm, where he died in 1843.

Francis Scott Key is best remembered for writing the national anthem, though he would never know that his poem had become so popular. He was a very successful lawyer and an unsuccessful poet, as his only well-known work was one that he never looked to get paid for. Key’s way with words about the enduring American flag make him an Important American.

What’s left of the McHenry flag is still standing at the Smithsonian in D.C.

Why He’s an Important American:

  • Prominent lawyer in Maryland
    • Was District Attorney and argued before Supreme Court
  • Present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry during War of 1812
    • Inspired him to write the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry”
    • Later became the “Star Spangled Banner”
      • Was made national anthem in 1931 by President Hoover



Garraty, John A. The American Nation: A History of the United States. 8th ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.

Norton, Mary Beth, et al. A People & A Nation: Volume One: To 1877. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Image Sources:

© 2011 Important Americans: Those Who Made America Great