O Say Can You See – Seven Little-Known Facts About Francis Scott Key and the Star Spangled Banner


A contemporary illustration of the British fleet’s attack on Fort McHenry, the inspiration for The Star Spangled Banner, the U.S. national anthem. 

By Jeffrey Roth

Most critics agree that The Star-Spangled-Banner is difficult to sing. Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to the iconic song after watching the Sept. 13 to 14, 1814 British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbour. He was 35 years old at the time. Here are some little-known facts about Key and his famous song.

Francis Scott Key.

Francis Scott Key.

1. Francis Scott Key wasn’t very musical. In his new biography What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life, Marc Leepson writes that the song’s author may have actually been tone deaf. “Up until relatively recently, historians believed Key was writing a poem that night,” Leepson said in a recent interview. “He was not musical and he had never written a song in his life. Back in that time period, it was common for people to take lyrics and put them to well-known tunes.”

2. Key “borrowed” the melody from a British drinking song. Originally entitled The Defence of Fort McHenry, the verses of The Star Spangled Banner were wedded to the popular British ditty The Anacreon in Heaven. Key wrote the lyrics on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, while on an American truce ship anchored in the Patapsco River, Leepson writes.

3. The work wasn’t an instant classic. The Star-Spangled-Banner was just one of many patriotic tunes popular in 19th Century America. It wasn’t played officially until 1889. That’s when the U.S. Navy began using the song, Leepson said. In fact, it didn’t become the national anthem until Congress passed a resolution making it so on March 3, 1931 — 119 years after it was first written!

4. Key was part of the Back-to-Africa movement. According to Leepson, Key was a member of the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America. The group promoted the idea of sending African Americans to the colony of Liberia, which the organization helped found. Other members included John Randolph, Charles Fenton Mercer, Henry Clay and Richard Bland Lee. They argued that the West African territory would offer greater freedom for blacks than they could find in the U.S. Leepson said that Key and other members of the organization also believed (wrongly) that transplanting African Americans would help end slave trafficking.

5. Key was also an accomplished lawyer. Throughout his legal career, Key argued more than 100 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Leepson said. In some instances, the Maryland-born attorney represented the legal rights of freed African Americans. He also represented owners of runaway slaves.

6. Key wasn’t much of a self-promoter. Key only spoke about writing The Star-Spangled-Banner in public on one occasion, and that was 20 years later, Leepson said.

7. Key’s other writing was weak. The Star Spangled Banner author also wrote other poems for family and friends, but he never wanted his work to be published. After his death in 1843, his poems were finally compiled and released. “They were not very good,” Leepson said. Of all of Key’s descendants, only one would achieve literary prominence: the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Leepson’s other works include Desperate Engagement, which details the Battle of the Monocacy, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General, Flag: An American Biography and Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built.

Jeffrey B. Roth is an award-winning writer and regular contributor to New York Times, Reuters, and CBS as well as a number of newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and the U.K. Follow him on Twitter or visit his Facebook page

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