What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life

What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life

by Marc Leepson

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What So Proudly We Hailed is the first full-length biography of Francis Scott Key in more than 75 years. In this fascinating look at early America, historian Marc Leepson explores the life and legacy of Francis Scott Key. Standing alongside Betsy Ross, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and John Hancock in history, Key made his mark as an American

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What So Proudly We Hailed is the first full-length biography of Francis Scott Key in more than 75 years. In this fascinating look at early America, historian Marc Leepson explores the life and legacy of Francis Scott Key. Standing alongside Betsy Ross, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and John Hancock in history, Key made his mark as an American icon by one single and unforgettable act, writing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Among other things, Leepson reveals:
• How the young Washington lawyer found himself in Baltimore Harbor on the night of September 13-14, 2014
• The mysterious circumstances surrounding how the poem he wrote, first titled "The Defense of Ft. M'Henry," morphed into the National Anthem
• Key's role in forming the American Colonization Society, and his decades-long fervent support for that controversial endeavor that sent free blacks to Africa
• His adamant opposition to slave trafficking and his willingness to represent slaves and freed men and women for free in Washington's courts
• Key's role as a confidant of President Andrew Jackson and his work in Jackson's "kitchen cabinet"
• Key's controversial actions as U.S. Attorney during the first race riot in Washington, D.C., in 1835.

Publishing to coincide with the 200th anniversary of "The Star Spangled Banner" in 2014, What So Proudly We Hailed reveals unexplored details of the life of an American patriot whose legacy has been largely unknown until now.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The man recalled only as the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner” here receives his first biography in over 75 years. It turns out, however, that Key was more than a mediocre poet and lyricist. He was broadly involved in much of the nation’s public life until his death in 1843. A noted Washington lawyer, founder of the American Colonization Society, partisan of Andrew Jackson, defender of Sam Houston, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and defender of slaves, he counted himself among the nation’s best-known civic figures of his time. He also knew most of the others in and around the nation’s capital. This workmanlike study lays out the lesser-known facts of Key’s life but what is mostly an un-nuanced factual account stumbles in two areas. Leepson, an experienced writer about Lafayette, Monticello, and even the American Flag, falls short of bringing Key and his era alive. But then Key himself didn’t leave much of the kind of evidence that would allow Leepson to paint a truly rich portrait. The result is a book that effectively lays out the life and career of a worthy and notable figure without adding much to our historical understanding. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
The political and moral views of the man who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) was an influential lawyer, serving for eight years as a district attorney. As historian Leepson (Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General, 2011, etc.) portrays him, Key was devoutly religious, politically conservative and ardently patriotic. He opposed the American invasion of Canada that began the War of 1812, calling the war "a lump of wickedness," but by September 1814, after witnessing bombs bursting, rockets hissing and cannonballs rumbling when the British attacked Baltimore, his patriotism overwhelmed him. Seeing the American flag flying after the British retreated, he penned the verses that became the nation's anthem. Days later, the poem was published in a Baltimore newspaper, indicating that it was to be sung "to the tune of ‘To Anacreon in Heaven,' " a popular English song well known in America. Key was also involved directly in the crucial issue of his time: slavery. A slaveholder himself, he defended in court both slaves seeking their freedom and owners refusing to release their human property. He was a founder and proselytizing member of the American Colonization Society, whose mission was to encourage emancipated slaves to settle in Africa. Key resented the abolitionist movement, believing that freed slaves posed a threat of unrest, and would foment rebellion against slaveholders. Besides his tireless work for the ACS, Key founded the American Bible Society and served as its vice president, and he was a supporter of the American Tract Society, which published and distributed Christian literature aimed to convert nonbelievers. Although Key was a "tepid Federalist who loathed partisan politics," he became an avid proponent of Andrew Jackson, sympathetic to his campaign against government corruption and his desire to limit federal intrusion into states' affairs.A concise, well-researched biography of a self-righteous, opinionated man who embodied the convictions and contradictions of his tumultuous times.

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St. Martin's Press
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What So Proudly We Hailed

Francis Scott Key A Life

By Marc Leepson

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2014 Marc Leepson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-46431-6



"I am in the Bible at school. ... It is hard words, but I hope I shall get it."

Francis Scott Key, age ten

Francis Scott Key came from a male line of ambitious and successful strivers, many of whom were members of the legal profession. The American branch of the family began when his great-grandfather Philip Key, a lawyer born in St. Paul's Parish in London's Covent Garden district in 1696, left England in 1720 to seek his fortune in the colonies.

Philip Key settled in the small southern Maryland town of Chaptico in St. Mary's County near Leonardtown. Within a few years he did indeed make his fortune. He bought vast tracts of land and became one of the thriving colony's most prominent citizens — a prosperous lawyer and large plantation owner, and at various times a member of the Maryland Assembly, high sheriff of St. Mary's County, presiding justice of the county, and member of the Governor's Council.

Among Philip Key's holdings was an 1,865-acre parcel of farmland he purchased in 1752 near Pipe Creek in the gently rolling hills of sparsely populated northern Frederick County, Maryland, about fifteen miles south of the Pennsylvania line. He gave the property a Latin name, Terra Rubra (roughly translated "Red Land").

Philip Key was a religious Church of England man who owned scores of slaves. A year before his death in 1764, he compiled a list "of Negroes it has pleased God to bless me with." It contains the names and ages of sixty human beings, including "Rumulus, born 15 April 1755," "Tom the Smith, 45," "Harry, born 20 February 1760," "Jemmy, 69," and "Tom, son of Hanna, 11."

Philip Key had seven children with his first wife, Susanna Barton Gardiner, whom he married in 1724. Five of his six sons chose the profession of the law, including Francis Key — Francis Scott Key's grandfather, for whom he was named — who was born in 1731.

Francis Key, the longtime clerk of Cecil County in the northeast corner of Maryland, married into another prosperous Maryland family when he and Ann Arnold Ross of Annapolis tied the knot in 1752. Born in Annapolis in 1727, Ann Arnold was the eldest daughter of Alicia Arnold and John Ross, a prominent Annapolis attorney. Ann Arnold Ross, the Maryland Gazette of Annapolis noted two days after her wedding, was "a well accomplish'd and deserving young Lady, with a pretty Fortune."

That fortune had been amassed by her father, John Ross, who was born in England in 1696. Ross, the clerk of colonial Maryland's Governor's Council for many years, also served as the deputy agent for the Sixth Lord Baltimore, as an alderman and a one-term mayor of Annapolis. He owned more than seven thousand acres of land throughout Maryland, including a large tract overlooking the Severn River, seven miles from Annapolis. It is the site of the Ross mansion known as Belvoir, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971.

Alicia Arnold Ross, born in 1700, was a deeply devout woman who impressed upon her daughters the importance of fealty to God, family, and their future husbands. "I beg above all things you will take care and Serve God [and] let nothing, my Dear Girl, make you neglect your duty morning and Evening and be sure not to neglect going to Church as often as you can and to Receive Holy Sacrament," Alicia Ross wrote to her daughter Ann. "Be sure you Love and honour your father and do everything you can to please him and ... take his advice in all things. ... Take care not to be extravagant and to be always clean and a good Housewife."

Francis Key and Ann Arnold Ross Key, who would outlive her husband by forty-one years, had three children. The first, John Ross Key — Francis Scott Key's father — was born on September 19, 1754; his younger brother Philip Barton Key was born on April 12, 1757; and his sister, Elizabeth Scott Key, came along two years later.

In keeping with family tradition, Francis Key amassed large real estate holdings, including a three-hundred-acre plantation along the Chesapeake Bay in Cecil County. In 1767 Francis and his brother-in- law, the wealthy Irish-born Annapolis physician Dr. Upton Scott (who married Francis's wife's sister Elizabeth), bought a nearly 3,700-acre parcel of farmland not far from Terra Rubra.

Francis Key died young and without a will at age thirty-nine in November 1770. Under English law, his oldest son inherited his property, which is how sixteen-year-old John Ross Key found himself the owner of Terra Rubra. That same year the family built a large brick home on the property. The Key family managed it in the manner of a southern plantation, complete with about two dozen slaves who worked in the fields and in the expansive manor house.

John Ross Key and his younger brother Philip Barton were groomed to follow family tradition and become lawyers. Philip went off to England to do so, while John Ross stayed in Maryland. He received his schooling from tutors in Annapolis and at his maternal grandfather and namesake John Ross's plantation, Belvoir. On his sixteenth birthday, several weeks before his father's death, however, young John Ross wrote to his father expressing grave doubts about his future as a lawyer. "I have not yet begun the study of law," he wrote, "nor have I any desire to attempt it because I think I am not qualified for it. Unless I could be a Master of that science undertaken, it would be better never to have attempted it." The boy signed the letter "Your Dutiful & Obedient Son."

The dutiful teenager would later change his mind and enjoy a long and successful legal career. In January 1778, John Ross Key became a justice of the peace in Frederick, a position he held for several years. Twenty years after writing the discouraging letter to his father, in January 1790, the one-time recalcitrant law student was appointed associate justice of the Frederick County Court, a position he held for many years.

In June 1775, two months after Lexington and Concord, word went out from the Maryland delegation in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia for militias to be formed throughout the state. On June 22, John Hanson, the presiding officer of Frederick County's Committee of Observation (the local governing body), organized two local rifle companies. Listed among the officers of the Western Maryland Rifles was 2nd Lieutenant John Ross Key.

The records are unclear about how long the twenty-one-year-old lieutenant served in that unit under Captain Michael Cresap, who marched his men to Massachusetts on July 18. What is known is that John Ross Key was back home in Maryland on October 19, 1775, the day he married nineteen-year-old Anne Phoebe Penn Dagworthy Charlton of Frederick. The young couple set up housekeeping at Terra Rubra. A little more than a year later, he volunteered once more for the fight against the British and received a commission in Colonel Norman Bruce's battalion.

It appears that John Ross Key returned home to Terra Rubra not long after that. But in the last year of the war, on February 3, 1781, he rejoined the military a third time, receiving his commission as a lieutenant in Captain Philip Thomas's Troop of Light Horse in Frederick. He soon was promoted to captain and given command of the Frederick Light Dragoons, which joined the Continental Army early in June in the Virginia campaign that led to the siege of Yorktown and the surrender of the British forces on October 19. Family lore has it that Captain John Ross Key, in command of the Frederick Company under Thomas took part in the siege of Yorktown under the command of the famed French Continental Army major general, the Marquis de Lafayette.

While John Ross Key was ensuring that all of his descendants could become members of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, his younger brother Philip Barton Key took a very different path. He declared himself a Loyalist and joined the British Army to fight against the Americans in July 1776, not long after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Five years later, in 1781, the General Court of the Maryland Eastern Shore found Philip Barton Key — along with all the other Marylanders who joined Loyalist regiments — guilty of treason.

In 1778 Philip Barton was serving as a captain in Lieutenant Colonel James Chalmer's Maryland Loyalist Regiment, which had been formed in 1777. The regiment, numbering as many as five hundred men, joined the British Army under General Sir Henry Clinton in June 1778 as they left Philadelphia and fought George Washington's troops at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey. Philip Barton and his regiment later were sent to help the Redcoats defend Fort George in Pensacola, the capital of the British colony of West Florida. On May 9, 1781, when the British succumbed to a withering assault by Spanish forces under Bernardo de Galvez, he was among nearly 1,100 men taken prisoner and shipped to Havana in Spain's colony of Cuba. He was released soon thereafter and went to back England to continue his law studies.

Philip Barton did well in London. In 1784 he was admitted to the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court in London. After reporting that the Americans had seized all of his land in Maryland, he received a lifetime half-pay military pension.

Then in 1785 Philip Barton Key decided to return to the land of his birth. Loyalists — especially those who fought against the Continental Army — typically faced bitter enmity in the new United States after the Revolution. But Philip Barton seemed to easily mend whatever fences he had broken. The charge of treason melted away as he studied law in Annapolis under Gabriel Duvall, a noted jurist who had served in the Continental Army and later would become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Philip Barton Key was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1787 and began a law practice in Leonardtown in Southern Maryland. He moved to the state capital of Annapolis in 1790 and on July 4 married Ann Plater. He was thirty-three; his bride sixteen. She was a daughter of one of Southern Maryland's leading citizens, George Plater, a former member of the Continental Congress who, in 1791, was elected governor of Maryland.

The one-time Loyalist's legal practice thrived in Annapolis, where Philip Barton Key quickly became one of the city's movers and shakers. By 1800 he presided over a bustling household that included twenty-two slaves. He ran for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1794 and won, representing Annapolis in that body from 1794 to 1799. He also served as mayor of the city from 1797 to 1798. President John Adams appointed him to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court early in 1801, where he served as chief judge until the Jefferson administration abolished that position in July 1802.

Philip Barton took his law practice to Georgetown, then an incorporated city adjoining Washington, D.C. In a short time he moved his wife and their two young daughters into a huge, three-story Federal-style house he built north of Georgetown; he named the house Woodley.

In May 1802, around the time he moved to Woodley, Philip Barton bought eight slaves from Uriah Forrest, the clerk of the U.S. District Court in Washington. For $2,565, Key received the eight human beings (including a cook named Rachel Young and a boy named Harry), along with "five featherbeds with furniture and bedsteads and two hair mattresses, dining tables, other side tables, carpets, book cases, one set of china ... one four wheeled sulky and harnesses and wagon, three mules, four horses and two cows."

Philip Barton thrived in the nation's capital. He ran a hugely successful law practice, and he and his growing family (seven children survived infancy) lived in baronial splendor at Woodley, attended by more than a dozen slaves who worked in the house and in the hundreds of acres of gardens and fields that surrounded it. The city's elite flocked to Woodley to be entertained in style by the hospitable Keys.

Philip Barton Key, who also owned hundreds of acres of farmland in Montgomery County, Maryland, just north of the capital, decided to run for Congress from Maryland's 3rd District. In January 1806 he officially severed his ties with England, writing to his agent in London to end his half-pay British military pension. His conversion from British Loyalist to American Federalist was complete when he won that election on October 6. He went on to win two more House elections, serving in Congress from March 1807 to March 1813.

"I had returned to my country like a prodigal son to his father," Philip Barton Key said following his first election campaign, "had felt as an American should feel, was received and forgiven, of which the most convincing proof is my election."

In 1796, a seventeen-year-old newly minted graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis came to Philip Barton Key's law offices to follow family tradition and read law. He was a bright, obedient young man, eager to take advantage of the power and prestige of his father's brother's law firm. He studied law for four years in Annapolis before striking out on his own to begin a law practice that he would stick with for the rest of his life and that would bring him wealth, fame, and prestige.

This fledgling lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was born at Terra Rubra on August 1, 1779. He was a short, thin, handsome boy — and would become a handsome man, with flowing, dark curly hair, dark eyes, and a prominent, patrician nose. Although his uncle Philip Barton and his father John Ross were "large, manly looking fellows," Frankie (as the family called him as a boy) and his sister, Anne, were "of much smaller mould," recalled a neighbor of the family, who described her as "a beautiful little girl with the cheerfulest face and most pleasant smile I ever saw."

Frankie passed his childhood in idyllic fashion on his family's prosperous plantation in the company of adoring relatives, tended to by slaves and surrounded by a few similar-size farms, along with a larger number of more modest rural farmsteads. He passed countless hours playing with his sister Anne Phoebe Charlton Key, who was three years younger. Another sister, Anne Charlton, born in 1777, had died in infancy; a second younger sister, Catherine Charlton Key, died at six months of age in the summer of 1782.

Looking back on his carefree childhood at Terra Rubra, Key later wrote "To My Sister," a sentimental poem in which he rhapsodized over "those bright hours" he shared with Anne as they played together on "The mountain top, the meadow plain / The winding creek, the shaded lane." Those "sunny paths were all our own," he wrote, "And thou and I were alone / Each to the other only known / My sister!"

Frankie and Anne were taught at home by their mother until he was ten years old. Religion played an integral part in their upbringing under their pious mother. In 1789, the Keys sent their only son to Annapolis to attend St. John's College, which had been chartered by the state of Maryland in 1784. St. John's had absorbed Annapolis's King William's School, a prep school that had been in existence since 1696. The new prep school and college had opened its doors under newly hired president John McDowell, a lawyer and professor of mathematics.

Classes took place in a building called Bladen's Folly that forty years earlier had been intended as the official residence of Maryland's governor Thomas Bladen. Construction on the grand, three-story brick building — today known as McDowell Hall — had been suspended, but was completed after the state of Maryland chartered the new college. The students and their teachers (called masters) also lived in Bladen's Folly, the center of a four-acre campus. The young men studied Greek and Latin, grammar, mathematics, and the sciences.

The Keys did not have pay for young Francis's board, lodging, or other residential expenses. For the next seven years while he was a student at St. John's he lived with his great-aunt Elizabeth Ross Scott (the sister of his grandmother, Ann Arnold Ross Key) and her husband, Dr. Upton Scott, who were then in their mid-sixties. The Scotts easily made room for their young grand-nephew in their opulent home (which still stands today) on Shipwright Street in downtown Annapolis, two blocks from the waterfront and eight short blocks from St. John's College.

Young Frankie, naturally, was homesick. "I remember when I was a little boy and was sent all the way to Annapolis, I used be very sad for a while when I first got there whenever I thought about Pipe Creek, and particularly when I thought about my mother," Key wrote many years later to his youngest son, Charles. "But then when I became engaged in my studies and amused with my plays, I found these thoughts would not disturb me so often and I could be cheerful and happy."


Excerpted from What So Proudly We Hailed by Marc Leepson. Copyright © 2014 Marc Leepson. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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