'Land of the Free?' Francis Scott Key, Composer of National Anthem, Was Defender of Slavery

Francis Scott Key, the Washington lawyer and poet who wrote the "Star Spangled Banner," is the most unknown famous person in American history. What does Key's forgotten story mean as the 200th anniversary of his most famous work approaches?
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The lyricist of American patriotism was a defender of slavery, and an enemy of free speech.

Francis Scott Key is the most unknown famous person in American history. The story of how Key, a Washington lawyer and poet, came to write the "Star Spangled Banner" has been taught to American schoolchildren for generations -- not that many remember it later in life. In a fit of patriotic inspiration born in a night of war, Key dubbed America "the land of the free and the home of the brave," a self-conception that has flattered its citizenry in the two centuries since. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the conflict that gave birth Key's immortal song. As the big ships sail in Baltimore harbor and the mammoth flag that was still there at Fort McHenry is venerated, Francis Scott Key deserves our fullest attention. It is worth remembering what has been forgotten about the man.

Francis Scott Key, scion of a slaveholding Maryland family, was a 35-year-old attorney who dabbled in poetry when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner in September 1814. His song was instantly popular and its author became one of the first celebrities in American life, known from Maine to Mississippi. In fullness of time, Key's fame for the "Star Spangled Banner" would almost completely eclipse what followed his popular song: a fascinating and formative career in American law and politics that was recognizably modern in style and substance. Key parlayed his fame and political connections into a lucrative law practice in the capital. By the late 1820s he had established himself as a prototype of the modern Washington lawyer with a Georgetown home, wine cellar, friends in high places and a reputation for good deeds.

On the 200th anniversary of the Key's Banner in 2014, his whole story is worth recalling. School children everywhere how that Key composed the immortal lyrics in Baltimore harbor. Yet not even our history professors know that the famous "F.S. Key," (as he signed letters and indictments) went on to become a politically influential man in Washington. From 1833 to 1840, Key served as District Attorney for the City of Washington. He was the capital's chief law enforcement office in a time of slavery. A plaque in Georgetown states inaccurately that Key was "active in anti-slavery causes." He was not. The unfortunate fact deleted from the data base of national memory is that Key used his office and the law to defend the slave system. We remember Francis Scott Key's song but we have forgotten his ideas of justice -- and maybe that's a good thing.

Key held office in a tumultuous time. Legend has it that Washington before the Civil War was a sleepy southern backwater village. In fact, by the 1830s, the city had more than 30,000 residents, and its streets pulsed with change, especially when Congress was in session. Pennsylvania Avenue was lined with hotels and taverns, taxis ferried tourists and lobbyists to the Capitol. The city had three newspapers published on the latest technological marvel from England, the steam driven printing press. An influx of free black people escaping slavery in Virginia had transformed the face of the city and its workforce. When Washington was founded in 1800, enslaved people outnumbered free blacks four to one. By the time Key became District Attorney in 1833, the city had nearly 12,000 black residents, more than half of whom were legally free.

With the possible exception of New Orleans, Washington was the capital of black aspiration. Free men of color earned their money as hack drivers, cooks, and laborers and spent it on their families and churches, or hock wine and gambling. Free women worked as seamstresses, laundresses, or milliners. Some of the free people of color were poor and shiftless, others prosperous or getting there. Seventy-five colored people paid taxes in Washington City in 1830, triple the number just six years earlier. A handful of black people owned more than one thousand dollars in personal property.

Lynch Wormley, a light-skinned immigrant from the polyglot African island of Madagascar, owned a big livery stable near the busy intersection of 14th and Pennsylvania. Beverly Snow, a witty ex-slave from Lynchburg, entertained the political elite at the city's finest restaurant, the Epicurean Eating House at 6th and Pennsylvania. Next door, the barbering brothers, Isaac and Thomas Cary, ran the Emporium of Fashion barbershop where they cut hair and secretly sold subscriptions to an anti-slavery newspaper published by a white pal Benjamin Lundy. Unlike any other city in America, slavery was visibly receding as a factor in the lives of black and white people in Washington.

Yet the number of white men in Washington trafficking in people was growing too. With the frontier states of the South and West opening up for cotton cultivation, distant landowners contracted with brokers to send them enslaved and able-bodied Negroes who could be forced to do the hard work. White families in the Upper South who owned property in people found they could sell their bondsmen, especially healthy young people, for higher prices. In Alexandria, the firm of Franklin and Armfield, located on Duke Street, ranked as the single largest slave trading syndicate in the nation. When a northerner called on the proprietor, John Armfield, he was surprised to find him "engaging and graceful." Buying and selling humans remained a respectable business in Washington City. The slave holding elite of the south had a solid majority in the Congress and a reliable partner in President Andrew Jackson.

As black aspirations collided and white supremacy, Francis Scott Key invoked the law to defend the slave system and Jackson's political agenda. Personally, Key was a decent master of the people he owned. A prim many he was incapable of violence. He relied on black man, Clem Johnson, to supervise the enslaved people who worked on his plantation north of Frederick, Maryland. During his lifetime, Key freed seven slaves from his own household. In his work he sometimes assisted blacks in bringing cases to the circuit court, which was housed in City Hall in Judiciary Square. Key was sometimes critical of slavery's cruelties in public. He was an active leader of the American Colonization Society, which sought to send African-Americans back to Africa. The colonization society was studiously neutral on the question of whether slavery should be abolished. So was Key. As long as slavery was legal, Key stoutly defended the white man's right to own property in people.

As District Attorney, Key made insure the prerogatives of slaveholding states were enforced in the capital. Working with the grand jury, a panel of about two dozen white men from all walks of life, Key sought to stamp out the growing movement against slavery among the city's black and white residents.

In 1833, he indicted John Prout, a free black school teacher who forged papers for a young couple trying to escape freedom. Prout was convicted and had to leave town.

That same year Key was infuriated when abolitionist editor Benjamin Lundy reported a story that his black friends told him. One of Key's constables had chased a respectable colored woman across the Long Bridge over the Potomac; he was probably trying to kidnap her and sell her into slavery. She fell into the river and drowned. The District Attorney did nothing. "There is no justice or mercy for colored people in this District," Lundy wrote. Key promptly indicted Lundy for libel. The crusading editor left town rather than face a southern jury.

When the abolitionists flooded the capital with anti-slavery publications in the summer of 1835, Key was caught off guard. White fears of an imminent slave insurrection grew. When the newspapers reported the arrest of a young black slave for assaulting his mistress with an axe, a mob gathered in Judiciary Square seeking to lynch him. It was not Key's finest hour. Besieged by a drunken mob of angry young white men, he and the city marshal had to be rescued by federal intervention: a contingent of blunderbuss wielding Marines marched down from the Navy Yard and secured the jail and protected its inmates from summary justice.

To reassert the rule of law, Key set out to crack down on the anti-slavery men and their "incendiary publications." Informants had reported to the grand jury about an abolitionist doctor from New York who was living in Georgetown. Key charged Rueben Crandall with bringing a trunk full of anti-slavery publications into the city.

In the spring of 1836, Key's prosecution of Rueben Crandall was a national news story. In response, the American Antislavery Society circulated a broadsheet denouncing Washington as "The Slave Market of America." The abolitionists needled Key for the hypocrisy of using his patriotic fame to defend tyranny in the capital: "Land of the Free... Home of the Oppressed."

Key shrugged off his liberal critics. In front of courtroom crowded with Congressmen and correspondents Key waxed eloquent and indignant at the message of the abolitionists. "They declare that every law which sanctions slavery is null and void... " Key told the jury. "That we have no more rights over our slaves than they have over us. Does not this bring the constitution and the laws under which we live into contempt? Is it not a plain invitation to resist them?"

Crandall's attorneys depicted a peaceful man persecuted for his private beliefs and decried Key's invasion of his privacy. Key's appeals to the jury's racial fears ignored and Crandall was swiftly acquitted. In Washington's first race riot and its legal aftermath, Francis Scott Key had not distinguished himself in any way his country would care to remember.

Key would serve as District Attorney until 1840, a critic of the anti-slavery movement for the rest of his days. When he died in Baltimore in January 1843, the Washington circuit court and the U.S. Supreme Court (where he had argued many cases) were closed for the day. The city's chief judge William Cranch praised Key as one of the bar's "oldest and most respected members, and one of hits brightest ornaments" who was always animated "by an overbearing sense of duty." Cranch's eulogy did not mention the Star Spangled Banner. Key's song would not be officially designated as the national anthem until 1931.

What does Key's forgotten story mean as the 200th anniversary of his most famous work approaches? His outdated political ideas do not discredit the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner" today, especially not if you listen to Jimi Hendrix's beautifully ugly guitar solo at Woodstock, or Marvin Gaye's sensitive ode at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. The Star Spangled Banner belongs to all Americans.

But remembering that the lyricist of American patriotism was a defender of slavery and enemy of free speech yields a useful lesson whenever the 4th of July rolls around. And the lesson is this: Sometimes the most eloquent American patriots are hypocritical white men who wrap an extreme interpretation of their economic rights in the American flag. That was true in 1814, 1834 and its true today.

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