Biography of Francis Scott Key

Biography of Francis Scott Key, Author of our National Anthem

Land of Lakes Chapter presentation on 15 Jan 2008

by Glorianne Fahs.



Francis Scott Key was born in 1779 during the first war for independence on his family's plantation, Terra Rubra, between Taneytown and Keymar MD.  He was son of Judge John Ross Key and Anne Phebe Penn Dagworthy Charlton. 


Key was an attorney by profession; he attended St. John's School in Annapolis and studied law with his uncle's firm.  He later established his own practice in Frederick MD in 1801.


In 1802, Key married Mary (Polly) Tayloe Loyd Key, daughter of Col. Edward Lloyd IV and Elizabeth Tayloe.  She was born 1784 at the family’s plantation, Wye House, on the Eastern shore in Talbot County MD.  Twelve children were born to this union, six boys and six girls


Key was a poet at an early age and often wrote poems for his wife and others, and some church hymns.   Some of his works include “The Power of Literature and Its Connection with Religion” (1834) and the posthumous collection “Poems” (1857) which contains several hymns.


From 1803 to 1833, the Keys were living in George Town.  He became a partner in the law practice of his uncle, Philip Barton Key, and took over the practice two years later. 


When relations between England and the United States grew tense in the early 1810s, Key’s faith led him to maintain a pacifist stance; he was strongly opposed to the War of 1812.  However when England turned her full attention to fighting the United States, Key reversed his position against the war and became an avowed patriot.  In 1814 Key enlisted in the District of Columbia militia and became an aide to General Walter Smith. 


In anticipation of a British attack on Fort McHenry, an oversized American flag was commissioned in 1813 by the commander of the fort, Major Armistead.  Armistead wanted a flag large enough for ships to see from a distance.  This flag was sewn by Mrs. Mary Pickersgill and her daughter Carolyn of Baltimore for exactly $574.44.


During the war, a prominent Maryland citizen, Dr. Beanes, was arrested by the British and held prisoner aboard a ship in the harbor.  The townspeople of Upper Marlboro enlisted the help of Key and Col. John Stuart Skinner of Croome, an American agent for prisoner exchange. 


As dusk of September 13, 1814 approached, Key, Beanes, and Skinner sat on the ship in Baltimore Harbor watching the naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, the last remaining barrier to the city.   They saw the large flag flying over the fort.  Throughout the night and into the early hours of the next morning under heavy rain, Key watched as the British bombed Fort McHenry with military rockets.


When dawn broke, Key was amazed to find the flag, tattered but intact, still flying above the fort.  He later learned that during the night, women in the fort had kept the flag upright and flying by packing earth mounds around the flag pole and mending the flag when needed.  When Key saw the flag emerge intact in the dawn of September 14, he was so moved that he began to compose verses on the back of a letter from his pocket.


After the British fleet had withdrawn, Key checked into the Fountain Inn in Baltimore, and completed his poem on the defense of Fort McHenry.  He then sent it to a printer for duplication on handbills, and within a few days the poem was put to the music of an old English song.  Both the new song and the flag became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."


Key described his feelings in a speech he delivered years later at Frederick MD before a home-town audience:


“I saw the flag of my country waving over a city—the strength and

pride of my native State—a city devoted to plunder and desolation

by its assailants.  I witnessed the preparation for its assaults, and I

saw the array of its enemies as they advanced to the attack.  I heard

the sound of battle; the noise of the conflict fell upon my listening

ear, and told me that "the brave and the free" had met the



“Through the clouds of the war the stars of that banner still shone in

my view, and I saw the discomfited host of its assailants driven

back in ignominy to their ships.  Then, in that hour of deliverance

and joyful triumph, my heart spoke; and "Does not such a country

and such defenders of their country deserve a song?" was its

question.  With it came an inspiration not to be resisted; and even

though it had been a hanging matter to make a song, I must have

written it.  Let the praise, then, if any be due, be given, not to me,

who only did what I could not help doing, not to the writer, but to

the inspirers of the song!”


After the War, Francis Scott Key was appointed district attorney for the District of Columbia in 1833, a post he held through 1841.  He became active in the antislavery movement even though he had slaves of his own.


Key died of pneumonia on January 11, 1843 while visiting his daughter Elizabeth in Baltimore.   Mary Key died May 18, 1859.  They are buried in their family lot in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Frederick MD.  In 1898 the remains of Francis Scott Key and Mary Tayloe Lloyd Key were placed within the crypt in the base of the monument erected by the Key Monument Association of Frederick MD.