GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania — The author of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which will ring out at thousands of baseball games and parades across the country this Independence Day weekend, may have been tone deaf, according to a new biography.
As the 200th anniversary of the famously difficult-to-sing anthem approaches, the book “What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life,” by historian Marc Leepson reveals some little-known details about Key and his tribute to the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
It is well-known that Key, a Georgetown, Virginia, attorney, became a witness to the Sept. 13-14, 1814, British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore after agreeing to help win the release of Maryland physician Dr. William Beanes.
Beanes had been taken prisoner by the British. With the blessing of President James Madison, Key, assisted by John Stuart Skinner, negotiated the doctor’s release.
But because the three Americans had learned of the British battle plans, they were put under guard on an American truce ship in Baltimore Harbor in advance of the long night’s cannon and rocket bombardment of Fort McHenry.
Seeing the large American flag by “the rockets’ red glare,” Key was inspired to pen the poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” Almost immediately, Key “wedded the lyrics to a popular British melody, ‘The Anacreon in Heaven,’” Leepson said.
“He was not musical and he had never written a song in his life and he may have been tone deaf,” Leepson added.
The song, which was later re-titled “The Star-Spangled-Banner,” quickly became popular but did not officially became the national anthem until 1931.
Complex views on slavery
Key was a slave owner and a key member of The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia in West Africa.
However, Leepson said Key adamantly opposed slave trafficking and was well known for his willingness to represent slaves and free black men and women, without asking for payment, in Washington’s courts.
Known to family and friends as Frank Key, he later became a close confidant of President Andrew Jackson, and in 1833 was appointed a U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C.
In 1835, Key prosecuted Richard Lawrence, whose gun misfired twice when he tried to shoot Jackson on the Capitol at point-blank range.
Leepson said Key spoke only once in public about the night he wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” — in a political speech 20 years later.
There is only one letter written by Key about his experience in Baltimore Harbor but it focuses on obtaining the release of Dr. Beanes and he never mentions writing the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Key died in 1843, decades before his poem became synonymous with ceremonial events wherever the U.S. flag yet waves.