The young lawyer peered through the early morning darkness. His gaze was directed toward Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. Throughout the previous night, September 13, 1814, he had strained his eyes to try to see the fort. The “bombs bursting in air” had periodically illuminated the darkness, giving a brief but reassuring evidence that “our flag was still there.” From the deck of the British warship where he was temporarily detained, the lawyer, Francis Scott Key, could only watch in helpless anxiety as the “perilous fight” was waged. All night the bombardment by the British navy had continued against the handful of American defenders who garrisoned the fort standing “between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.”
Now, “at the dawn’s early light,” Key could see that the “star spangled banner yet wave[d]” defiantly over the fort. Inspired by the scene and with only a scrap of paper, Key jotted down a few lines that had been bubbling in his heart and mind through the long and anxious night. “Blest with victory and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land, Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.”
Francis Scott Key titled his poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Soon the poem was published in newspapers and was being sung to several tunes, among them a rousing tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” By November 1814, Key’s composition had become known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” and today the song is recognized around the world as the stirring national anthem of the United States of America.
Mr. Key was a reluctant patriot at first, even having opposed the War of 1812. But his song has inspired thousands after him to love and defend “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Few know of Francis Scott Key beyond the song that made him famous, but he lived a purposeful life on both sides of that dramatic morning in Baltimore Harbor.
Francis Scott Key was born in Maryland on August 1, 1779, while the American War for Independence was still being fought. Francis was called “Frankie” by his parents and siblings for many years, although he went by “Frank” in public life when he was older. His father, John Ross Key, was a commissioned officer in the Continental Army, but several members of the family remained loyal to the British. Frank’s uncle, Philip Barton Key, was a prominent Loyalist who served as a captain in a Loyalist militia unit.
Young Key studied law in Annapolis, Maryland, under the guidance of his formerly Loyalist uncle, who had become a judge in the United States Fourth Circuit. The future anthem writer met and married Miss Mary Tayloe Lloyd, the daughter of a member of the Continental Congress. The young couple, commonly known as Frank and “Polly” Key, settled in the town of Georgetown, Maryland, and eventually raised eleven children together.
Key became a successful, respected attorney, even in his youth. He assisted his uncle, Philip Barton Key, in the famous conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr. When he was only twenty-eight years old, the young lawyer made his first oral argument before the United States Supreme Court in 1807. He also assisted the attorney general of the United States under the administration of Thomas Jefferson. Later in Key’s career, he prosecuted Richard Lawrence, the man who attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson.
Key and his wife Polly were sincere, devout Christians. In a time when Unitarianism and religious skepticism were on the rise, especially in intellectual circles in New England, the Keys were faithful members of an Episcopal church. For a time, Francis Scott Key seriously considered becoming a minister of the Gospel rather than a lawyer. He labored for the advancement of American foreign missions and helped to found two seminaries for the training of ministers. Key quoted the Bible extensively in his legal career and in his private correspondence; he also served with the American Bible Society for years.
The Key home was a scene of domestic tranquility and happiness. Francis Scott Key was a faithful and loving husband and father. Although he owned slaves, he treated them well, and they gave him faithful service. The family gardener delighted in planting flower seeds and bulbs in the shapes of the Key children’s names. The children would be joyfully surprised in the springtime to see ELIZABETH or ANN outlined in beds of blooming tulips and daffodils.
Like all families, the Keys experienced their share of hardships and tragedies. On one occasion, their nine-year-old son Edward was playing along the river bank with siblings and friends. However, the boy slipped, falling into the water, and drowned before anyone could help.
The grieving parents found consolation in the hope of the Resurrection. Their young son had already given evidence of faith in the Lord Jesus, and this evidence comforted the Keys’ hearts. Francis Scott Key wrote in his diary on that sad occasion, “I became much impressed with a sense of the ungrateful return I had made for all the goodness I had experienced. I think I was never before so sensible of my faults and failings, and was particularly struck with a discontented murmuring and impatient spirit that seemed to have been growing upon me.”
As many a humble Christian learns, tragedy can deepen one’s trust in God. Similarly, Key experienced the same and allowed the tragedy to deepen his trust in the Lord and to realize the importance of gratefulness for blessings received. Although he is best known for his patriotic hymn “The Star Spangled Banner,” Key also authored several other hymns, including “Before the Lord We Bow” and “If Life’s Pleasures Charm Thee.”
One hymn in particular that he penned, “Lord, With Glowing Heart I’d Praise Thee,” demonstrates his deep piety and thankful heart. Of the four stanzas, here are the opening and closing stanzas of the hymn:
Lord, with glowing heart I’d praise thee
For the bliss thy love bestows,
For the pard’ning grace that saves me,
And the peace that from it flows.
Help, O God, my weak endeavor,
This dull soul to rapture raise;
Thou must light the flame, or never
Can my love be warmed to praise.
Lord, this bosom’s ardent feeling
Vainly would my lips express;
Low before thy footstool kneeling,
Deign thy supplicant’s prayer to bless.
Let thy grace, my soul’s chief treasure,
Love’s pure flame within me raise;
And since words can never measure,
Let my life show forth thy praise.
The life of Francis Scott Key truly did “show forth” the praise of his Lord and Savior. Key died at the age of sixty-three while staying with one of his daughters in Baltimore. The legacy of his grateful heart continues to live on in the hymns of praise that he composed.
Sources and Further Reference:
Delaplaine, Edward S. Francis Scott Key: Life and Times. Stuarts Draft, VA: American Foundations Publications, 1998.