Take a knee: the little-known truth behind Francis Scott Key

For those readers who watch football, if only to predict which extra-hard hits will lead to traumatic brain damage in some player’s future, some might tune in to the upcoming Super Bowl wondering if any players will “take a knee” during the pregame performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Only a hermit or someone stranded on a WiFi-deprived desert island would be unaware that this past season some players, instead of performing the standard ritual of placing their hands over their hearts and singing along when the national anthem is played, have instead kneeled and bowed their heads.

The practice was inaugurated by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the 2016 football season, largely as a protest against racial injustice and police violence against black men. The courage of the mixed-race Kaepernick put him in the crosshairs not only of the NFL barons but also the guardians of patriotic orthodoxy. His stand resulted in his being blackballed from the league despite his solid record on the field. He and the players, largely but not exclusively African American, who took up his example have drawn flak from critics ranging from President Trump to John Schnatter, the CEO of Papa John’s—the “official pizza of the NFL”—who complained that the protests hurt his company’s bottom line. (Schnatter’s complaint generated a backlash and charges of racism, leading to his resignation).

While the protests are directed not at the anthem itself but what it symbolizes—how, in the eyes of the players, America has failed to live up to its expressed ideals—the anthem itself is worth a second look, as is its author. Is “The Star-Spangled Banner” worthy of its image as an anthem of America’s aspirations? And exactly who was Francis Scott Key, anyway?

From all that most Americans know about Key, he might as well have crawled from under a rock, quickly penned the “Banner” and then vanished from the face of the earth. But in fact, Key, known to his friends as “Frank,” was an exceptionally successful lawyer and an important and well-connected civic leader in Washington, DC, during the first half of the 19th century. He was born into wealth on a slave-owning plantation in Frederick County, MD, but lived most of his adult life in Georgetown in a house that was removed in 1947 to make way for the bridge to Rosslyn that bears his name. Key owned slaves all his adult life, with several servants employed at his home.

Key developed a thriving DC law practice and made friends with some powerful figures. His sister married Roger Taney, the Maryland attorney who eventually became chief justice of the Supreme Court. Taney, of course, is best known as the author of the Dred Scott decision, the 1857 ruling which stated that African Americans, whether free or enslaved, had no rights under the Constitution to be US citizens. That decision, possibly the worst (and almost certainly the most racist) in the court’s history, was fortunately erased by the Civil War and subsequent constitutional amendments. Taney’s statue at the Maryland statehouse was removed last year as the nation reconsidered which historic figures deserve monuments in prominent public spaces.

Key also was close to Andrew Jackson, and was part of a group of informal advisors to the seventh president. Some of Key’s fellow advisors were rough fellows from Jackson’s past, and critics remarked that the only part of the White House they were fit to visit was the kitchen—thus originating the term “kitchen cabinet.” The urbane, gentlemanly Key, however, would have been comfortable in any public room of the Executive Mansion. Key’s affection for Jackson was not affected by the latter’s campaign to remove Native Americans from the eastern United States, a program that led to some 4,000 deaths as they were forcibly uprooted from their ancestral homes and marched, largely on foot, to surplus lands in the west.

But in 1814 Jackson was in New Orleans heading up the defense of that city against the British during the War of 1812; his debut as a presidential candidate was a decade away. Key, meanwhile, was a member of a volunteer militia organized to defend Washington against a British invasion. And that invasion came, in August of that year, and Key and the rest of the militia marched out of the city to meet an advancing force of redcoats at Bladensburg, MD. The Americans had superior numbers, but the well-drilled British soon sent them into a chaotic retreat back to the city, allowing the British to enter Washington and set fire to the Capitol and White House.

The British then left Washington, being more interested in another target: Baltimore. Meanwhile Key, stung by the rout at Bladensburg, was spoiling for redemption. And he unexpectedly found it when a friend, Dr. William Beanes, himself a member of an informal anti-British militia in Maryland, was captured and held as a prisoner. When Key heard of his client’s imprisonment—on a ship in Baltimore Harbor —he rode to the rescue. When Key reached Baltimore, the British agreed to release Beanes, but, to prevent the Americans from revealing the British battle plans, both Key and Beanes would have to remain in shipboard custody until after the attack on Baltimore.

It was while on that ship in Baltimore Harbor awaiting his release that Key witnessed the Sept. 13–14 bombardment of Fort McHenry, the event at the core of the poem he would soon write. When Key saw the huge, 15-star American flag still aloft after a night of assault, he realized the fort had withstood the British attack and felt the surge of vicarious revenge he had been spoiling for since the Bladensburg debacle.

It’s not clear whether Key intended the verses he wrote shortly after the battle to be set to music. He was an avid amateur poet, writing some four dozen poems that we know of, all of them in the formal, flowery style of the “Banner,” many on patriotic or religious themes. But he was no composer; “Key was unmusical at best and possibly tone deaf,” wrote his biographer Marc Leepson. Within days after the battle, copies of the poem he had entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry” had been set to the tune of the old drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and not long after was renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the publisher of the sheet music. The song very quickly spread far and wide, the early 1800s equivalent of a viral video; it provided a quick morale boost to an infant country worrying whether it might long survive. It was more than a century later, in 1931, when the song became the official national anthem.

Performances of the “Banner” today before sporting events and other occasions use only the first of the four-verse song/poem that Key composed. That serves not only to prevent tedium, but also obscures some troublesome lines in the subsequent verses. The most startling is this couplet from the third verse:

No refuge could save the hireling or slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave;

Here Key expressed his fury at the British army’s encouraging slaves to escape from their masters, promising them freedom if they made it to British lines and joined them in fighting the Americans. Key’s wishing the “gloom of the grave” to African Americans seeking their freedom is not something we necessarily would want to celebrate in our national anthem; hence, these lines have been swept to the fringes of historic memory.

Key’s views of African Americans and the institution of slavery were fraught with contradictions. As a lawyer he sometimes took African Americans as clients, including slaves petitioning for freedom, and in 1825 argued, in a case before the Supreme Court, in favor of freeing slaves being trafficked to the United States by the Spanish and Portuguese (he lost). However, Key was a bitter opponent of those abolitionists who would have former slaves live as free people in America. Rather, he was a leading proponent of “colonization,” the movement that advocated sending freed slaves to Africa. His advocacy of expelling African Americans from their native country helped lead to the founding of Liberia, a nation carved out of land stolen from West African peoples and settled by displaced former slaves. And, as mentioned above, Key himself was a slaveholder.

Key’s friendship with President Jackson earned him an appointment as US attorney for DC, the chief prosecutor of crimes in the District. In this role his racial attitudes came to the fore during his prosecution in 1836 of Reuben Crandall, a DC botanist. Someone spotted an abolitionist pamphlet in Crandall’s office and reported him to the authorities, and Key led an aggressive prosecution to convict him of trying to “excite an insurrection.” The only evidence against Crandall was his possession of the abolitionist tract; there was no proof that he ever spoke out about slavery or distributed abolitionist literature. Crandall was held in jail for eight months awaiting trial. He was eventually found not guilty by a jury, but his long jailing ruined his health and he died two years later at the age of 30. The hysteria generated over the charges against Crandall led to the city’s first race riot, during which a which a white mob destroyed a popular restaurant owned by one of the city’s early African American entrepreneurs.

One more overlooked couplet in the “Banner” deserves attention – this one in the fourth verse:

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto, “In God is our trust;”

And so Key not only gave us our national anthem and a motto to engrave on our currency and coins, but also his blessing for us to intervene in foreign lands, so long as our cause is “just.” And when would it not be, when God is on our side?

Therefore, the next time you hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a sporting event, don’t let the words pass in one ear and out the other. Remember what they say, including the words you don’t hear. Remember Key and what he stood for. For not only is the promise of America flawed; its national anthem and composer had their feet of clay as well. And if this encourages you to take a knee, all the better.


What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life. By Marc Leepson. Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835. By Jefferson Morley. Knopf Doubleday, 2013.

The Collected Poems of Francis Scott Key. Edited by David B. McCoy. Spare Change Press, 2012.

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