Francis Scott Key was largely a man of his time

By Jessica Strand - Staff Reporter



Francis Scott Key, while racist from a 21st century point of view, was somewhat progressive for his time, experts on the man said.

"In 21st century terms, he had what we would call racist views – and for the last hundred years or so," said Marc Leepson, historian and author of a biography on Francis Scott Key titled What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. "You have to always be conscious of not looking at something that happened a couple hundred-plus years ago through 21st century eyes."

Francis Scott Key is the author of The Star-Spangled Banner, the United States' national anthem, and has sparked a debate at Highline as to whether it should be sung at commencement this year due to a line in its original form that contains the word "slaves," and the author's racist views on non-whites.

Key was born in 1779 to a slave-owning family, in the state of Maryland -- which was a state where slavery was legal, Leepson said.  He was a religious man, who spoke out against slave-trafficking, and earned a reputation for defending free blacks as well as slaves in court in Washington, D.C.  

On the other hand, he also bought and sold slaves his entire life, and defended slave catchers in court, Leepson said.

"They [slave catchers] would capture runaway slaves and it wouldn't be quite legal -- there would be a court action, either criminal or civil, and he defended them," Leepson said.  "So it's just another contradiction -- but if you're a lawyer I guess that's what you do, you defend people -- your clients -- to the best of your ability. 

"On the other hand, he did defend free blacks and slaves without charging them.  So there is this dichotomy of him being a religious man who thought that slavery was a moral evil, and yet he owned slaves -- he bought and sold individuals for his whole life. So it's a fact, and you can't run away from it," Leepson said.

In 1816 Key became a founding member of a controversial organization called the American Colonization Society which was dedicated to ending slavery, but in a different way than abolitionist groups.  

"The idea was that free blacks -- not slaves, they really emphasized it would only be free people -- would be sent to a colony on the West Coast of Africa. This happened, and it became a colony, and then the country of Liberia," Leepson said.

Many prominent politicians from the south were strong supporters of the colonization society, or personally involved with the society, Leepson said.

Abolitionists were strongly against colonization because they said it was a way to get blacks out of America.

"It's not like they were going back to Africa, they'd never been to Africa -- they were born in this country," Leepson said.

Key was an anti-abolitionist because in his eyes the abolitionists were too radical, Leepson said.

"The abolitionists wanted it [slavery] to end tomorrow, -- he thought that was too radical of a concept, that it couldn't work -- it would be chaotic if that happened. The main way that he thought slavery eventually could be ended was through colonization," Leepson said.

Key saw abolition as a threat to the US economy, said Dr. Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan, and author of an upcoming book on the Star-Spangled Banner that will be titled Oh Say Can You Hear: A Colorful History of the Star-Spangled Banner.

"The organization [the American Colonization Society] certainly felt that slavery was wrong and it needed to be ended, but it needed to be ended in a way that didn't upset the status quo," Dr. Clague said. "So you didn't liberate the slaves and leave all these white plantation owners destitute because all of their wealth is locked up in slaves.

"If you're a plantation owner -- and at the time slavery is legal so you have a huge amount of wealth locked up -- the idea that somehow all these people would be free would be really threatening to you because it would be like the stock market crashing today," he said.

As a lawyer, Francis Scott Key found himself on a September evening in 1812 being detained on a British-guarded ship in the Baltimore Harbor.

"Key witnessed the battle from an American ship -- a cruise ship -- that was under guard by the British," Dr. Clague said. "Because he had negotiated the release of a prisoner and while doing that had observed certain secrets about the enemy -- like how many ships they had -- and might have overheard some things about their plans … he was detained and told that he had to hang out until the battle was over, but the British thought it would only take a few hours anyway."

The line in the third verse of the original text that has sparked debate at Highline says: "No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave."  

The third verse has not been used since around 1914, but the verse likely did refer to escaped slaves that joined the British forces, Dr. Clague said.

 "It's likely that Francis Scott Key is referring to what were known as the Colonial Marines and they were escaped black slaves … who were enticed by the British with the promise of freedom if they would fight for the British during the war of 1812 against the Americans," he said. 

The British offered slaves their freedom for fighting for them as a terror tactic against southern Americans.  For someone who believed that slavery should be done away with in a way that didn't disrupt the economy, Key was angered by this tactic.  Offering some African-American's freedom -- and not all -- brought up the possibility of race riots, Dr. Clague said.

"For him, that threat was part of the fear that the British military was trying to create among the white American populace, particularly in the South," he said.  "He's really angry about that tactic so he's mocking the hirelings who are the British soldiers who are paid, and then slaves is probably reference to these Colonial Marines."

There were references to the American revolutionaries not wanting to be enslaved by England due to taxation, but in the case of The Star-Spangled Banner it is likely that Key was talking about the Colonial Marines, Dr. Clague said.

The Star-Spangled Banner was originally titled The Defense of Fort McHenry and was written in 1814, two years after Key witnessed the battle take place.  The lyrics were written to a certain tune that many people already knew, Dr. Clague said.

"One of the myths of the Star-Spangled Banner is that Francis Scott Key wrote a poem that someone else later set to music, and that's incorrect," he said. "Francis Scott Key imagined a new set of lyrics to a melody that he already knew."

At a time before radios and audio recordings, if people wanted to hear music they would have to sing it themselves.  People had many melodies memorized, and lyrics would be written to go with a melody people already knew, Dr. Clague said.

"Broadside ballads is what they're called, because the newspaper was called the broadside and a broadside ballot would be like a newspaper lyric," he said. "Even though it looks like a poem, because when you publish a newspaper it doesn't have music notes, … it's a song."

Before video recordings, putting lyrics to a song that would make the individual feel a certain way was a way to help that person really feel like they were there, Dr. Clague said.

"The emotional impact of the music helped communicate the emotional impact of the news," Dr. Clague said.

Key initially had a thousand copies of the broadside printed to give to the thousand soldiers who defended the fort. There were white and black soldiers fighting to protect the fort, he said.

"The song in many ways is in praise of the Americans who defended Baltimore, and that included whites and blacks," Dr. Clague said. "Although the word 'slaves' is a big problem for a lot of people -- and it is for me as well -- the song itself is not inherently racist because it's praising whites and blacks as it's also criticizing whites and blacks."

There are well over 100 sets of lyrics that have been written to the tune The Star-Spangled Banner uses, he said. The lyrics used as the national anthem is only a response in a long-running dialog, Dr. Clague said.

"When Francis Scott Key wrote his lyrics he was actually joining a conversation that had already happened," he said. "There were dozens and dozens of lyrics that predated Francis Scott Key's Star-Spangled Banner, and then there were even more lyrics that have happened since then."

Another set of lyrics in the long-running dialog is a rewrite of the Star-Spangled Banner titled Oh Say Do You Hear, which was an abolitionist lyric.

"It is basically saying that -- its last images is the Star-Spangled Banner is at half-mast and you can't fly it at the top of the flagpole until slavery is ended," Dr. Clague said.

The Star-Spangled banner represents a changing story, he said.

"I hope that people today can see it representing a country that has the possibility -- that has changed and that can change more rather than it being stained by the attitude of the time in which it was created," Dr. Clague said.

However, there is nothing saying the national anthem must be sung at ceremonies, and if individuals feel it is unrepresentative of them, it should be addressed, Dr. Clague said.

"There are lots of other patriotic songs that would honor the nation in the same way," Dr. Clague said. "Creating the possibility of change also creates the possibility that there could be a new national anthem at some point.

"That's really the function of the song," he said. "But if it's not working that way for certain people than it's worth having a serious conversation about what that means."

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