“The Star Spangled Banner” celebrates its 200th birthday Sept. 14. Originally titled “Defence of Ft. M’Henry,” Francis Scott Key wrote it “on the back of a letter he fished out of his coat pocket.” And now we sing its verses to the tune of a well-known 18th century drinking song.
In What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life, historian Marc Leepson brings us into the moment when a 34-year-old American patriot — standing on the deck of a British ship in the aftermath of the Battle of Fort McHenry — was moved to compose sentiments that have stirred our patriotism for two centuries.
His name is about all that most of us know about Francis Scott Key. After zipping through Leepson’s brisk 200-page biography, we might want to pay better attention to the intent behind the words we sing. "Freedom for all" was far from being realized in the United States in 1814.
Key’s life and professional choices provide a list of ironies that still haunt us. From his birth in 1779 to his death in 1843, Key was steeped within the slave-holding tradition that defined the young nation’s economic, cultural and political agendas.
He bought, sold and owned slaves, opposed Abolition and was in favor of sending free Blacks back to Africa. He opposed “trafficking” of new slaves into the U.S, and as a respected lawyer, he represented both slave owners’ rights and Blacks’ rights.
He was a forerunner for public education, yet reserved home schooling and tutors for his own family of eleven children. He professed justice for American Indian tribes, yet engineered the loss of the Creek Indians’ rightful property and adhered to Andrew Jackson’s policy of forced removal.
The list of ironies goes on. Leepson is a fair-handed biographer. He shows all aspects of a complex man who has to make his own way to fortune or folly.
In learning about 19th Century events and personalities we become more acquainted with what we are as a nation — and how an American patriot’s poem came to mate with a bawdy English drinking song. Leepson takes us on a fascinating journey.