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Originally published Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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Biography of Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote our anthem

“What So Proudly We Hailed,” a new biography of Francis Scott Key by Marc Leepson, chronicles the varied life of the man who wrote the song that became our national anthem.


The Washington Post

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“What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life”

by Marc Leepson

Palgrave Macmillan, 234 pp., $26

According to a contemporary listener quoted in this biography, Francis Scott Key was tone deaf and “could not tell one tune from another.”

He was inspired to write the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” while watching the British navy bombard Baltimore during the War of 1812. His words matched a popular tune of the time, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Whether he consciously wrote his lyrics with that tune in mind is unknown, but it quickly became popular. It became the national anthem in 1931.

Known as Frank, Key was one of the first lawyers to make a career in Washington by segueing back and forth between his law practice and politics. He was a confidant of President Andrew Jackson, who appointed him U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Key was a superb lawyer with an ingratiating manner that made him popular. He appeared before the Supreme Court often, always acquitting himself well. He, his wife and their 11 children and moved back and forth from his Maryland farm to Washington.

Key was intensely religious and at one point considered entering the ministry. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Key’s character was his advocacy for African Americans, whose cases he accepted free of charge. Many of them involved free blacks who were hijacked into slavery, as depicted in the film “Twelve Years a Slave.” He won many of those cases.

But he was also a slaveholder and an outspoken opponent of abolition. He was a leader of the American Colonization Society, which sought to send free men and women of color “back” to Africa, where few, if any, of them had ever been. Key was a smart guy with a social conscience, and his cognitive dissonance about race was typical of his time.

This book tends to ramble, but Marc Leepson makes the story flow and offers an interesting snapshot of one of the best-known — and least-known — figures in American history.



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