Are you aware of the significance of the date September 14th in U.S. history? But for the actions of one person, the 14th of September would simply be 257th day of our calendar year. On that day in 1812, however, Francis Scott Key penned a poem that he later set to music, and the song he thus composed has become synonymous with liberty, strength, and prosperity to all Americans and billions of others throughout the world.
Born to Anne Phoebe Penn Dagworthy (Charlton) and John Ross Key on August 1, 1779 at the family plantation Terra Rubra, Fredrick County (now Carroll County), Maryland, Francis Scott Key entered the world at a time of great change and turmoil. His father John, whose parents had emigrated from England in 1726, was a lawyer, a judge and an officer in the Continental Army. Francis, following in his father’s footsteps, studied law at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and was also tutored by his uncle Phillip Barton Key.
Of English descent, Francis was an Episcopalian and worked as a lawyer, achieving the position of District Attorney. His legal practice would frequently take him to Washington D.C. where, in later years, he served in the defense of Sam Houston for assaulting a Congressman in 1832. In 1835, he prosecuted Richard Lawrence for the failed assassination of Andrew Jackson.
Always a poet at heart, he achieved lasting fame during the War of 1812. Accompanying American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner, he assisted in negotiating the release of several prisoners, including Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. While detained aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant as guests of three British officers – Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross, Key and Skinner witnessed the British naval attack on Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry in the early hours of September 14, 1814.
As the smoke cleared following the bombardment, Key observed an America Flag still flying over Fort McHenry. That image inspired him to write a poem describing the battle. “The Defense of Fort McHenry” was published in the Patriot on September 20, 1814. Key later fit it to the tune of composer John Stafford Smith’s “To Anacreon in Heaven.” We now know his composition as “The Star Spangled Banner.”
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ordered that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be played at military and other appropriate occasions. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a Congressional resolution making the “Star Spangled Banner” our national anthem.
On January 11, 1843, Francis Scott Key, after serving his God and country, died at the home of his daughter Elizabeth Howard in Baltimore and was interred at Old Saint Paul Cemetery. Later, his body was exhumed and placed in his family plot at Mount Olive Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland.
The Key Monument Association erected a memorial in 1898 and the bodies of Francis Scott Key and his wife were placed in a crypt at the base of the monument. Although he had written many poems and articles during his life, none – other than the poem from which the “Star Spangled Banner” was born – were published until years later
So, what have we learned about September 14th on our calendar? I guess we can sum it up in an old refrain uttered by Walter Cronkite as he closed his program: “What kind of a day was it, a day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times!”