Book Reveals Francis Scott Key's Bigoted Side

'Star Spangled Banner' author had mixed record on race

By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff

Posted Jul 28, 2014 9:19 AM CDT

(Newser) – Francis Scott Key, member of President Andrew Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet" who also served as the US attorney for the District of Columbia, is probably best known for penning the lyrics to the "Star Spangled Banner" 200 years ago. (He borrowed the melody from an English tune popular at the time, according to the Washington Post.) But the national anthem contains a lesser-known third verse about the "foul footsteps" of slaves who fought for the British, and it betrays another side to a complicated man—a side that is explored in a new book. On the one hand, Key offered free legal help to some slaves fighting for their freedom; on the other, he sometimes represented slave owners trying to take back their slaves. Key himself owned slaves and appears to have believed that doing so "was the white man's constitutional right," says one expert. He likely helped spark a race riot in 1835 by aggressively prosecuting a black man accused of attempted murder, but he also defended the suspect from a lynch mob.

"The kind of slave trafficking where the masters beat the hell out of black people did offend his humanitarian principles as a white liberal," that historian tells the Baltimore Sun. "But his solution wasn't to abolish slavery. It was to ask the slave masters to be nicer." Key also co-founded the American Colonization Society, which sent free blacks to Africa to establish what would one day become Liberia. More on these revelations is laid out in the first biography of Key written in more than 75 years—What So Proudly We Hailed by Marc Leepson—and the first to confront what Leepson calls Key's "cloudy" legacy on slavery, which the author points out was more common than not at the time. Key believed blacks were inferior to whites in important ways, but, the author points out, so did Abraham Lincoln. (Read why one US college banned the "Star Spangled Banner" from being played at sporting events.)

A flag is unfurled in the outfield during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner before a baseball game.
A flag is unfurled in the outfield during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner before a baseball game.   (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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