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The Poet of the Flag: Francis Scott Key

by La Salle Corbell Pickett

Away back in the years, Terra Rubra, the colonial home of John Ross Key, spread out broad acres under the sky of Maryland, in the northern part of Frederick County. Girt by noble trees, the old mansion, built of brick that came from England in the days when the New World yet remained in ignorance of the wealth of her natural and industrial resources, stood in the middle of the spacious lawn which afforded a beautiful playground for little Francis Scott Key and his young sister, who lived here the ideal home life of love and happiness. Among the flowers of the terraced garden they learned the first lessons of beauty and sweetness and the triumph of growth and blossoming. At a short distance was a dense line of forest, luring the young feet into tangled wildernesses of greenery and the colorful beauty of wild flowers in summer, and lifting great gray arms in solemn majesty against the dun skies of winter. Through it flowed the rippling silver of Pipe Creek on its sparkling way to the sea. At the foot of a grassy slope a spring offered draughts of the clear pure water which is said to be the only drink for one who would write epics or live an epic. Beyond a wide expanse of wind-blown grass the young eyes saw the variant gray and purple tints of the Catoctin Mountains, showing mystic changes in the floodtide of day or losing themselves in the crimson and gold sea of sunset.

In this stately, old, many-verandaed home, looking across nearly three thousand acres of fertile land as if with a proud sense of lordship, the wide-browed, poet-faced boy with the beautiful dreamy eyes and the line of genius between his delicately arched brows passed the golden years of his childhood.

It is said that President Washington once went to Terra Rubra to visit his old friend. General John Ross Key, of Revolutionary fame. It may be that the venerated hand of the "Father of His Country"—the hand that had so resolutely put away all selfish ambitions and had reached out only for good things to bestow upon his people and his nation—was laid in blessing upon the bright young head of little Francis Scott Key, helping to plant in the youthful heart the seed that afterward blossomed into the thought which he expressed many years later:

I have said that patriotism is the preserving virtue of Republics. Let this virtue wither and selfish ambition assume its place as the motive for action, and the Republic is lost.

Here, my countrymen, is the sole ground of danger.

Seven miles from Annapolis, where the Severn River flows into Round Bay, stands Belvoir, a spacious manor-house with sixteen-inch walls, in which are great windows reaching down to the polished oak floor. In this home of Francis Key, his grandfather, the young Francis Scott Key spent a part of the time of his tutelage, preparing for entrance into St. John's College, the stately buildings of which were erected by a certain early Key, who had come to our shore to help unlock the gates of liberty for the world.

The old college, with its historic campus, fits well into the atmosphere of Annapolis, standing proudly in her eighteenth-century dignity, watching the rest of the world scramble in a helter-skelter rush for modern trivialities. Its old walls are in pleasing harmony with the colonial mansions poised on little hillocks, from which they look down on you with benevolent condescension and invite you to climb the long flights of steps that lead to their very hearts, grand but hospitable, which you do in a glow of high-pitched ambition, as if you were scaling an arduous but fascinating intellectual height. Having reached the summit, you stop an instant on the landing, partly for breathing purposes, but more especially to exult a moment on the height of triumph.

The four-storied college at the end of Prince George Street—regal Annapolis would not be content with a street of less than royal dignity—looks down with pleased approval on its wide expanse of green campus, for that stretch of ground has a history that makes it worthy of the noble building which it supports. It spread its greenery to the view of those window-eyes decades before the Revolution, and when that fiery torch flamed upon the country's record the college green furnished a camping place for the freedom-loving Frenchmen who came over the sea to help set our stars permanently into the blue of our national sky. In 1812 American troops pitched their tents on the famous campus, and under the waving green of its summer grasses and the white canopy of its winter snows men who died for their country's honor lie in their long sleep.

On the grounds east of the college buildings stands the Tulip Tree which sheltered the first settlers of Annapolis in 1649, and may have hidden away in the memory-cells of its stanch old heart reminiscences of a time when a bluff old Latin sailor, with more ambition in his soul than geography in his head, unwittingly blundered onto a New World. Whatever may be its recollections, it has sturdily weathered the storms of centuries, surviving the tempests hurled against it by Nature and the poetry launched upon it by Man. It has been known by the name of the "Treaty Tree," from a tradition that in the shade of its branches the treaty with the Susquehannoghs was signed in 1652. In 1825 General La Fayette was entertained under its spreading boughs, and it has since extended hospitable arms over many a patriotic celebration.

In "the antiente citie" Francis Scott Key found many things which appealed to his patriotic soul. On the State House hill was the old cannon brought to Maryland by Lord Baltimore's colony and rescued from a protracted bath in St. Mary's River to take its place among the many relics of history which make Annapolis the repository of old stories tinged by time and fancy with a mystic coloring of superstition. He lived in the old "Carvel House," erected by Dr. Upton Scott on Shipwright Street. Not far away was the "Peggy Stewart" dwelling, overlooking the harbor where the owner of the unfortunate Peggy Stewart, named for the mistress of the mansion, was forced by the revolutionary citizens of Annapolis, perhaps incited by an over-zealous enthusiasm but with good intentions, to burn his ship in penalty for having paid the tax on its cargo of tea.

If Francis Key had a taste for the supernatural, there was ample opportunity for its gratification in this haven of tradition. He may have seen the headless man who was accustomed to walk down Green Street to Market Space, with what intention was never divulged. Every old house had its ghost, handed down through the generations, as necessary a piece of furniture as the tester-bed or the sideboard. Perhaps not all of these mysterious visitants were as quiet as the shadowy lady of the Brice house, who would glide softly in at the hour of gloaming and, with her head on her hand, lean against the mantel, look sadly into the faces of the occupants of the room, and vanish without a sound—of course, it is undeniable that Annapolis would have only well-bred ghosts.

After graduation from St. John's, in that famous class known as the "Tenth Legion" because of its brilliancy, Francis Scott Key studied law in the office of his uncle, Philip Barton Key, in Annapolis, where his special chum was Roger Brooke Taney, who persuaded him to begin the practice of his profession in Frederick City. In 1801 the youthful advocate opened his law office in the town from which the Revolutionary Key had marched away to Boston to join Colonel Washington's troops. Francis Key invited his friend to visit Terra Rubra with him, and Mr. Taney found the old plantation home so fascinating that many visits followed. Soon there was a wedding at beautiful Terra Rubra, when pretty, graceful Ann Key became the wife of the future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

In 1802, at Annapolis, in the mahogany wainscoted drawing-room of the old Lloyd house, built in 1772, Key was married to Mary Tayloe Lloyd.

After a few years of practice in Frederick City, Francis Scott Key removed to Georgetown, now West Washington. Here at the foot of what is known as M Street, but was Bridge Street in the good old days before Georgetown had given up her picturesque street names for the insignificant numbers and letters of Washington, half a block from the old Aqueduct Bridge, stands a two-storied, gable-roofed, dormer-windowed house, bearing in black letters the inscription, "The Key Mansion." Below is the announcement that it is open to the public from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. daily, excepting Sunday. On a placard between two front doors are printed the words, "Home of Francis Scott Key, author of The Star-Spangled Banner," the patriotic color-scheme being shown in the white placard and blue and red lettering.

For more than a century the house has stood there, and the circling years have sent it into remote antiquity of appearance, the storms of time having so swept it with their winds and beaten it with their rains and bombarded it with snow and sleet and hail as to make difficult the realization that it was once the home of bounding, scintillant life, and that its walls in the years gone by were radiant with the visions and hopes and ambitions of a happy group of youthful souls. It stands at the foot of what is now a street of shops, and the wearing away of the decades have taken from it all suggestion of home surroundings.

Through a door at the left I passed into a wide hall, on the walls of which are some patriotic inscriptions. There is one, a quotation from President McKinley, that conveys an admonition the disregard of which leads to consequences we often have occasion to deplore: "The vigilance of the Citizen is the safety of the Republic."

At the right of the hall are two rooms, locked now, but serving as parlors when the sad old house was a bright, beautiful home. A steep Colonial stairway leads to a hall on the second floor, where again there are inscriptions on the walls to remind the visitor of his duties as a citizen of the nation over which the Star-Spangled Banner yet waves.

On the second floor the first sign of life appeared. A door stood slightly ajar, and in answer to a touch a tall woman with a face of underlying tragedy and a solitary aspect that fitted well with the loneliness of the old house appeared and courteously invited me to enter. She is the care-taker of the mansion, bears an aristocratic old Virginia name, and is wrapped around with that air of gloomily garnered memories characteristic of women who were in the heart of the crucial period of our history. I am not surprised when she tells me that she watched the battle of Fredericksburg from her window as she lay ill in her room, and that she witnessed the burning of Richmond after the surrender. I recognize the fact that life has been a harder battle, since all her own have passed over the line and left her to the lonely conflict, than was ever a contest in those days of war.

She tells me that the Key relics have all been taken to the Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia. What they were she does not know, for they were all packed in boxes when she first came to the Key mansion. The only object left from the possessions of the man who made that old dwelling a shrine upon which Americans of to-day ought to place offerings of patriotism is an old frame in a small room at the end of the hall. On the bottom of the frame is printed in large black letters the name, Francis Scott Key. Some jagged fragments within the frame indicate that something, either picture or flag, has been hastily and carelessly removed.

Finding no relic of the man whose life once glorified the now dark and gloomy house, I hold with the greater tenacity the mental picture I have of the old flag I used to see in the National Museum. Faded, discolored, and tattered, it is yet the most glorious piece of bunting our country owns to-day—the flag that floated over Fort McHenry through the fiery storm of that night of anxious vigil in which our national anthem was born.

In this old house on Bridge Street Francis Scott Key lived when he was Attorney for the District of Columbia, and in a small brick office adjoining his home he did the work that placed him in the front rank of the American bar.

St. John's Episcopal Church, not far away, where he was vestryman, has a tablet to the memory of Reverend Johannes I. Sayrs, a former rector, on which is an inscription by Key. In Christ Church is a memorial window dedicated to Francis Scott Key.

"It is a pity that the old house is to be sold," said a resident of Georgetown.

"Is it to be sold?" I asked. For a long time this fate has been hovering over the old Key home, but I had hoped, even when there was no hope.

"Yes," was the reply. "The ground is wanted for business buildings."

"A pity?" I said. "It is more than a pity; it is a national shame." Is there not patriotism enough in our land to keep that shrine sacred to historic memory?

It was from this house that Key set out September 4, 1814, to negotiate for the release of Dr. Beanes, one of his friends, who, after having most kindly cared for British soldiers when wounded and helpless, was arrested and taken to the British fleet as a prisoner in revenge for his having sent away from his door-yard some intoxicated English soldiers who were creating disorder and confusion. Key, in company with Colonel John S. Skinner, United States Agent for Parole of Prisoners, arrived at Fort McHenry, on Whetstone Point, in time to witness the effort of General Ross to make good his boast that he "did not care if it rained militia, he would take Baltimore and make it his winter headquarters."

They were on the ship Surprise, and, upon making their plea for their captive friend, were told that he had inflicted atrocious injuries upon British soldiers, and the Admiral had resolved to hang him from the yard-arm. The eloquence of Mr. Key, supplemented by letters written by British officers to Dr. Beanes, thanking him for the many kindnesses which they had received from him, finally won Admiral Cochrane from his vengeful decision. After the release of the captive the Americans were not permitted to return to land, lest they might carry information detrimental to the British cause. Thus Admiral Cochrane, who enjoyed well-merited distinction for doing the wrong thing, placed his unwilling guests in their own boat, the Minden, as near the scene of action as possible, with due regard for their physical safety, in order that they might suffer the mortification of seeing their flag go down. Two hours had been assigned, in the British mind, for the accomplishment of that beneficent result, after which "terms for Baltimore" might be considered.

For three days Key and his companions watched the landing of nine thousand soldiers and marines at North Point, preparatory to the attack on the fort, which was defended by a small force of raw militia, partly composed of the men who had been so easily defeated at Bladensburg. They were under command of Colonel George Armistead, who faced a court-martial if he should not win, for the Washington administration had peremptorily ordered him to surrender the fort.

Through the long hours of the 13th Key paced the deck of his boat, watching the battle with straining eyes and a heart that thrilled and leaped and sank with every thunder of gun and flash of shell. The day was calm and still, with no wind to lift the flag that drooped around its staff over Fort McHenry. At eventide a breeze unfurled its folds, and as it floated out a shell struck it and tore out one of its fifteen stars.

Night fell. His companions went below to seek rest in such unquiet slumbers as might visit them, but there was no sleep in the heart of Key. Not until the mighty question which filled the night sky with thunder and flame and surged in whelming billows through his own soul found its answer in the court of Eternal Destiny could rest come to the man who watched through the long hours of darkness, waiting for dawn to bring triumph or despair.

Silence came—the silence that meant victory and defeat. Whose was the victory? The night gave no answer, and the lonely man still paced up and down the deck of the Minden. Then day dawned in a glory in the east, and a glory in the heart of the anxious watcher. In that first thrill of joy and triumph our majestic anthem was formed.

Key took from his pocket an old letter, and on its blank page pencilled the opening lines of the song. In the boat which took him back to Baltimore he finished the poem, and in his hotel made a copy for the press. The next day the lines were put into type by Samuel Sands, an apprentice in the office of the Baltimore American, who had been deserted in the general rush to see the battle as being too young to be trusted at the front, and that evening they were sung in the Holliday Street Theatre. The next day the air was heard upon the streets of Baltimore from every boy who had been gifted with a voice or a whistle, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" was soon waving over the musical domain as victoriously as it had floated from the ramparts of Fort McHenry.



At the age of 35


It is in the great moments of life that a man gives himself to the world, and in the giving parts from nothing of himself, for in the gift he but expands his own nature and keeps himself in greater measure than before. May not he to whom our great anthem came through the battle-storm smile pityingly upon the futile efforts of to-day to supply a national song that shall eclipse the noble lines born of patriotism and battle ardor and christened in flame?

Thus it was that Francis Scott Key reached the high tide of life before the defences of the Monumental City, and to Baltimore he returned when that tide was ebbing away, and in view of the old fort, under the battlements of which he had fallen to unfathomable depths of suffering and risen to immeasurable heights of triumphant joy, he crossed the bar into the higher tide beyond. On a beautiful hill Baltimore has erected a stately monument to the memory of the man who linked her name with the majestic anthem which gives fitting voice to our national hopes.

Away on the other edge of our continent, in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, another noble shaft tells the world that "the Star-Spangled Banner yet waves" over all our land and knows no distinctions of North, South, East, or West.

In Olivet Cemetery, in the old historic city of Frederick, Maryland, is the grave of Francis Scott Key. Over it stands a marble column supporting a statue of Key, his poet face illumined by the art of the sculptor, his arms outstretched, his left hand bearing a scroll inscribed with the lines of "The Star-Spangled Banner," while on the pedestal sits Liberty, holding the flag for which those immortal lines were written.

Thus, perpetuated in granite, the noble patriot stands, looking over the town to which he long ago gave this message:

But if ever, forgetful of her past and present glory, she shall cease to be "the land of the free and the home of the brave," and become the purchased possession of a company of stock-jobbers and speculators; if her people are to become the vassals of a great moneyed corporation, and to bow down to her pensioned and privileged nobility; if the patriots who shall dare to arraign her corruptions and denounce her usurpations are to be sacrificed upon her gilded altar,—such a country may furnish venal orators and presses, but the soul of national poetry will be gone. That muse will "never bow the knee in mammon's fane." No, the patriots of such a land must hide their shame in her deepest forests, and her bards must hang their harps upon the willows. Such a people, thus corrupted and degraded,

"Living, shall forfeit fair renown,

And, doubly dying, shall go down

To the vile dust from whence they sprung,

Unwept, unhonored, and unsung."