What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life

  • Marc Leepson
  • Palgrave Macmillan
  • 256 pages
  • Reviewed by Megan Wessell
  • July 4, 2014

A man of many contradictions, the very private Francis Scott Key wrote the words that inspired a nation.

In 1814, Francis Scott Key witnessed the Battle of Baltimore from the deck of a ship in the harbor and was inspired to write a poem entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which became the basis for America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.” As this year marks the 200th anniversary of that most famous song, it seems an ideal time to learn more about the man behind it.

In his latest book, What So Proudly We Hailed, Marc Leepson seeks to shed some light on the fascinating life of Francis Scott Key, who was much more than just a poet of one famous song. The result is an enjoyable and thoroughly engaging look at a fascinating historical figure whose great accomplishment has been remembered even if the memory of his life has faded in the shifting sands of time.

Key’s role in American history was greater than merely creating our national anthem. He was a lawyer who loved his work and worked on some major cases of the time, but he did not become interested in politics until Andrew Jackson ran for president. He was a family man who had a large brood. He was also a man of many contradictions, one of which was Key’s distaste for slavery while still owning slaves.

This contradiction becomes a focus for the book, as Leepson tries to make connections between what Key thought and what he actually did. Key’s owning of slaves was not unlike that of many other rich, white people’s in the early part of American history. There were many who thought that slavery was a disgraceful institution, but nevertheless owned other humans themselves (including, notably, Thomas Jefferson). Leepson discusses Key’s beliefs and why he may have made some of the decisions he did, which I thought was interesting. It can be very difficult to try to guess at why people make the choices they do; however, Leepson draws convincingly from letters and other personal accounts, and he backs his conjectures with evidence.

Leepson examines both the public and private sides of Francis Scott Key. Perhaps surprisingly, Key’s poetic side was well hidden. The book opens with an account of how Key enjoyed public speaking. A lawyer by trade, he was a fantastic orator and loved to speak in front of people. He also loved poetry, but this side of him was much more private. He wrote his own poetry but would only ever share it with the closest of family members — a strange privacy for a man whose poem would became the national anthem for the United States. Naturally, Leepson relates the transformation of this poem into an anthem. It is an interesting journey to follow.

A lot of mystery surrounds Key’s “Defence of Fort M’Henry” and how it became the basis for the national anthem. Many people believe that Key did indeed intend his writing to be a poem. Others believe that Key might have been trying his hand at writing a song, as the rhythm just happens to match that of a famous song of the era. By the accounts of some of those who knew Key best, he was not a musical man and the chances of him writing a song were unlikely. The day after Key wrote the poem, it appeared at a Baltimore publishing house — a strange place for a poem written by a man who kept his work very private to end up. Fortunately, Leepson sheds some light on these mysteries.

He also renders the historical detail around the story’s setting well. Key was a lawyer and spent much of his time between Frederick, Maryland (then called Frederick Town), and Georgetown (referred to as George Town). The area was going through rapid changes as Washington, DC, took over from Philadelphia the role of nation’s capital. Frederick was the second largest city in Maryland during Key’s time and marked the border between the eastern and western part of the country. The District, on the other hand, was still under development: The Capitol was surrounded by woods, and the city’s streets were largely unpaved.

The start of this book feels similarly unpolished — e.g., the author begins with a series of dates that are out of order and, thus, hard to follow — but it quickly finds its stride and becomes engaging. If you’re looking for a book to read in honor of our national anthem’s anniversary, this would be a delightful pick.

Megan Wessell is a voracious reader who is proud to call the Washington, DC, area home. Having grown up in Frederick, MD, she fully understands just how awesome Francis Scott Key really is.

 

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