Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Happy birthday, Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key
It is the birthday of lawyer Francis Scott Key (1779), who wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, America's national anthem, during the War of 1812.

On the night of September 13, 1814, Key was detained aboard a British prisoner ship anchored in Chesapeake Bay at Baltimore, where he had gone to negotiate the release of prisoners. He and Col. John Stuart Skinner, a fellow negotiator, were not allowed to return to the mainland because the British planned to bombard Fort McHenry and the negotiators had seen British positions up close.

Key watched the attack, and at dawn could see the American flag still waving, which he told the prisoners below deck. As he and Skinner returned to Baltimore that day, Key wrote a poem about the experience of the night, which he titled Defence of Fort McHenry. The attack became known as the Battle of Fort McHenry. The poem was published in a newspaper six days later.

As he wrote it, Key fit the poem to a popular British song, To Anacreon in Heaven, the official song of an 18th century British gentlemen's club. Key had used the rhythms of the song before for a poem he wrote in 1805 that celebrated American heroes in the war against the Barbary pirates.

Key's poem with the British tune was retitled The Star-Spangled Banner and became a popular patriotic song throughout the country. In 1889, the U.S. Navy began using it as the tune to be played when the flag was raised. It wasn't until 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed an Executive Order declaring it an official song, which meant that military bands had to play it. Still, 15 years passed before Congress made it the country's national anthem.

There were originally four stanzas to Key's poem but today only the first two are commonly used. Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes added a fifth stanza at the beginning of the Civil War. These lines appear in the fourth stanza: "Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.' " In 1956, the United States officially adopted "In God We Trust" as the national motto.

Key defended U.S. Rep. Sam Houston in his 1832 trial in the U.S. House for assaulting another congressman. Houston, frustrated about untrue accusations made by the congressman, had confronted him on Pennsylvania Avenue and beat him with a hickory cane. Key lost the case but Houston received a light reprimand.

Key served as U.S. district attorney and prosecuted Richard Lawrence for trying to assassinate President Andrew Jackson. Lawrence was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital.

Key published a book The Power of Literature, and Its Connection with Religion (1834). For 25 years, Key served as vice president of the National Bible Society, a non-denominational, nonprofit organization dedicated to publishing and distributing the Bible throughout the world.

The Star-Spangled Banner was first played at a baseball game in Philadelphia in 1897, and sporadically at games after that, but especially during the seventh-inning stretch of the first game of the 1918 World Series, and during the rest of that series. After World War II, it became a tradition at all professional baseball games. Today it is performed at the beginning of all pro soccer, basketball, football and hockey games, as well as NASCAR and motocross races.

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