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Was Frances Scott Key also a Lawyer in Addition to Writing the Star-Spangled Banner?

Key was a lawyer and obviously had other talents as well. Key was born in 1779; his father was a lawyer and a judge. Though Frances considered becoming an Episcopal priest, he decided to go into law instead. He “read” law under his brother-in-law and Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase. He passed the Bar in 1801.

He was considered a good lawyer, practicing in Frederick, Maryland and Washington, D.C. His law practice was successful and was involved in several important cases, appearing even before the United States Supreme Court. He was a part of the Burr Conspiracy where Vice-President Aaron Burr was accused of treason. His arrest for treason actually occurred in Alabama as Burr was accused of wanting to start a new country. Remember of course that Burr had shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel.

Key was against a war with Great Britain as he believed the issues could be worked out diplomatically. War of course did occur, known as the War of 1812. Key became a member of the Georgetown Light Field Artillery and was a witness to a battle outside of Washington, D.C. later that year. When the British burned the Presidential mansion it was believed that Baltimore would be attacked next. A physician, Dr. William Beanes who had detained some British soldiers who had plundered the locals in Maryland was arrested by the British. Beanes family asked Key to intervene and with the permission of President James Madison he set about to obtain Beanes release.

Before beginning his trip he asked wounded British soldiers to write letters favorable to Beanes treatment of those soldiers and their wounds. Key had to make his way under a flag of truce before he could ask for the release by the British officer in charge. The British officer initially declined to set Dr. Beanes free but after reading the several letters from the wounded British on how well they were treated by Dr. Beanes, the decision was made to release him.

The British realized however that Key, Beanes and another that had accompanied Keys had seen too much as they were preparing to attack, Fort McHenry. Key and the others were secured away from the battle area. Key watched the battle which began on September 13th, and continued for about twenty-five hours. As the early morning hours of September 14, 1814 begin to change to light he was inspired upon seeing the flag of McHenry still flying high. Key pulled out an envelope from his pocket and wrote the words down as he was inspired. The poem was titled “In Defence of Fort M’Henry” and the prints were distributed by his brother-in-law.

It was not until 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the Star-Spangled Banner should be played at certain official events but it was under President Herbert Hoover in 1931 that it was made the national anthem.

While Independence Day has no linear connection to Key, I hope that Key’s participation as an American lawyer, patriot and poet inspires us when we hear the Star-Spangled Banner on Independence Day.

As the late Paul Harvey would say, “now you know the rest of the story.”

As always if you do not have an attorney, ask a trusted friend or family member or contact the Alabama State Bar, Lawyer Referral service.


Ronald A. Holtsford, Esq., Ronald A. Holtsford, LLC, 7956 Vaughn Road, Box #124, Montgomery, AL 36116, (334) 220-3700,

This article is informative only and not meant to be all inclusive. Additionally this article does not serve as legal advice to the reader and does not constitute an attorney- client relationship. The reader should seek counsel from their attorney should any questions exist. ”No representation is made that the quality of legal services performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.”


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