A Deep Dive On The Man Who The Francis Scott Key Bridge Is Named After
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A Deep Dive On The Man Who The Francis Scott Key Bridge Is Named After

The Man Behind The Star Spangled Banner also owned slaves. He was complicated to say the least.

How much do you know about Francis Scott Key? You're certainly familiar with the Baltimore bridge named after him that came tumbling down after the Dali container ship destroyed one of the bridge's support piers.

Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner. Thanks to my high school classmate, Jefferson Morley, whose book Snow-Storm in August features Key, I know much more than I did. There is another book named Snowstorm in August (without a hyphen) by Marshall Karp, which I’m sure is a fine book, but not the one I’m talking about.

I remember that Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a ship, and when dawn came, he was amazed to see the US flag still flying over the fort. I knew he was aboard a British ship, hoping to negotiate the return of his friend Dr. William Beanes, who’d annoyed British forces who had returned from sacking the Capitol to the point where they arrested him. This was two years into the War of 1812. I didn’t know Lieutenant Francis Scott Key had been leading troops defending the Capitol until they ran in fear. Not in an organized retreat, just running. Until Key found his friend was being held captive, he was hiding in his Georgetown home. The British troops took over the Capitol like it was January 6th with Rear Admiral George Cockburn sitting in the Speaker’s chair, except when they left, they burned the place down.

The way Francis Scott Key felt about Black people is somewhat complicated. He came from a family that owned many enslaved people, as did his wife. He owned slaves and lived in a city, Washington DC, with a relatively large population of free Black men and women. There came the point during Key’s stay there when freedmen outnumbered the enslaved.

Francis, often called Frank, was a young attorney who often took on Black clients when many lawyers would not do so. He was known as “the Black’s” lawyer. Still, he disdained the free Black people, considering them a menace to white people. He spoke publicly of his views, calling them “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

Others have claimed while he made the statement, he was expressing the views of others. As proof, they cite the fact he freed seven slaves during his lifetime without sending them to Africa, though he publicly advocated colonization. I say it’s just as likely he was too cheap to spend the money.

Key was an advisor to more than one President, having helped out James Madison and Andrew Jackson in particular, not so much the two Presidents sandwiched in between. In those days, presidents had to help manage the city as well as the country and often found themselves resolving sticky situations, though there was a Mayor.

Racial tension ran high, and the “Negro Question” was being decided in Washington more so than anywhere else in the nation. It became the primary topic in the Halls of Congress. New York abolitionists and some from overseas flooded the city with anti-slave pamphlets alleged to stir up the enslaved people as if they weren’t already motivated to be free.

There were three prominent schools of thought on the subject.

  1. The enslaved should be freed immediately and given all rights as citizens.
  2. The enslaved should be freed and colonized, sent to Liberia or Central America.
  3. The enslaved people should never be freed as enslavement was their lot in life.

Francis Scott Key was definitely in the second group, as was Abraham Lincoln, who believed unleashing four million Black people on the population and integrating them into society would never do.

While a young lawyer, Key might have been considered “the Black’s” lawyer, but as his career advanced and he became the city’s District Attorney, that claim could no longer be made. He was Washington, DC’s chief prosecutor and seemed to be hard on Blacks and whites alike. I found no mention of him attempting to stop the practice of slave patrols capturing free Black people at night and selling them into enslavement, which was prevalent at the time.

There was a lot of racial unrest in the city; the enslaved wanted their freedom. A Black man named John F. Cook formed the Philomathean Talking Society, where young Black men met and discussed the day’s issues. He also handed out the forbidden antislavery publications from the newly-formed American Antislavery Society. In 1835, Cook would be the Secretary of the 5th Annual Negro Convention in Philadelphia, where he helped write the convention’s declaration of war on slavery.

“We rejoice that we are thrown into a revolution where the contest is not for landed territory but for freedom. . . . Let no man remove from his native country, for our principles are drawn from the book of Divine Revelation, and are incorporated in the Declaration of Independence, ‘that all men are born equal.’”

Francis Scott Key viewed the abolitionists as a scourge that should be run out; he continued to think little of free Black men, some of whom were rising too high in society, as was restauranter Beverly Snow, featured in the story. Snow was almost lynched after a rumor spread he’d spoken ill of white women, though no individual ever stepped forward saying they heard him do so.

Key was also willing to convict an enslaved 19-year-old Arthur Bowen to his death by covering up evidence of his innocence of attempting to kill three women with an axe, including his mother. Cook was indeed drunk and possessed an axe, but he never raised it or threatened the women.

Those looking to claim that Key is a hero will find ample evidence to back them up, though proof of his cowardice also exists. The third verse of his Star Spangled Banner, which denigrates the “hirelings and slaves,” takes on more meaning when you understand what that meant to Key. Over a thousand enslaved people from the area had taken up the offer of the British during the War of 1812 to join their forces and be free after the war. Key might have worried that his slaves would kill him in the night. He would later be influenced by a revolt at Southhampton, where a young preacher named Nat Turner killed 55 white people while seeking freedom for himself and others. Key manumitted two male slaves shortly afterward, technically allowing them to buy their freedom.

Key is credited with not being harsh to his slaves. I wonder about his thoughts as he watched regular coffles of the enslaved march through the city, walking in pairs, chained at the feet and yoked at the neck to whatever plantation was their destination. They might have gone by boat to New Orleans or on foot to Atlanta.

I ask you not to judge Key or his times from the 1,000-word story I write now. I highly recommend you get and read Snow-Storm in August, which is as well-researched and detailed a book as I’ve ever read. Jefferson Morley provided context in describing this era, whereas I previously only had facts. Thank you, Jefferson, for the enlightenment, which hopefully I can pass along to others.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.