Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that the author did not mention the role of Key’s brother-in-law, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, in the Dred Scott decision. That subject is discussed in the book’s introduction.
According to a contemporary listener quoted in this biography, Francis Scott Key was tone deaf and “could not tell one tune from another.” He was inspired to write the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” while watching the British navy bombard Baltimore during the War of 1812. His words matched a popular tune of the time, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Whether he consciously wrote his lyrics with that tune in mind is unknown, but it quickly became popular. It became the national anthem in 1931.
Known as Frank, Key was one of the first lawyers to make a career in Washington by segueing between his law practice and politics. He was a confidant of President Andrew Jackson, who appointed him U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Key was a superb lawyer with an ingratiating manner that made him popular. He appeared before the Supreme Court often, always acquitting himself well. He, his wife and their 11 children moved back and forth from their Maryland farm to Washington, where he maintained his law office.
Key was intensely religious and at one point considered entering the ministry. He broke away from St. John’s Church because he did not believe it did enough for the poor. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Key’s character was his advocacy for African Americans, whose cases he accepted free of charge. Many of them involved free blacks who were hijacked into slavery, as depicted in the film “Twelve Years a Slave.” He won many of those cases.
But he was also a slaveholder and an outspoken opponent of abolition. He was a leader of the American Colonization Society, which sought to send free men and women of color “back” to Africa, where few, if any, of them had ever been. His best friend was his brother-in-law Roger B. Taney, who became chief justice of the United States. Key was a smart guy with a social conscience, and his cognitive dissonance about race was typical of his time.
This book tends to ramble, but Marc Leepson makes the story flow and offers an interesting snapshot of one of the best-known — and least-known — figures in American history. Key led an interesting life, but the lyrics he wrote for our national anthem are his only claim to fame.
By Marc Leepson
Palgrave Macmillan. 234 pp. $26