Posted on March 29, 2024

Who Was Francis Scott Key, Controversial Poet the Bridge Is Named After?

Annabelle Timsit, Washington Post, March 27, 2024

In the fall of 1814 — 30 years after the United States won its independence from the British Empire — the two powers were once again at war. British Royal Navy vessels, after torching government buildings in Washington, D.C., sailed up the Chesapeake Bay with plans to bombard Fort McHenry, at the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor, and capture the city.

Behind enemy lines, three stranded Americans watched as the British fleet threw its might at the fort, bombarding it for 25 hours. Among them was lawyer Francis Scott Key, who wrote a poem about what he saw that later became America’s national anthem.

Now, 210 years later, Key is at the center of renewed public attention. On Tuesday, the Francis Scott Key Bridge, built in the 1970s near the Fort McHenry site and named for Key, partially collapsed into the Patapsco River after a freighter crashed into it — presumably killing at least six people.

The incident has shaken the city of Baltimore and brought renewed attention to the bridge and the historical figure it was named for.


{snip} “The Star-Spangled Banner” did not become the national anthem until more than a century after it was written because it was controversial, in part due to Key’s racist views. One section of the poem’s third verse, in particular, has come under scrutiny from those who say it was intended to mock or threaten African Americans who escaped slavery to join the British forces, who promised them land in exchange for their service:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And The Star-Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Long before Baltimore’s Key Bridge — one of two bridges in the D.C. metro area named after Francis Scott Key — partially collapsed, the legacy of the American lawyer and poet was a source of controversy. Many have argued that he should not be celebrated because of what the National Park Service has called his “conflicted relationship with slavery.”

As The Post previously reported, Key spoke of Black people as “a distinct and inferior race.” Key’s parents owned enslaved people on their plantation, Key himself owned six enslaved people, and his wife’s family were prominent enslavers in Maryland, according to NPS. As a lawyer, Key represented several enslavers in cases brought against enslaved people who had run away. According to NPS, “Key vehemently opposed abolition” and helped found a group that advocated for free people of color to emigrate from the United States.