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'Star-Spangled Banner' writer had complex record on race

Nowadays, almost no one sings the third verse of Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner," and for good reason.

The first verse, in which a young man peers into a foggy and rain-soaked dawn to find out whether his country has been conquered in battle, is urgent, open-hearted and honest. It's as stirring today as it was when Key wrote those words 200 years ago. But the third verse, which claims that the "foul footsteps" of the slaves who fought on the side of the British have polluted America, is stunningly offensive to modern ears.

"My students really struggled with that line," says Karsonya Wise Whitehead, an author, historian and former Baltimore public school teacher who prepared a lesson on "The Star-Spangled Banner" for her middle-school classes.

"They didn't understand why the national anthem would talk that way about hirelings and slaves."

According to a new biography of Francis Scott Key, the patriot who so eloquently expressed his love for his country and the bigot whose actions helped incite a race riot in the District of Columbia were two sides of the same complicated man.

"What So Proudly We Hailed" by Marc Leepson rescues Key from the bland profile to which he has been relegated by the popular imagination: as an unremarkable guy in the right place at the right time.

Leepson's biography isn't just the first to be written of Key in more than 75 years; it is the first to confront head-on the more unsavory aspects of Key's life. The two previous biographies were published in the 1930s; one, for instance, devotes a scant paragraph or two to Key's role in sparking Washington's first race riot in 1835, Leepson says, while the second ignores the disturbance altogether.

Individually, the high and low points of Key's long career as a member of President Andrew Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet" and his eight-year term as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia are well-documented and have been known all along, at least among history buffs. It's no secret, for instance, that Key owned slaves or that he was vehemently opposed to abolition.

Leepson's contribution is to put all the pieces together so Key's life can be examined as a whole.

"Virtually every American knows the name Francis Scott Key," the author says. "But they know just one thing about him. There was a lot more to the man than just that he wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner' under dramatic circumstances."

He points out that Key lived for more than 28 years after his song was published.

"Key was an important player in the young republic," Leepson says. "He helped shape the national debate on slavery, which was the No. 1 overriding issue of the day. But his legacy regarding slavery was cloudy."

And yet the Francis Scott Key who emerges from the pages of Leepson's book is one of those people upon whom the sun always seemed to shine. He was handsome and well-educated, born to an aristocratic family on a plantation in Carroll County, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the good things that life had to offer.

He was lusty (if the contents of an erotic poem attributed to him are to be believed), a family man and the father of 11 children. People liked "Frank," as he was called, and smiled when they saw him coming.

Key was possessed of formidable diplomatic and oratorical skills, and from an early age, career success seemed assured. Deeply pious, and with a rather conventional turn of mind, Key was highly intelligent without being especially intellectual.

In his entire life, the man wrote exactly one inspired verse.

Despite a lifelong habit of penning rhymes, Key was "a really bad amateur poet," Leepson says, "with one brilliant exception."

Key's poetic oeuvre — a leaden mash of cliches enlivened by one flash of honesty and insight — seems not unlike his record regarding race relations. Both are expressions of vision.

Is Key to be celebrated for the few instances in which he clearly saw and stood up for what was right, at one point, even putting himself in danger? Or should he be held accountable for his — and his society's — blind spots?

"I'm very torn about Key," Whitehead says. "Risking his life to defend black people was not something that he had to do. It was something that he chose to do. So was his decision to own slaves. His contradictions were America's contradictions."

It's true that he thought black people were intellectually and morally inferior to whites, and said so in no uncertain terms. But so did most other white people in the 19th century, including Abraham Lincoln.

A few white people, notably Quakers, were far-sighted enough to see enslaved blacks as their equals, according to Annette Palmer, chair of Morgan State University's history and geography department. But they were a small minority and were regarded as the radical fringe.

"You have to put Key's views in context," Palmer says. "You can't look at the 19th century through the eyes of the 21st century. In 1814, slavery was everywhere in society. Most people thought that was a perfectly normal way for life to be."

So if Key "was an early and ardent opponent of slave trafficking," according to Leepson, it wouldn't necessarily strike his peers as inconsistent that he owned slaves himself.

What raised eyebrows was that Key also donated his legal services to some African-Americans who were fighting for their freedom under a 1783 law that prohibited slaveholders from other states from bringing their human chattel into Maryland to live. Key won several of those cases.

"It was rare for a white lawyer to do that," Leepson says. "That was a gutsy thing for him to do."

But on other occasions, Key represented slave owners trying to recapture their "possessions."

Is there any wonder that Key's peers described him variously in Leepson's book as "a friend of men of color" and as a bigot whose "little heart … cannot be bigger than a cherry"?

On the one hand, Key widely is believed to have helped spark the Snow race riot of 1835 by his overly aggressive prosecution of a young black man who was accused of trying to kill his mistress.

On the other hand, it was Key who stood in front of a jail door and faced down the white lynch mob that wanted to skip the trial and hang the suspect, Arthur Bowen, from the nearest tree.

The journalist, author and historian Jefferson Morley views Key as a man who cynically sacrificed his ideals to his ambition.

"Key was not torn by slavery," says Morley, whose 2012 book, "Snow-Storm in August" chronicles the riot.

"He was pro-slavery, period. He thought that slavery was the white man's constitutional right, period. The kind of slave trafficking where the masters beat the hell out of black people did offend his humanitarian principles as a white liberal.

"But his solution wasn't to abolish slavery. It was to ask the slave masters to be nicer."

Leepson's book devotes considerable space to Key's role in co-founding the American Colonization Society, which sought to solve America's race problem by shipping thousands of free blacks (but no slaves) to Africa to establish a homeland there. The result is the modern nation of Liberia.

The Colonization Society has a mixed record, to say the least. On the plus side, Leepson writes that the Society was a factor in drying up the slave trade in that part of Africa.

But there were staggering minuses.

Most of the early settlers succumbed to disease, Leepson writes. The few who survived gunned down hundreds of native Africans who objected to the seizure of their lands. What's worse, colonization did nothing to end slavery in America or to improve the lives of the men, women and children already toiling in captivity.

As misguided as Key's colonization efforts were, Whitehead can't bring herself entirely to condemn the impulse.

"There's something to be said for black people having their own land where they can be in control of their own destiny," she says.

When she thinks of Key's contradictory attitudes toward race, she can't help thinking of similar inconsistencies in the lives of other revered national figures. As she puts it:

"I look at Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and Francis Scott Key, who believed one thing but lived another, who seem to have been a friend to black people but who then enslaved them, who believed that black people should make their own decisions but got upset when they fought on the side of the British for their freedom.

"Perhaps that's what it meant at that time to be a white man who had a conscience."

That's why Whitehead would hate for that third verse to be excised from "The Star-Spangled Banner." The first verse is all about hope and triumph and love for one's country. But it's the third verse, she says, that contains the deeper truth about America.

"It's when my students can see the flaws in our leaders that they start to see themselves as becoming one of those people," she says.

"I tried to teach them that making a difference isn't about being perfect. It's about making a decision."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life" was published June 24 by Palgrave Macmillan. $26, 256 pages.

If you go

Author Marc Leepson will read from his new biography at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11, at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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