Slave Owner Francis Scott Key Wrote the “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Christian Religious song writer Francis Scott Key Owned Slaves and Wrote the “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Slavery and American Colonization Society
Key purchased his first slave in 1800 or 1801, and owned six slaves in 1820. Mostly in the 1830s, Key manumitted (set free) seven slaves, one of whom (Clem Johnson) continued to work for him for wages as his farm’s foreman, supervising several slaves. The Baltimore Sun Wrote, Perhaps the country should consider also replacing the national anthem because poet Francis Scott Key owned up to 20 other human beings.
Key throughout his career also represented several slaves seeking their freedom in court (for free), as well as several masters seeking return of their runaway human property. Key, Judge William Leigh of Halifax and bishop William Meade were administrators of the will of their friend John Randolph of Roanoke, who died without children and left a will directing his executors to free his more than four hundred slaves. Over the next decade, beginning in 1833, the administrators fought to enforce the will and provide the freed slaves land to support themselves.
Key was considered a decent master, and publicly criticized slavery’s cruelties, so much that after his death a newspaper editorial stated “So actively hostile was he to the peculiar institution that he was called ‘The Nigger Lawyer’ …. because he often volunteered to defend the downtrodden sons and daughters of Africa. Mr. Key convinced me that slavery was wrong–radically wrong.”
Key was a founding member and active leader of the American Colonization Society, and its predecessor influential Maryland branch, the primary goal of which was to send free African-Americans back to Africa. However, he was removed from the board in 1833 as its policies shifted toward abolitionist.
A slave-owner himself, Key used his position as U.S. Attorney to suppress abolitionists. In 1833, Key secured a grand jury indictment against Benjamin Lundy, editor of the anti-slavery publication, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, and his printer, William Greer, for libel after Lundy published an article that declared, “There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people in this district [of Columbia]”. Lundy’s article, Key said in the indictment, “was intended to injure, oppress, aggrieve, and vilify the good name, fame, credit & reputation of the Magistrates and constables” of Washington. Lundy left town rather than face trial; Greer was acquitted.
In August 1836, Key agreed to prosecute botanist and doctor Reuben Crandall, brother of controversial Connecticut school teacher Prudence Crandall, who had recently moved to the national capital. Key secured an indictment for “seditious libel” after two marshals (who operated as slave catchers in their off hours) found Crandall had a trunk full of anti-slavery publications in his Georgetown residence, five days after the Snow Riot, caused by rumors that a mentally ill slave had attempted to kill an elderly white woman. In an April 1837 trial that attracted nationwide attention, Key charged that Crandall’s actions instigated slaves to rebel. Crandall’s attorneys acknowledged he opposed slavery, but denied any intent or actions to encourage rebellion. Key, in his final address to the jury said:
“Are you willing, gentlemen, to abandon your country, to permit it to be taken from you, and occupied by the abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the negro? Or, gentlemen, on the other hand, are there laws in this community to defend you from the immediate abolitionist, who would open upon you the floodgates of such extensive wickedness and mischief?”
A jury acquitted Crandall.
This defeat, as well as family tragedies in 1835, diminished Key’s political ambition. He resigned as district attorney in 1840. He remained a staunch proponent of African colonization and a strong critic of the antislavery movement until his death.