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The Tone Deaf, Bad Poet Who Wrote The National Anthem

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 22, 2022 3:02 am

The Tone Deaf, Bad Poet Who Wrote The National Anthem

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 22, 2022 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Francis “Frank” Scott Key was not someone you would have picked to write our national anthem… but he did and right after one of America’s great military victories.

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Purchase all free clear mega packs today. Our iHeartRadio Jingle Ball coming live from New York to the CW app and CWTV.com on December 9th. This is Our American Stories and as you know we love to tell stories about everything here on this show, particularly history. And all of our history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. For the last century Americans have honored our country by singing words that were written by a tone deaf lawyer to the tune of a British social club song. Francis Frank Scott Key was not someone you would have picked to write our national anthem. Here's Mark Leibson, author of a biography on Key, what so proudly we hailed, to tell us more about the unlikely events that brought us our national anthem. And here's the story of how Francis Scott Key, the big Washington DC lawyer, the pious patriot, wrote the words that will become our national anthem, what will become known as the Star Spangled Banner. This story starts during the War of 1812 with the Battle of Bladensburg.

Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside of Washington DC. This is one of the most embarrassing defeats in US military history. The British who, you know, changed the complexion of the War of 1812 after defeating Napoleon in 1814 and sent thousands of crack troops over here. They were raiding up the Chesapeake Bay. They came to the outskirts of Washington and they overran just a pathetic group of last minute thrown together militia men on August 26th. Overran them and came into Washington and most people remember that they burned the White House, the Treasury Department and other public buildings.

An embarrassing defeat, not so much in the terms of how many were killed. There weren't many because the British just moved right through. So after the Battle of Bladensburg, the British left Washington. They went back to the Chesapeake Bay and they got on their ships and they headed toward Baltimore, which people didn't know at the time. But when they did, they took prisoner a man named Dr. William Beanes, who owned a farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, which was on the way out east of Washington DC. And he made the mistake of taking a couple of British stragglers prisoner.

When the Brits saw them, they were not very happy about it. And so they took Dr. Beanes prisoner. He was an older man. He was in his 60s. They took him away and they headed up to Baltimore, which was, like I said, not known at the time. Prisoner releases and prisoner exchanges were common during the War of 1812.

It happened all the time. And the man who was chosen to argue for Dr. Beanes release was a man named Francis Scott Key. He was a big lawyer in Washington, DC. He was born and raised in Maryland in what was then Frederick County, north of the city of Frederick. He went to law school.

He read the law at St. John's College in Annapolis, and he had a thriving practice in Washington, DC. He was known for his eloquence in front of juries. He could talk people into things. He was asked by the family of Dr. Beanes to arrange his release. He was a member of a prominent family in Washington, Francis Scott Key was. By the way, they called him Frank, so everybody called him Frank.

So we'll call him Frank for the rest of the story. Frank Key was asked by the Beanes family to arrange the release. He got permission from President Madison.

And on September 2nd, 1814, he got on his horse and he rode up to Baltimore. When he got to Baltimore, he met up with a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel named John Skinner. Skinner's job was to arrange prisoner releases and prisoner exchanges.

So Key met up with Skinner. They got on a small American ship and they went out and looked for the British fleet and they found them. And they were welcomed on board the flagship of the British fleet. They made their case.

They did it over lunch or dinner. Wine was consumed and Frank used his powers of persuasion and the British agreed. One of the things that helped his cause was that before they left Washington, before he left Washington, Key picked up a packet of letters, letters from British prisoners who had been taken prisoner during the Battle of Bladensburg and the sacking of Washington, D.C. And they testified to the fact that they were being treated very well by the Americans. So that convinced the Brits and they said, we'll let Dr. Beanes go.

However, we have some work to do. We are going to destroy the city of Baltimore. Now, the British purposely did not burn any private homes in Washington. They only went after public buildings, but not so in Baltimore. Why did they want to destroy Baltimore? Well, you know, we may forget, but as in the case of most of our wars, before we got into the War of 1812, it was a very controversial thing. Basically, it was a north-south split with southerners generally in favor of going to war and northerners against it. Francis Scott Key was born in the north and grew up there, but you really have to categorize him as a southerner and outlook.

You know, Maryland was a state in which slavery was legal. His family owned slaves. He grew up on a plantation and he did have a conservative southern outlook, but he was against the Americans going into the War of 1812.

But Key's views changed on the war when the Brits started invading up the Chesapeake Bay. He actually joined a Georgetown militia unit. He went out to the Chesapeake, served as a quartermaster officer.

He did not serve very long, just about a week, and he got tired of the war, so he quit and he went back to Georgetown. But he did support the war after that. Now, why were the Brits so intent on destroying Baltimore? Well, the country was divided, but not in Baltimore. The people of Baltimore were very war hawkish in the War of 1812.

And, you know, the U.S. was not prepared militarily to go into this war, especially with the Navy. So the call went out to private ship owners if they wanted to let their ships be used in the cause against the Brits. They could, and Baltimore led the country in lending private ships.

They were called Baltimore Clippers. They were very fast ships, and they gave the Brits a lot of trouble on the seas. And the Brits did not like this.

One British newspaper writer referred to Baltimore as a nest of thieves. So, Francis Scott Key, Dr. Beanes, and Skinner were taken back to their American ship. Sometimes you hear that they were held prisoner during the Battle of Baltimore.

That was not quite true. They couldn't leave, but it wasn't like they were below decks, you know, on bread and water. They were on the deck, and they had a bird's eye view of what became the largest sustained bombing in military history to that time. The Brits had 19 ships out there in Baltimore Harbor. Four of them were bomb ships. These were squat ships with giant 250-pound cannons firing away.

On that night of December 13th, 14th, some 1,500 bombs, mortars, and rockets were fired onto the city of Baltimore. Rockets. You know, this was only the second time in the history of war that rockets were used. They were called Congreve rockets.

They looked like what we know rockets look like, long and cylindrical with fins on the bottom, but they didn't have any guidance system. The rockets read glare, and bombs were bursting in air, but they weren't aimed very well, and there was very, very... Well, there was no loss of life in Baltimore or at Fort McHenry, which fired back with plenty of cannon on its own, although the people in Baltimore were terrified because the houses were shaking. I mean, that's how terrifying the bombardment was. Plus, there was a giant storm that night. A thunderstorm could have been a tornado, could have been a hurricane.

We don't really know. But it was an amazing night of 1,500 bombs, rockets going off, thunder, lightning. And there also was a land component to the Battle of Baltimore, which we don't have to get into very much here, but just to know that the Brits tried, under the cover of that bombing, to attack, and they got pretty close to the city, but their leading general was shot and killed off of his horse, and that sort of took the steam out of the land component. Plus, Baltimore was fortified much better than Washington was, you know. The people in Baltimore could see the fires of Washington burning on August 26, so they were prepared. And we're listening to Mark Leipsohn tell an important chapter of American history, the War of 1812.

The Revolutionary War was continuing. This was chapter two. And great storytelling by Mark Leipsohn on the life of Francis Scott Key. When we come back, more of Mark Leipsohn. His book, by the way, What So Proudly We Hailed. Pick it up at Amazon for the usual suspects. When we come back, more of this remarkable American story.

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Let's return to author Mark Leipsohn. It lasted 25 straight hours, but then, in the middle of the night, at about 3 o'clock in the morning, everything stopped. And Francis Scott Key and Beenz and Skinner, who were pacing the deck, didn't know what happened. It was dark, it was foggy, rainy, and all they knew that was the battle was over.

So they were pacing the deck and they waited until the dawn's early light. And Key looked out of his glass and he could see that Fort McHenry had a flag flying over it. But, you know, those flags were big. They were made of wool.

It had rained all night. The flag was just hanging there. He couldn't tell what it was. That flag was taken down. Another flag was put up.

There was a little bit of a breeze. And what did he see? He saw that our flag was still there. And this inspired him to write the words that would become the national anthem. You know, Francis Scott Key, Frank Key was a amateur poet.

He wasn't a good amateur poet, but his poetry was never meant to be shown beyond family and friends. Which makes it even more ironic that the words that he wrote that day, you know, hundreds of millions of Americans know those words. The other thing that people might not know about the Battle of Baltimore is that it was a turning point in the War of 1812. There were peace talks going on, but after the British slunk out of Baltimore, you know, Key realized when he saw the Stars and Stripes, our flag was still there, the British ships were gone. We had won. The peace talks continued.

The Treaty of Ghent was signed in January of 1815. But Frank knew that Baltimore was saved. He had a letter in his pocket. Now, people often say that he wrote the words on an envelope. Well, you know, technically there were no envelopes back then.

There were no envelopes. It wasn't technically, but letters themselves were the envelope. So on the back of the letter, Frank scrawled a few verses.

Tea and Skinner and beans were released. He went back to Baltimore to a hotel and finished the four stanzas in the hotel. Now, what happened next, there are a lot of question marks about. We don't know the details. One reason is because even though Francis Scott Key lived for 30 more years, he spoke in public about it just once, did not mention the flag and all the letters that he wrote that have been uncovered. Well, he mentions it only once in a letter to a friend in early October. And then he writes about that night.

But he doesn't again mention writing the words that will become national anthem. He talks about how brave the Americans were and how much he didn't like the British officers. But we know about what happened next was from a book that came out in the 1850s. And it was written by Key's brother in law, Roger Brooke Taney, who was married to Frank Key's only sister.

They were very close, the two families. And we know Roger Brooke Taney as chief justice of the United States. He claims that this is what Frank told him what happened. Now, we can corroborate a lot of this with good primary source evidence, such as newspaper stories and some journals and diaries.

So here's what we think happened after that. Somebody could have been Taney, could have been another one of Key's brother in laws, took what Frank wrote to a printer, because we do know that the next day those verses appeared on a broadsheet and they were plastered all over Baltimore. In fact, people, the defenders of Fort McHenry had them. The title was not The Star-Spangled Banner.

The title was Defense of Fort McHenry. And it said on there to be sung to the tune of an Acreon in Heaven. So what is an Acreon in Heaven?

An Acreon in Heaven is a song that was the theme song of a British men's club called the Anacryontic Society. And these men would meet at taverns for dinner and for drinks. They would play their song. They would drink.

They would discuss issues of the day. You often hear that the national anthem is sung to the tune of a British drinking song. Not quite true.

It's not in the category of ninety nine bottles of beer on the wall. It was a little more high minded than that, but it was the theme song of a kind of like a highfalutin men's book club that that met in taverns. So there's a little bit of truth to that. Now, it was not uncommon for the words of songs to be put to tunes that people knew in the early 19th century.

And that's exactly what happened with this one. And there were the people who know this stuff have counted something like 75, 50 to 75 songs that were put to an Acreon in Heaven, including Adams and Liberty, which was a very popular patriotic song. We do know that in November of 1814, the song was printed on sheet music by Carr's Music Store in Baltimore, and the title was changed to The Star Spangled Banner. And, you know, there's been controversy or just, you know, historians have not agreed until relatively recently whether or not Francis Scott Key had in mind the fact that he was writing a song that night. Until relatively recently, historians believe that he wasn't because he wasn't a songwriter. He did write to hymns. You know, he was a very religious man. He almost went into the Episcopal priesthood. There's a letter that he wrote to the Bishop of Baltimore in which the bishop had asked him to join the priesthood.

And Frank said he really wanted to. But, you know, he had a family and he needed to feed his family. He didn't have the he needed to make money as a lawyer. He had he wound up having 11 children. He was very active in his church.

He was a lay minister and he was very religious as the words The Star Spangled Banner indicate. So was he writing a song or not? Historians have changed their mind in the last four or five years, and the people who studied this now believe that he did have the song in mind, even though he wasn't a musical man.

There are several reasons for this. One is that he wound up writing these words in rhyme and meter that fit exactly the song. And also that, you know, a few years earlier, there was a dinner given in Washington, D.C. for Stephen Decatur, the hero of the Tripolitan Wars. And a song was written for that and played that night by Francis Scott Key.

There's an article in the newspaper in Georgetown that describes it and it includes the words. And in those words are the words Star Spangled Banner. So putting that all together, historians do believe that Frank had in mind that he was writing a song, even though he was just a poet, an amateur poet that night. The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until officially until 1931. The United States did not have a national anthem until 1931. But it was one of the songs that was played at patriotic gatherings such as Fourth of July.

Within a few years after he wrote it, all throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century became more and more popular. But still, it was only one of many songs that were played, including Yankee Doodle Dandy and others. And it wasn't until 1931 that Congress enacted a resolution that made the Star Spangled Banner the national anthem. It was controversial.

There were hearings on Capitol Hill. People argued against it, saying it was hard to sing, which people still argue today. They said it was written by a Brit, the tune, and, you know, others said a glorified war. The proponents of it brought in a soprano to sing it on Capitol Hill during the hearings. And that sort of turned the tide. And Star Spangled Banner became the national anthem in 1931, even though it was written in 1814.

And one last thing, talking about a little bit of irony here. I told you that Francis Scott Key was not a good poet. And if you don't believe me, just read his poetry.

You can read it online. But he also was, you know, unmusical. There was an article that I found when I was doing research for my book, What So Proudly We Hailed, the biography of Francis Scott Key, that had an interview with a Philadelphia newspaper man with one of Francis Scott Key's granddaughters.

And, you know, they always would ask, you know, tell us about your grandfather, tell us about your father. Did he play an instrument, et cetera, et cetera? And the woman said, no, as a matter of fact, he was unmusical.

And then she told an anecdote, which may or may not be true. She said that he was in Alabama in 1833. He was doing some legal work for President Andrew Jackson and he was at some kind of gathering. And as would happen, a band was there and they played the Star Spangled Banner. And so Francis Scott Key was sitting with some people. The band was playing. And after it was over, the granddaughter told this newspaper reporter, my grandfather turned to the woman next to him and said that was a beautiful air, a beautiful tune.

What's the name of it? So, you know, it's probably apocryphal, but it does go to show that that man who wrote that song, the man who wrote the song that so many hundreds of millions of Americans know the first verse of, was a bad poet and he most likely was tone deaf. And beautiful work on that piece by Robbie, as always, and a special thanks to Mark Leibson, author of What So Proudly We Hailed. A tone deaf bad poet ends up writing our national anthem. As always, our stories, our history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. The story of the tone deaf bad poet who wrote the national anthem. Francis Scott Key's story, Frank Key's story here on Our American Stories. The Kid Laroi, AJR and more. The biggest holiday party of the year.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-11-22 07:49:06 / 2022-11-22 07:58:47 / 10

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