Who is Francis Scott Key? What to know about the namesake of collapsed Baltimore bridge

A major bridge that collapsed in Baltimore after getting hit by a ship is named for Francis Scott Key, who turned a wartime experience in the early 19th century into the poem that became the national anthem of the United States.

Key was a prominent attorney in the region during the first half of the 19th century. In September 1814, two years after the War of 1812 had started between the United States and the British, he was on a ship to negotiate an American prisoner’s release and witnessed a 25-hour British bombardment of Fort McHenry.

From his vantage point on the Patapsco River, the 35-year-old Key was able to see that the American flag stayed up through the hours of darkness and was still at the top of the fort when the morning came. He turned it into a poem.

“And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,” as one of Key’s original lines says. The rockets and bombs later became plural.

Initially known as “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” it was set to the music of a British song and became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Over the 19th century, it became increasingly popular as a patriotic song. In March 1931, then-President Herbert Hoover officially made it the country’s national anthem. The Maryland bridge named for him was opened in 1977.

While the first verse of the anthem is the most well-known, there are a total of four stanzas; in the third, there’s a reference made to a slave. Key, whose family owned people and who owned enslaved people himself, supported the idea of sending free Black people to Africa but opposed the abolition of slavery in the U.S., according to the National Park Service’s Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

His personal history has made him a controversial figure in some quarters; in June 2020, a statue of him in San Francisco was taken down.

Key died in 1843.

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