The paradox of Francis Scott Key: Was he for or against freeing enslaved Black citizens?

“Star-Spangled Banner” writer defended slavery, but was a “zealous” advocate in freedom suits

Published on: June 14, 2022 8:30 AM EDT|Updated on: July 04, 2022 12:31 PM EDT

Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry.
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You don’t have to look hard to find Francis Scott Key. The name and likeness of the man who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” appear on bridges, highways, schools and, now, a nonprofit local news site whose name is inspired by his most famous creation. But he isn’t quite ubiquitous anymore.

Protesters have destroyed statues of Key in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Houston and San Francisco. There is a push to rename Francis Scott Key Middle School in Montgomery County, and a similar effort is underway to re-christen Francis Scott Key Hall at the University of Maryland.

So who was this man, memorialized for a song we sing only part of, one that celebrates a victory in a war that was more of a draw? He was a paradox: an enslaver who abhorred the slave trade, and a man who helped Black Marylanders sue for their freedom but couldn’t countenance a world with free Black citizens.

Those contradictions were “very typical of liberal-thinking Americans of his time,” said Jefferson Morley, whose book “Snowstorm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835″ discusses Key’s role in the lead-up to a race riot. “He is a very representational figure in his racism and in the politics of slavery.”

The colonization plan

Born near Frederick in 1779, Key grew up wealthy on a plantation, waited on by eight people his family had enslaved. He married Mary Tayloe Lloyd, whose family owned Frederick Douglass. His best friend, law partner and eventual brother-in-law was Roger Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the infamous Dred Scott decision — a ruling that declared Black people had no rights the white man was “bound to respect.”

Yet early in his law career, Key helped several Black families fight for their freedom when he believed the law was on their side — including cases when their owners had freed them but a dispute had held up their legal release from slavery, or they were living in a state or city that had abolished slavery, or because one of their ancestors was white.

During a time when many white lawyers would not defend Black clients, Key did. As a result, as recently as the 1990s, a Washington Post article lauded Key’s “participation in the anti-slavery movement.”

But Key didn’t take these cases because he believed all enslaved people should be free, said William G. Thomas III, whose book “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Changed Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War” discusses enslaved people who sued for their liberty.

“It’s a mistake to measure his position on slavery based on his position in freedom suits,” Thomas said. “He was a zealous advocate for his clients, not a guy trying to dismantle a system.”

Key saw no conflict between his work on behalf of enslaved people and his ownership of them. In fact, Key later declared his freedom work on behalf of Black people had “produced for them nothing but evil,” and claimed he could not “remember more than two instances, out of this large number, in which it did not appear that the freedom I so earnestly sought for them was their ruin.”

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Key did despise the slave trade, and worked to abolish importing of enslaved people. He was less interested in ending slavery itself.

Key was a founder and a vocal supporter of the American Colonization Society, initially known as the American Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of the United States. Enslaved Black Americans couldn’t be freed immediately, he reasoned, because slavery had corrupted them. And they couldn’t be freed slowly because they might rebel. His solution: Send them back to Africa.

In an 1838 letter to Rev. Benjamin Tappan, Key called Black Americans “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

When Key attempted to release a man he held as property by sending to Africa, the man refused. Key quietly freed him in Pennsylvania instead.

A plea for mercy

Key served as district attorney for Washington, D.C. for eight years under President Andrew Jackson. The job came with access to 10 constables who spent their time catching freedom-seekers — and sometimes grabbing free Black people off the streets to sell into bondage.

Key’s two most famous prosecutions were of Arthur Bowen, an enslaved man, and Reuben Crandall, a botanist in possession of anti-slavery literature. Both cases began within days of each other in August of 1835.

Bowen belonged to Anna Thornton, a Georgetown society widow. Her husband was William Thornton, the first architect of the Capitol and the longtime superintendent of the U.S. Patent Office. Maria Bowen, Arthur’s mother, was also enslaved by the Thorntons. Records describe Arthur as a “mulatto boy,” and it is likely his father was William Thornton. After William died, when Arthur was in his 20s, he began agitating for his freedom.

On August 4, 1835, Arthur Bowen attended a meeting of the Philomathean Talking Society, which the free Black teacher John Cook organized for Black men to read poetry and discuss freedom prospects. Arthur and a friend continued to talk and imbibe as he made his way home. Late in the night, he went into the house through the door his mother kept unlocked. He picked up an axe from the floor. He walked upstairs and opened the door to the unlocked bedroom where his mother, as well as Anna Thornton and her mother, all slept.

Maria woke up, declared her son drunk, and got him out of the room. But not before Anna Thornton, in a haze, shouted — falsely — that Arthur Bowen had killed her mother. Two neighbors came running. Arthur fled.

By the time he returned a few days later, the newspaper headlines blared: “Desperate Attempt at Murder, by a Negro in Washington.” He was arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill, known today as attempted murder.

Anna Thornton knew her false cry had endangered Arthur, who had never meant to hurt anyone. She pleaded her case to Key, offering to sell Arthur south immediately to protect his life. Key refused to amend the charges.

Arthur Bowen waited, manacled, for nine months to be tried. A mob called for his death, then burned many Black establishments in Washington, including John Cook’s church. Key eventually indicted the mob’s leaders. They spent less time in jail for destruction of property than Arthur did awaiting his trial. The riot’s aftermath led to major restrictions on Black residents of the district, even though they had done nothing wrong.

Desperate to fix her mistake and finding no help from Key, Anna Thornton wrote an 18-page letter to President Andrew Jackson, who ultimately pardoned Arthur. Anna Thornton upheld her end of the deal with Jackson and sold Arthur to a friend of the president’s. Maria Bowen never saw her son again.

Death at an early age

Six days after Bowen’s arrest, Key’s constables told him that a young botanist in Georgetown, newly arrived from New York, was spreading anti-slavery literature.

Reuben Crandall mostly used anti-slavery newspapers to wrap his plants. But after a neighbor saw one, Constable Madison Jeffers showed up demanding to see Crandall’s publications. They found about 160 pamphlets. Possessing them was not a crime, and they had no proof Crandall had distributed any. He was not printing them and did not have a press. But the mob outside clamored for him to be hanged, and the constables took him to jail. Key arraigned Crandall on a bevy of charges related to possessing and distributing seditious literature.

Crandall waited in jail a year; at his trial, Key called the Crandall matter “one of the most important cases ever tried here.” He asked the jury: “Are you willing, gentlemen, to abandon your country, to permit it to be taken from you, occupied by the abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the negro?”

Key lost. Crandall was freed, but his time in jail had weakened him, and he contracted tuberculosis. Two years after his release, he died. He was 31.

Where that leaves us

So how should we see Francis Scott Key? He opposed the slave trade but defended slavery. He took on freedom suits that few in his position would, but he vigorously prosecuted two innocent men and helped usher in laws that restricted Black freedom. He wrote our nation’s most revered song, but included a wretched verse that no one sings anymore, where “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

Whether or not we take Key’s name off our bridges and buildings, we should study and remember him. Like the flag in his song, the contradictions and hypocrisies that he represented are still there.

Rona Kobell is the co-founder of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.