During the War of 1812, Key, accompanied by the British Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner, dined aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant, as the guests of three British officers: Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross. Skinner and Key were there to negotiate the release of prisoners, one of whom was Dr. William Beanes, a resident of Upper Marlboro, Maryland who had been arrested after putting rowdy stragglers under citizen's arrest. Skinner, Key, and Beanes were not allowed to return to their own sloop because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units and with the British intent to attack Baltimore. As a result of this, Key was unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on the night of September 13–14, 1814.
At dawn, Key was able to see an American flag still waving and reported this to the prisoners below deck. On the way back to Baltimore, he was inspired to write a poem describing his experience, "Defence of Fort M'Henry", which he published in the Patriot on September 20, 1814. He intended to fit it to the rhythms of composer John Stafford Smith's "To Anacreon in Heaven", a popular tune Key had already used as a setting for his 1805 song "When the Warrior Returns," celebrating U.S. heroes of the First Barbary War. (Key used the "star spangled" flag imagery in the earlier song.) It has become better known as "The Star-Spangled Banner". Under this name, the song was adopted as the American national anthem, first by an Executive Order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (which had little effect beyond requiring military bands to play it) and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.
In 1832, Key served as the attorney for Sam Houston during his trial in the U.S. House of Representatives for assaulting another Congressman. He published a prose work called The Power of Literature, and Its Connection with Religion in 1834.
Key, a slave-owner himself, used his position to suppress opponents of slavery. In 1833, he indicted Benjamin Lundy, editor of the anti-slavery publication, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, and his printer, William Greer, for libel after Lundy publishing an article that declared, "There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people in this district," referring to the 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 1836, Key prosecuted New York doctor Reuben Crandall, brother of controversial Connecticut school teacher Prudence Crandall, for "seditious libel" for possessing a trunk full of anti-slavery publications in his Georgetown residence. In a trial that attracted nationwide attention, Key charged that Crandall's actions had the effect of instigating enslaved people 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?"
While an active legal defender of slavery, Key was considered a decent master. He emancipated seven slaves from his own household and was sometimes publicly critical of slavery's cruelties. He also sometimes helped blacks bring cases to the circuit court.
The Howard family vault at Saint Paul's Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.
The Key Monument Association erected a memorial in 1898 and the remains of both Francis Scott Key and his wife, Mary Tayloe Lloyd, were placed in a crypt in the base of the monument.
Despite several efforts to preserve it, the Francis Scott Key residence was ultimately dismantled in 1947. The residence had been located at 3516–18 M Street in Georgetown.
Though Key had written poetry from time to time, often with heavily religious themes, these works were not collected and published until 14 years after his death. Two of Key's religious poems used as Christian hymns include "Before the Lord We Bow" and "Lord, with Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee".
Two bridges are named in his honor. The first is the Francis Scott Key Bridge between the Rosslyn section of Arlington County, Virginia, and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Scott's Georgetown home, which was dismantled in 1947 (as part of construction for the Whitehurst Freeway), was located on M Street NW, in the area between the Key Bridge and the intersection of M Street and Whitehurst Freeway. The location is illustrated on a sign in the Francis Scott Key park.
A monument to Key was commissioned by San Francisco businessman James Lick, who donated some $60,000 for a sculpture of Key to be raised in Golden Gate Park. The travertine monument was executed by sculptor William W. Story in Rome in 1885–87. The city of San Francisco recently allocated some $140,000 to renovate the Key monument, which was about to be lost to environmental degradation if repairs weren't made. Repairs were recently finished on the monument located in the music concourse outside the de Young Museum.
^"Assassination of Philip Barton Key, by Daniel E. Sickles of New York". Hartford Daily Courant. March 1, 1959. Retrieved 2010-11-30. "For more than a year there have been floating rumors of improper intimacy between Mr. Key and Mrs. Sickles They have from time to time attended parties, the opera, and rode out together. Mr. Sickles has heard of these reports, but would never credit them until Thursday evening last. On that evening, just as a party was about breaking up at his house, Mr Sickles received among his papers..."
^ ab"Francis Scott Key". New York Times. March 14, 1897. Retrieved 2008-02-17. "Francis Scott Key, the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," is to have a monument erected to his memory by the citizens of Baltimore, Md., the city in which he died. The monument will be in the form of a bronze statue of heroic size, with a suitable pedestal – the work of Alexander Doyle, a sculptor of this city. ... There is a monument to Key in Golden Gate Park. It was executed by William W. Story ..."
Preservation of the Residence of Francis Scott Key, Special Collections Research Center, Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, The George Washington University. This pamphlet was written by the Columbia Historical Society in an effort to save the Francis Scott Key home from destruction in the 1940s.