Marc Leepson is a Vietnam veteran, historian, journalist, author of eight books, editor of this web page, and arts editor of The VVA Veteran. With What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pp., $26), Leepson has used his research, his clear prose style, and his story-telling talent to produce a brilliant book that brings history alive.
I learned everything I ever wanted to know about Frank Key (as he was known) and his song. Key was an important and contradictory figure in the Jackson years—involved in “Indian Removal” and on both sides of the slavery question in his private legal practice and as U.S. Attorney for Washington from 1833-41.
He believed slavery was evil, but he was also against Abolitionists. He was a slave holder and a very religious man who found nothing in the scriptures against slavery. He thought the solution was to send free blacks to Africa. But he did not commit himself to the program to the extent of accompanying them. Most white men who did died of fever.
When he observed the shelling of Fort McHenry by the British Navy during September 1814 Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, Key was not a part of the battle, but safely observing at a distance. So he had the time and presence of mind to compose on the back of an old letter the deathless words that became our national anthem.
Leepson’s use of quotes is stunning and effective. Sometimes he is even funny, as when he includes an advertisement for a lost black and white cow for which Key offers a reward of $5.
I’m sure it wasn’t funny to Frank, though. He was a sober and pious citizen who dedicated himself to his family and to his church. He was also a gifted orator and a compulsive amateur poet who seemed to never stop scribbling. He gave speeches “filled with biblical, patriotic, historical, and literary allusions.”
His success with parenting was hit and miss. Leepson’s details about Key’s children and their various foibles humanizes Key and helps make him more sympathetic.
Most men who could owned slaves in those days. Although it is hard not to judge him for his inconsistency, Key rode in a funeral procession in Washington, D.C., for a prominent African-American citizen—the only white man to do so. At the heart of Key is a great but not uncommon mystery, and Leepson has brought that mystery alive.
Marc Leepson’s website is www.marcleepson.com