There are many famous lawyers, and then there are people who went to law school and became famous for something besides practicing law. The names Howard Cosell and Bert Sugar come to mind (with the Olympics going on I must be fixated on sports). One of the most famous of the lawyers who became famous for something else besides law was born on this day in 1779. That person was Francis Scott Key, famous lawyer and author of the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner.
Key attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD and apprenticed in his uncle’s law office. During the War of 1812 Key found himself on a British ship attempting to obtain the release of Dr. William Beane who was a British prisoner. Key was forced to stay on the ship during the attack on Baltimore because he had become familiar with the disposition of the British forces. Key witnessed the bombardment of Ft. McHenry located in Baltimore Harbor and composed the poem “Defense of Ft. McHenry” the next day. The poem was published on September 20, 1814 and later became the national anthem by act of Congress in 1931. This is what we generally know about Francis Scott Key today. However, in his lifetime, Key was more famous as a lawyer than as a poet.
Key practiced law in the District of Columbia for many years before being appointed the United States District Attorney for the District of Columbia. Key argued many important cases, while in private practice and later as the D.C. District Attorney. Some of his more famous cases involved the construction of a bridge over the Potomac River and he was involved in a libel case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (White v. Nicholls, 44 U.S. 266). Key also participated in a case in which a Spanish slave ship was seized off the coast of Florida and the fate of the slaves was to be determined. The United States, asserting that the slave trade was illegal according to U.S. law sought the release of the slaves. The representatives of Spain and Portugal challenged this position asserting the slaves were the property of their citizens. In the Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled against the United States, but in his opinion praised the advocacy of the attorneys representing the United States, including Francis Scott Key (The Antelope, 23 U.S. 66). Key was appointed District Attorney for the District of Columbia in 1833 in which he handled several high-profile cases and showed himself to be an outstanding public servant. As district attorney Key prosecuted the suspect in an attempted assassination of President Jackson. He was also sent, as a special representative of President Jackson, to negotiate a dispute between the State of Alabama and the federal government over land claimed by Alabama, but by treaty was to be given to the Creek Indians.
His eulogy was delivered by Supreme Court Justice Thompson (because Key’s brother-in-law Chief Justice Roger Taney was unavailable) in which he praised Francis Scott Key thusly:
Mr. Key’s talents were of a very high order. His mind was stored with legal learning, and his literary taste and attainments were highly distinguished, and added to these was a private character which holds out to the Bar a bright example for imitation. The loss of such a man cannot but be sincerely deplored.
In his own time Francis Scott Key was recognized as a poet, but as a lawyer he was famous.