Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Francis Scott Key (biographical details)

There's been some talk lately of the Star Spangled Banner and its author. This article, for instance, says that 'Key himself owned slaves, was an anti-abolitionist and once called his African brethren "a distinct and inferior race of people"' before going on to repeat claims that when Key wrote the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner ("No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave"), Francis Scott Key "was in fact taking pleasure in the deaths of freed black slaves who had decided to fight with the British against the United States."

I clicked on one of the links in the article, the one for "a distinct and inferior" race of people, and learned some interesting things. He wasn't all good, but he wasn't all bad either. Unsurprisingly, he was a man of the times he lived in, and it sounds like he was a pretty good one in many ways. Not in all ways, certainly, but a better man than you'd think if all you knew about him was that he was an "anti-abolitionist" who had owned slaves. Anyway, here's an excerpt from the link, Snow-Storm in August by Jefferson Morley:

Key prided himself as a humanitarian and as a young lawyer relished defending individual colored people in court. Some even called him "the Blacks' lawyer." At the same time, Key shared a general view of the free people of color as shiftless and untrustworthy: a nuisance, if not a menace, to white people. He spoke publicly of Africans in America as "a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community." He nurtured a vision, expressed in deed (though not song), in which African colonization would solve the problem of the free blacks by helping them emigrate to Liberia. Key had worked ceaselessly and ineffectively on behalf of this dream for more than twenty years. He was, as one biographer admitted, a distressingly serious man.

Humanitarian ambition drove him. In his younger days, Key often left Polly and their growing brood to travel throughout the mid-Atlantic promoting the establishment of what were known as Lancaster schools, institutions of learning open to all white children, which evolved into the region's first public schools. He attended the annual General Convention of the Episcopal Church, where he denounced popular amusements like gambling. While some of his coreligionists chafed at his harsh pronouncements, none doubted his piety. Said his friend John Randolph, the brilliant and eccentric Virginia Senator, "His whole life is spent in endeavors that do good for his unhappy fellow-men." Randolph, an iconoclastic bachelor fond of opium and poetry, admired Key's benevolence but did not entirely trust it.

In his relations with enslaved people, Key was decent by the standards of the day. He had grown up on his family's plantation in the hills of northern Maryland surrounded by slaves and an ethic of service. His mother read the Bible to the blacks in residence. Family lore held that his grandmother had been blinded by smoke while rescuing a black family from a fire. Key abhorred the mistreatment of bondsmen and the sundering of families by slave dealers. A prim man, he was incapable of brutality. Condescension came more easily. During his lifetime, Key freed seven of his slaves. He said that all but one of them--whom he did not identify--had thrived in freedom. But in general, Key expressed disappointment at the results of his efforts on behalf of colored people. "I have been thus instrumental in liberating several large families and many individuals," he told a contemporary. "I cannot remember more than two instances, out of this large number, in which it did not appear that the freedom so earnestly sought for them was their ruin." Key concluded Negroes could not handle the responsibilities of liberty in America. When they moved back to Africa, the United States would then be free of slaves (and former slaves) and could thus fulfill its destiny as a "land of the free" for white people. 


If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.

"Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else."

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