Everyone knows that Francis Scott Key wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner." But how many people know that he also wrote a brief in support of Sac and Fox Indians against a white settler with claims on their land? Or that Key once aspired to publish a newspaper, ordered fried oysters by the dozens and in 1839, paid $9 in taxes for three female slaves?
Key (1779-1843) may be a patron saint to many Marylanders, but his life isn't exactly an open book.
A trove of letters, receipts and legal papers recently acquired by the Maryland Historical Society helps to flesh out a historical figure who never completely overcame a cardboard cut-out image as a pious patriot with a penchant for sentimental rhymes.
The documents, once stuffed chockablock into Key's portable writing desk, as well as the mahogany and rosewood desk itself, were donated to the historical society by Robert Key Smith and Catherine Federspill, two of Key's great-great-great-grandchildren.
Spanning more than 150 years, the collection reinforces Key's professional profile as a Washington insider whose accomplishments never surpassed his accidental fame as author of the national anthem. The papers aren't about to surprise researchers with history-altering revelations. But, in a vivid, "you are there" way, they do open a window on Key's world and the ferment of 19th-century America.
"Rather than changing our view of any particular thing, [the collection] gives us a more well-rounded view of Key than we had had before," says Bea Hardy, director of the historical society's library.
Correspondence received by Key relating to his private legal practice and his tenure as a United States attorney for the District of Columbia (responsibilities often carried out concurrently) sheds light on "Washington's political scene at the time," Hardy says.
Letters either addressed to Key or forwarded to him by government authorities concern issues such as disputes over land seized under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, back pay requested by veterans and a soldier's murder trial in Arkansas. "This guy was a major lawyer in the nation's capital," Hardy says. "These are the sorts of cases he's dealing with."
Key, the father of 11, was also known to be a doting family man. The collection shows him to be a meticulous record-keeper as well. Folders of receipts indicate that he shelled out for French classes, boarding school tuition, art lessons, hack hires, hay, garden seeds, and "pettycoats," "tooth wash" and "lip salve." Key's receipts also document magazine subscriptions, church pew rentals, taxes paid on slaves, as well as an undated restaurant tab for chicken salad, an "oyster pattie" and "3 Dozen Fryed" (total: $6).
Key's boyish enthusiasms are conveyed here and there as well. It would appear that he was a fire buff. An 1841 document certifies him as "an Honorary member of the Perseverance Fire Company," entitling Key to "all the privileges of an Active Fireman (excepting that of holding stock in the Firemen's Insurance Company.)"
When searching for a home for the desk and its contents where both would be accessible to the public, Key Smith and Federspill were directed to the Maryland Historical Society by St. John's College, attended by their notable ancestor. The siblings had decided that the collection was more than a family keepsake. "I really think it belongs to the public," says Federspill, who lives with her brother in Michigan.
The writing desk came to the Key descendants by way of their grandfather, once a Washington lawyer. It was considered a sacred object and was a source of great pride for their family. "There's more to it than just the information," Key Smith says. "There's a certain aura."
His sister agrees: "Exactly, there's an aura to it. I've always felt that I knew Francis Scott Key as a person; not just that he was in my past. He seemed real to me because of that desk."
Key's "writing box," itself, wears the deep gloss of time. Cleverly designed to store papers as well as provide a leather writing surface, this style of desk, says historical society curator Jeannine Disviscour, was the "laptop of the 19th century." Manufactured in England, it was "clearly meant to be taken with you" for business travel, she says. According to unproven family lore, it was sent to Key by Dolley Madison after he admired it at a White House function.
Key Smith and Federspill are descended from Key's son, Philip Barton Key, also a Washington lawyer, who was murdered by his lover's husband, Daniel Sickles, the future Civil War general. Their relation to Key's charismatic and doomed son helps to explain why some of his papers, including the riveting minutes of a 1845 court martial in Philadelphia, were also contained in the writing desk.