on July 31, 2014
Marc Leepson buries a gold nugget in this highly evolved biography of Francis Scott Key. He opens chambers long sealed and invites us to peruse the early years of America's 19th Century. Within these chapters we experience the dissonance of mind that allowed the highest human ideals of the Revolution to be partnered with slavery of African peoples: the necessary machinery of America's empire building period.
The youthful Key's soaring anthem takes root in in soil tended by people who are wholly owned; soil recently vacated of native peoples by presidential decree; soil that is rapidly giving its wealth to homesteads and businessmen.
In his maturity, the golden moment of truth, that we could change direction towards our ideal of human dignity is sacrificed in the turmoil that Key assails as a lawyer. He personally supports colonization of freed Northern slaves back to Africa while also battling abolitionists who seek to free all slaves.
His contention: That society, once freed of its patronizing ownership of slave labor, will be writhing with the misery of ignorant, dispossessed and angry people.
on October 2, 2014
Marc Leepson’s new book, What So Proudly We Hailed, is the first full-length biography of Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) to be written in over seventy years. Key’s claim to fame is that he wrote the national anthem of the United States, “The Star-Spangled Banner” – a fact taught early in American elementary schools and embedded for a lifetime in the minds of the citizenry. Beyond that detail, knowledge of Key’s life, times, and works is not widespread among the population. Mr. Leepson’s new biography – whose title comes from the second line of the anthem – is a serious attempt to remedy that deficiency.
Leepson’s extremely well-researched book chronicles a man born during the American Revolution, who grew to manhood in the early decades of his independent country, contributed to the public life of the new republic, and died almost two decades before the American Civil War began. What is particularly interesting about the book is the author’s feeling – his attitude towards his subject – which comes across as quite a conflicted one.
Leepson clearly admires Key as a patriot and, all things considered, a decent, respectable human being. On the other hand, Leepson is definitely appalled that Key was a slave-owner. In many ways, the biography is less an account of Key’s life and more a detailed description of the slave-owning milieu of early 19th century America, particularly the intellectual milieu of a sincere, conscientious Christian such as Francis Scott Key. Leepson is particularly good at describing the American colonization movement, the repatriation of slaves to Africa, in which Key was a leading member.
Leepson works hard to maintain an objective, non-judgmental approach, trying – and generally succeeding – in simply looking at the facts and describing things as they were. It is impossible, however, not to notice an underlying skepticism, a sense that Key was a rationalizing hypocrite. Leepson mentions early on that Key’s brother-in-law was Roger B. Taney and he talks about “guilt by association”.
Taney – whose statue still stands outside the statehouse in Annapolis, Maryland – a statue that many believe should be forcibly removed from its place of honor and exhibited only in a museum – was the Chief Justice of the United States who wrote what Leepson calls “the infamous majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case”. Key’s biographer is too kind in simply calling the decision “infamous” and not elaborating on that epithet. It is hard to tell what his subject is guilty of “by association” without consulting other reference material or drawing upon the failing memories of a high school course in U.S. history taken many years ago. An additional sentence or two that described the Dred Scott decision would have made it clear that Taney was a dyed-in-the-wool racist, and, by association, Key was one too.
Reading What So Proudly We Hailed, one would never know that Key’s brother-in-law, some fourteen years after Key’s death, would declare that blacks, free or slave, were not and could not be citizens of the United States; that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and thus slavery was permitted in all U.S. territories; that the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks had no rights that the white man was bound to respect; that the Declaration of Independence words that “all men are created equal” did not apply to the enslaved African race. One would never know that the author of the words “the land of the free and the home of the brave” was a close relative and friend of a man who was an immediate catalyst for the deaths of 750,000 Americans in the Civil War.
Leepson accurately describes both Key’s opposition to the abolitionist movement as well as his opposition to slave trafficking, and he records his many actions as a lawyer in defending black plaintiffs without charge. The biographer cannot quite bring himself to say that Key was a racist. The overall impression left by the book is that Key was a man of his time who was in some degree of intellectual struggle between the reality of slavery and the Christian religion to which he devoutly adhered. Key certainly did not have the clear-headed racism of his brother-in-law Taney. Leepson makes the case – though he does not use the words – that Key was a mitigated racist. It is damnation by faint praise. The reader comes away less than satisfied that Key was a totally worthwhile human being.
As he stood on a boat in Baltimore Harbor and watched the defense of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key was moved to admire the emblem of his nation, enduring the battle, undefeated. Several years ago, Leepson wrote Flag, a biography of that emblem. He has written a number of excellent books about the history of the country over which the emblem still waves: Saving Monticello, Desperate Engagement, Lafayette. It is very clear that he so proudly hails his country and his flag. It is also clear that he does not so proudly hail Francis Scott Key. Leepson has done the very hard work of digging out the facts and done a fine job of portraying his subject, warts and all – and there are plenty of warts.
It is a book very well worth reading for an insight into the early years of the American nation, particularly the many peculiarities of thought about the peculiar institution, American slavery. Even more admirable is the author’s dedication to telling the life story of an interesting individual of the time as fully as possible, always fair and reasonable, yet always remaining aware of America’s original sin whose ill effects linger, even as his fingers go across the keyboard, completing the biography.
on January 2, 2015
I think a good label for this would be that it is a "workmanlike" biography. It provides the basics in an informative way that can appeal to both the general reader and those with special concern regarding the subject matter. It is a good straightforward biography of Francis Scott Key, best known for penning what later became the national anthem (though few know past the first stanza; no great loss), but has some other pretty interesting stories. A some bit dull at times, it is to praised for its workmanlike effort, including touching upon some of his less praiseworthy times such as hounding a botanist with abolitionist leanings.
Quick reading but still nutritious. I am a bit torn in such cases since it is basically a 3.5 star affair but I'll round up in part since I asked the author a question (check out his website) and he helpfully responded!
on July 4, 2014
Marc Leepson has written a very interesting biography of the man who wrote "The Star Spangled Banner." In Marc's book we learn that although the song became popular during Key's lifetime he only referred to it once in public during his life. And that life was about much more than writing what became the National Anthem. Like so many in the south at the time, Key was a slave holder, but as a lawyer, he also defended slaves in court. And he was a confidant of President Andrew Jackson, serving in his so-called Kitchern Cabinet. Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the history of the early republic.