Saturday, June 28, 2014

Q&A with author Marc Leepson

Marc Leepson is the author of the new book What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. His other books include Lafayette, Desperate Engagement, Saving Monticello, and Flag. He lives in Middleburg, Virginia.

Q: You write that "the details of [Key's] life are largely unknown to Americans today." Why is that, and how did you first get interested in writing his biography?

A: I’m not quite sure. There hadn’t been a full biography of Key since 1937. In the last two years, there have been books that came out that had more information on Key.

One was Snow-Storm in August, by Jefferson Morley. I called him and we talked for hours. He told me he had thought he would write even more about Key, but that the race riot [on which his book focuses] took over.

Then there’s Steve Vogel’s book [Through the Perilous Fight]; it also has a lot [about Key], and he helped me as well. Key lived until 1843, and he wrote "The Star Spangled Banner" in 1814. He had a long life after that. He was a major player in the early Republic, but nothing approached what happened that night.

Q: Of Key, you say, "If he considered it problematic to represent black people in court one day and then white slave owners the next, he never said so." How would you describe Key's attitudes toward slavery?

A: When I was getting into [the research], I realized how much slavery kept coming up, from the day Key was born to the day he died. I talked to a professor at GW, and he said you can’t overemphasize slavery in this period.

Key was from a slave-owning family; he bought and sold slaves. He did free several slaves. But he was adamantly against slave-trafficking. The ownership of slaves was legal, but slave trafficking was illegal after 1808.

He represented free blacks in court, but also represented slave catchers and owners. There were cases where he argued for slave owners. That was lawyer work—they represent their client to the best of their ability.

Then there was the American Colonization Society. He was a founding member and on the board of managers. He spoke out strongly for it, and gave lots of speeches.

It was a movement to send free blacks to a colony in Africa. The constitution [of the organization] said we are not sending slaves, only free blacks. They thought it was a way to end slave trafficking and a way to “civilize” Africa. It had a strong religious component.

The abolitionists hated it, and it was not very popular among free blacks. The idea of “sending back”—these were people born in the U.S.

Q: Do you think Key meant to create a poem or a song when he wrote "The Star Spangled Banner"?

A: I’m bowing to the latest historical research, and agreeing that it most likely was a song. That’s recent—up to the last five or 10 years, historians believed he was writing a poem. He wrote very bad amateur poetry; after he died, someone printed his poems. [But] this one night inspired him to write words that millions of Americans know by heart.

The family stories were that he was unmusical, so the fact that he was a prolific amateur poet and was unmusical led most people to believe he was writing a poem.

He [almost] never spoke about this [writing "The Star Spangled Banner"] in public—[only] once, in 1834, and in no letter I could find--there was one letter where he talked about the prisoner exchange but not about writing the poem.

The evidence he was writing a song was that back in those days, it was very common for people to write words and put them to a well-known song. “To Anacreon in Heaven” was a song that lots of people put words to. Key’s rhyme and meter match the music.

In 1805, he was at a dinner at a tavern in Georgetown, and a
“gentleman of George-Town,” who was Key, wrote a poem they sang that night, called "When the Warrior Returns." It was to the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven,” and it said, “By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.” It’s almost certain that he knew that song.

When I started, I was going to write that it was a poem. Then I found the [new] research.

Q: You write, "When Frank Key boarded the Jackson bandwagon in 1827, his life changed significantly." How did his support for President Andrew Jackson affect Key?

A: He was apolitical right up until he fell in love with Andrew Jackson. He became a very strong partisan of Jackson. He did legal work for the Jackson administration, and was appointed U.S. attorney for Washington by Jackson. He defended Sam Houston as a favor to the Jackson administration.

Jackson sent Key on an important mission to Alabama in 1833 to help negotiate an end to a state vs. federal rights controversy. He was very devoted to Jackson.

It’s interesting--they were very different men. Key went to St. John’s College and was a very well-lettered, cultured man. And there was Andrew Jackson, a fighting general, unlettered. He was a frontiersman, an Indian fighter, a hero from Tennessee. Yet Key was a member of Jackson’s kitchen cabinet.

This was the first use of the term “kitchen cabinet.” Jackson was the first president not born in Virginia or Massachusetts. He was an outsider from Tennessee. When he came to Washington, he wanted to clean house and not have Washington insiders in his Cabinet. He was told [not to].

So his closest advisors were derisively called the Kitchen Cabinet. Kitchens were sometimes not even in the main house. The official Cabinet met in fancy drawing rooms, but the Kitchen Cabinet met next to frying bacon. Key was a member of the Kitchen Cabinet; virtually all the others were from Tennessee.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s the first biography of Key in over 75 years, and this is the 200th anniversary of "The Star Spangled Banner." He was an important player in the early Republic, and all we know is that he wrote those words.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier interview with Marc Leepson, please click here.

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