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FRANCIS SCOTT KEY
[Oration by Henry Watterson, journalist and orator, editor of the Louisville " Courier-Journal" since 1868 (born in Washington, D. C, February 16, 1840; ), delivered at the dedication of the monument over the grave of Francis Scott Key, the author of the "StarSpangled Banner," at Frederick, Md., August g, 1898.]
The Key Monument Association, to which is due the act of tardy justice whose completion we are here to celebrate, has reason to be proud of the success which has crowned its labor of love. Within something less than four years from the date of its organization, it has reared this beautiful and imposing memorial to the author of the "StarSpangled Banner." Beneath it lie the'thortal remains of Francis Scott Key and of his wife, Mary Tayloe Key. Hitherto unmarked, except in the humblest way, their final resting place on earth hasibeen at last separated from among the surrounding multitude of less distinguished graves, to be at once an altar and a shrine, known among men, wherever liberty makes her home, and consecrate to all hearts wherein the love of liberty dwells.
One cannot help thinking it something more than a coincidence that this monument is erected, and that these services are held, at a moment when not alone is the country engaged in foreign war, but also at a moment when the words of Key's immortal anthem ring in the memory and start to the lips of all the people of all the States and sections of the Union. But a little while ago this seemed a thing impossible of realization during the life of the generation of men which is passing away. Years of embittered civil strife, with their wounds kept open by years of succeeding political controversy, were never before thus ended; nor did ever a people so promptly obey the laws alike of reason, race, and nature, from which, as from some magic fountain, the American Republic sprang.
Nothing in romance, or in poetry, surpasses the wondrous story of this Republic. Why Washington, the Virginia planter, and why Franklin, the Pennsylvania printer? Another might have been chosen to lead the Continental armies; a brilliant and distinguished soldier; but, as we now know, not only a corrupt adventurer, but a traitor, who preceded Arnold, and who, had he been commander of the forces at Valley Forge, would have betrayed his adopted country for the coronet which Washington despised. In many ways was Franklin an experiment, and, as his familiars might have thought, a dangerous experiment, to be appointed the representative of the colonies in London and in Paris, for, as they knew, and as we now know, he was a stalwart, self-indulgent man, apparently little given either to prudence or to courtliness. What was it that singled out these two men from all others and designated them to be the Chiefs of the Military and Diplomatic establishments set up by the provincial gentlemen, whose Declaration of Independence was not merely to establish a new nation, but to create a new world? It was as clearly the inspiration of the Almighty as, a century later, was the faith of Lincoln in Grant, whom he had never seen and had reason to distrust. It was as clearly the inspiration of the Almighty as that, in every turn of fortune, God has stood by the Republic; not less in the strange vicissitudes of the Wars of the Revolution and of 1812, than in those of the War of Sections; in the raising up of Paul Jones and Perry, of Preble and Hull, when, discouraged upon the land, the sea was to send God's people messages of victory, and in the striking down of Albert Sidney Johnston and Stonewall Jackson, when they were sweeping all before them. Inscrutable are the ways of Providence to man. Philosophers may argue as they will, and rationalism may draw its conclusions; but the mysterious power unexplained by either has, from the beginning of time, ruled the destinies of men.
Back of these forces of life and thought there is yet another force equally inspired of God and equally essential to the exaltation of man, a force without which the world does not move except downward, the force of the imagination which idealizes the deeds of men and translates their meaning into words. It may be concluded that Washington at Monmouth and Franklin at Versailles were not thinking a great deal of what the world was like to say. But there are beings so constituted that they cannot act, they can only think, and these are the Homers who relate in heroic measure, the Shakespeares who sing in strains of heavenly music. Among the progeny of these was Francis Scott Key.
The son of a revolutionary soldier, he was born the 9th of August, 1780, not far away from the spot where we are now assembled, and died in Baltimore the nth of January, 1843. His life of nearly sixty-three years was an unbroken idyl of tranquil happiness; amid congenial scenes; among kindred people; blessed by wedded love and many children, and accompanied by the successful pursuit of the learned profession he had chosen for himself. Goldsmith's sketch of the village preacher may not be inaptly quoted to describe his unambitious and unobtrusive career:—
"Remote from towns he ran his godly race,
Yet it was reserved for this constant and modest gentleman to leave behind him a priceless legacy to his countrymen and to identify his name for all time with his country's flag.
The " Star-Spangled Banner " owed very little to chance. It was the emanation of a patriotic fervor as sincere and natural as it was simple and noble. It sprang from one of those glorious inspirations which, coming to an author unbidden, seizes at once upon the hearts and minds of men. The occasion seemed to have been created for the very purpose. The man and the hour were met, and the song came; and truly was song never yet born amid such scenes. We explore the pages of folk-lore, we read the story of popular music, in vain, to find the like. Even the authorship of the English national anthem is in dispute. The "Marseillaise" did indeed owe its being to the passions of war and burst forth in profuse strains of melody above the clang of arms; but it was attended by those theatrical accessories which preside over and minister to Latin emotions, and seem indispensable to its developments, and it is believed to have derived as much of its enthusiasm from the wine-cup as from the drum-beat. Key's song was the very child of battle. It was rocked by cannon in the cradle of the deep. Its swaddling-cloths were the Stars and Stripes its birth proclaimed. Its coming was heralded by shot and shell, and, from its baptism of fire, a nation of freemen clasped it to its bosom. It was to be thenceforth and forever freedom's Gloria in Excelsis.
The circumstances which ushered it into the world, hardly less than the words of the poem, are full of patriotic exhilaration. It was during the darkest days of our second war of independence. An English army had invaded and occupied the seat of the National Government and had burned the Capitol of the Nation. An English squadron was in undisputed possession of the Chesapeake Bay. There being nothing of interest, or value left within the vicinity of Washington to detain them, the British were massing their land and naval forces for other conquests, and, as their ships sailed down the Potomac, Dr. William Beanes, a prominent citizen of Maryland, who had been arrested at his home in Upper Marlboro charged with some offense, real or fancied, was carried off a prisoner.
It was to secure the liberation of this gentleman, his neighbor and friend, that Francis Scott Key obtained leave of the President to go to the British Admiral under a flag of truce. He was conveyed by the cartel boat used for the exchange of prisoners and accompanied by the flag-officer of the Government. They proceeded down the bay from Baltimore and found the British fleet at the mouth of the Potomac.
Mr. Key was courteously received by Admiral Cochrane; but he was not encouraged as to the success of his mission until letters from the English officers wounded at Blandensburg and left in the care of the Americans were delivered to the friends on the fleet to whom they had been written. These bore such testimony to the kindness with which they had been treated that it was finally agreed that Dr. Beanes should be released; but, as an advance upon Baltimore was about to be made, it was required that the party of Americans should remain under guard on board their own vessel until these operations were concluded. Thus it was that, the night of the 14th of September, 1814, Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which his song was to render illustrious.
He did not quit the deck the long night through. With his single companion, the flag-officer, he watched every shell from the moment it was fired until it fell, "listening with breathless interest to hear if an explosion followed." Whilst the cannonading continued they needed no further assurance that their countrymen had not capitulated. "But," I quote the words of Chief Justice Taney, repeating the account given him by Key immediately after, "it suddenly ceased some time before day; and, as they had no communication with any of the enemy's ships, they did not know whether the fort had surrendered, or the attack upon it had been abandoned. They paced the deck the residue of the night in painful suspense, watching with intense anxiety for the return of day, and looking every few minutes at their watches to see how long they must wait for it; and, as soon as it dawned and before it was light enough to see objects at a distance, their glasses were turned to the fort, uncertain whether they should see there the Stars and Stripes or the flag of the enemy." Blessed vigil! that its prayers were not in vain; glorious vigil! that it gave us the "Star-Spangled Banner "!
During the night the conception of the poem began to form itself in Key's mind. With the early glow of the morning, when the long agony of suspense had been turned into the rapture of exultation, his feeling found expression in completed lines of verse, which he wrote upon the back of a letter he happened to have in his possession. He finished the piece on the boat that carried him ashore and wrote out a clear copy that same evening at his hotel in Baltimore. Next day he read this to his friend and kinsman, Judge Nicholson, who was so pleased with it that he carried it to the office of the "Baltimore American," where it was put in type by a young apprentice, Samuel Sands by name, and thence issued as a broadside. Within an hour after it was circulating all over the