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A Star-Spangled Spectacular: Spotlight on a Local Lawyer

Photo: National Park Service

Photo: National Park Service

By Meighan Burton

Most Baltimore residents (and Americans alike) are well aware that our National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” was penned during the War of 1812, after the British bombardment upon Fort McHenry on September 13-14, 1814.  Francis Scott Key was so moved upon seeing the American Flag wave above Fort McHenry following the attack that he wrote a poem, which later became the lyrics to the song.  The poem, originally titled “Defense of Fort McHenry,” was first published in the Baltimore newspaper Patriot on September 20, 1814. 

What fewer may know about Francis Scott Key is that in addition to writing poetry, he was a well known and highly respected local lawyer.  Born near Frederick, Maryland in 1779, he studied law at St. Johns College in Annapolis, and opened a law practice in Frederick in 1801.  He was a colleague of Roger Brooke Taney (U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, 1836-1864), who married Mr. Key’s sister, Anne.  Mr. Key moved to the D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown in 1803 and practiced law there until about 1833, when he was appointed by President Andrew Jackson as United States District Attorney for the District of Columbia.  Mr. Key died of pneumonia here in Baltimore in 1843. 

Like the attorneys at WC&S, Mr. Key represented a variety of clients in a variety of practice areas.  Some of Mr. Key’s notable cases included:

  • The defense of Samuel Houston, an illustrious former U.S. Representative, against charges arising out of his alleged attack on William Stanberry, a U.S. Representative from Ohio, in April 1832.  Mr. Houston was tried before the House of Representatives, and ultimately sanctioned with an official reprimand and fined.  In 1835, as district attorney, Mr. Key investigated and prosecuted Richard Lawrence for the attempted assassination of President Andrew Jackson.  Contrary to the President’s wishes, Mr. Key sought to have Mr. Lawrence confined in an asylum instead of sentenced to death. 
  • Representation of the Corporation of Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) in a suit against the Alexandria Canal Company, claiming that the Company illegally dumped clay and gravel into the Potomac River while building an aqueduct, obstructing navigation in violation of the town’s right to free use of the River under the compact of 1785 between Maryland and Virginia.
  • Representation of Myra Gaines in the celebrated “Gaines case,” which involved the interpretation and validity of two wills created by the late Daniel Clark.  In 1811 Mr. Clark executed a will naming his mother as his sole heir, and two years later, he created another will, naming his only child, Myra Clark Gaines as his sole heir.  Mr. Clark died that same year, when his daughter was just about 8 years old.  The executors of the first will, presumably unaware of the second, probated that will and in doing so, sold substantial real estate in Louisiana to the City of New Orleans.   Many years later, Clark’s daughter, Ms. Gaines, sued the City of New Orleans to recover the land.  The case was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court nine different times, and was ultimately resolved in 1867, nearly twenty years after Mr. Key’s death.

Baltimore will host a “Star-Spangled Spectacular” commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore and the Star-Spangled Banner beginning on September 6, 2014.  The week-long celebration will feature battle re-enactments, fireworks, parades, and a maritime festival, concluding with a televised event at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.