What do you do at dawn? Shower? Shave? Snooze? Your day most likely starts while you’re minding your own business. With the help of an alarm clock, you head for the coffee pot, makeup mirror, or closet door until you’re dressed and ready to take care of the business of the day.
We each have one, a daily awakening. Sometimes a seemingly ordinary day, however, becomes an awakening to life. A legacy is born.
Two hundred years ago today, Francis Scott Key, an attorney from Georgetown, Maryland, was awakened to an awful reality. The British military, some four thousand strong, had arrived at Bladensburg, Maryland, six miles from Washington DC. Though not a strong supporter of the War of 1812, Key had gone with his Georgetown militia unit to defend the nation’s capitol city. The Americans lost, and Key, along with the others, fled as fast as racehorses. Within hours, the British military arrived in Washington, D.C. There they burned the U.S. Capitol and White House. Even though a storm drove the invaders from Washington, all seemed lost.
Fearing that British forces would return and try to conquer other cities, the editors of Francis Key’s hometown newspaper, The Federal Republican-Georgetown, issued a call to action on September 1, 1814: “Unless the country is to be abandoned by the people . . . that every man should awake, arouse, and prepare for action.”
That same day, Key’s brother-in-law awakened him to another problem. Their friend, a physician named Dr. William Beanes, had been taken prisoner by the British general who had burned Washington and occupied nearby Marlboro.
Unjust it was. As a physician devoted to help those in need, Beanes had opened his home to the British, treated their wounded, and tended their sick. After the British evacuated Marlboro, one soldier stayed behind and threatened local residents. Beanes made a citizen’s arrest of him. British soldiers returned and seized Beanes, the Good Samaritan, and imprisoned him on a British ship.
Advocating was what this attorney did best. Over the years Key had helped his clients to legally advertise, sell, and certify their estates. Business had been slow of late. War will do that. He’d recently written his mother of possibly changing professions.
“I really think I shall try to purchase a small flock of sheep in the spring, and if the war lasts on, I shall be obliged to leave this [Georgetown]. . . and turn shepherd,” he explained.
Yet, at dawn each day this father of eleven children preferred to don the hat of a lawyer, not hold the staff of a herder. “I have not determined upon anything but to stay here and mind my business as long as I can.”
Now he could no longer mind his own business. With his nation’s capital city in ruins and his friend in chains, he must find the British ships and advocate releasing Dr. Beanes. He’d have to leave the comfort and responsibilities of home to do it.
Key had been awakened to a dawn’s early light. Within a few days, he helped to free Dr. Beanes. Together they witnessed the Battle of Fort McHenry, which inspired Key to write, The Star-Spangled Banner, the song that became our national anthem and gave us many memorable lines, including ones of faith: “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’” Key’s legacy began, however, with an awakening 200 years ago today.
Jane Hampton Cook is the award-winning author of eight books, including her newest on the national anthem, America’s Star-Spangled Story, and American Phoenix, featuring a man and woman down-on-their luck, John Quincy and Louisa Adams, and the War of 1812.