Land of the Free?

October 19, 1814. An eager audience files into the Holliday Street Theater in Baltimore, about to see a debut performance, described as a “much-admired new song.” The composer of this song, Francis Scott Key, had written the lyrics during a recent battle in Baltimore, trapped on a British ship as he watched the rockets red glare from afar. Key wasn’t a professional songwriter – a prominent lawyer in Washington D.C., he specialized in cases related to slavery, both defending enslaved people and slave catchers. But his real legacy became this song, entitled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” How did Key come to watch the Battle of Baltimore play out from the deck of an enemy ship? And how did his relationship with race and slavery shape the song we now call our national anthem?

Special thanks to authors Marc Leepson ( and Tim Grove ( for sharing their voices and expertise for this episode.


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