Orator and Advocate Francis Scott Key & the Partner’s Desk
By Tudor Place Curator of Collections Erin Kuykendall
Francis Scott Key (1779 – 1843) was considered a great patriot in his lifetime. On a diplomatic mission during the War of 1812 to secure the release of an American prisoner, the eloquent lawyer witnessed the fierce September 1814 attack by British Admirals Cockburn and Cochrane on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. Key’s life after the war, including as District Attorney for Washington City from 1833 – 1841, is as significant as his authorship of the “Star Spangled Banner” while still in Baltimore Harbor. His legal counsel captures the pulse of American society from the “Era of Good Feeling” during President Monroe’s administration until Key’s death in 1843.
Born on August 1, 1779, to John Ross Key (1754 – 1821) and Anne Phoebe Charlton Key (1756 – 1830), Francis Scott grew up at estate Pipe Creek, today known as Terra Rubra, west of Frederick, Maryland. He attended grammar school in Annapolis under the supervision of his uncle, attorney Philip Barton Key (1757-1815), and from 1794 to 1796, studied at St. John’s College, where he met his life-long friend Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864), future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Key married Mary Tayloe Lloyd in January 1802 in Annapolis. Their union raised eyebrows in elite Maryland society, including those of Rosalie Stier Calvert, Martha Peter’s observant and opinionated aunt. “I must tell you of an event of Annapolis Society,” Calvert confided in a letter to her father. “Polly Lloyd is to be married next month to Frank Key who has nothing and who has only practiced for two years as an [attorney].”1
The Keys moved to Georgetown in 1805, where they raised six boys and five girls, all of whom survived infancy. The family’s two-and-a-half story brick residence was constructed ten years prior in 1795 by merchant and real estate investor Thomas Clarke of Georgetown. The stately residence afforded the growing family a prominent view of the Georgetown port to the east, efficient access to the commercial heart of the city on Bridge and Water Streets, and genteel terraced gardens sloping toward the Potomac. They entertained in two large parlors on the first floor, while the basement contained a kitchen, dining room and conservatory.2 When construction began in 1830 on the C&O Canal, directly behind their home, the Keys relocated to a smaller house at 308 C Street in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, but for several years, Key maintained his law practice in a small addition to his former Georgetown home.3
The family also worshiped in Georgetown, at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Second Street (present-day “O” Street), where both Key and Tudor Place’s Thomas Peter served as vestrymen.4 The uncle who oversaw Key’s education, Philip Barton Key, also helped establish him as a young lawyer, announcing in the Washington Federalist newspaper in December 1805: “Mr. Francis S. Key will attend and conduct as an Attorney at Law any professional business confided to him from the office on Bridge Street.”5
In February 1807, Key argued the first of what would amount to more than 100 cases heard by the United States Supreme Court. The court met, under Chief Justice John Marshall, in temporary chambers in the original Capitol, which was designed (like Tudor Place) by architect William Thornton. Key advocated on behalf of two adventurers implicated in former Vice President Aaron Burr’s treasonous plot to invade and conquer Mexico. (Burr aimed to establish a separate state from which to invade the United States and conquer Jefferson’s newly obtained Louisiana Purchase.) The scandal had enthralled the American public and, by the proceedings’ end, having secured his clients’ acquittal, Key established a reputation as a gifted orator and legal mind. The case marked the start of a promising career6 that lasted until his death at age 63 in Baltimore, on January 11, 1843.
Key’s solid partner’s desk in the Tudor Place collection is a significant example of cabinetmaking from Washington, D.C. in the 1830s. Preliminary research suggests its form is undocumented in other major museum collections, and therefore may be a rare example of the kind of furniture lawyers, politicians and other professionals working in the capital commissioned at that time. Unlike furniture made by purveyors to the elite – such as Georgetown cabinetmaker William Worthington, Jr., who supplied elegant furniture to Presidents Madison and Monroe and clients like the Peters of Tudor Place – the unidentified local cabinetmaker who built Key’s desk likely served a more middling clientele. Men like Key, of modest means but in prominent civic positions, also needed furnishings designed to impress in private spaces as well as public settings like City Hall and Key’s District Attorney’s office.
The Tudor Place desk is one of only a handful of furnishings and personal effects associated with Francis Scott Key or his wife Mary found in museum collections today. The large Key family appeared to live modestly and without extravagance compared to Georgetown gentry like the Peters. In 1814, he complained to his mother “the expenses of living here are enormous.”7 References to their furnishings are scattered, piecemeal, among his papers. In March 1837, for example, he purchased two mahogany bookcases and a writing table for his home office on C Street.8 The latter could be a reference to the well built “partner’s desk” – so called because it is accessible from two sides – now at Tudor Place.
Given the colossal weight of a desk this size of solid walnut, the piece is constructed from three separate cases: a top containing three drawers, and two pedestals offering additional storage. In the center, two adjustable writing surfaces finished with felted green wool provide a smooth surface on which Key and his clerks or colleagues could have written. To either side of these, thick solid walnut boards were expertly selected for their grain. The desk includes 22 drawers, in all: one dozen 6-inch square drawers on the rear, six rectangular drawers on the front, and one 22-inch drawer sandwiched on top between two 13-inch drawers. The outer drawers on the front extend the entire depth of the top; however, a novice user might overlook the tiny, wooden spring that prevents the drawers from fully extending unless depressed. Perhaps this mechanism provided security for documents cached in the drawers’ back sections.
Artists and artisans who furnished Washington City’s public buildings like the Capitol and City Hall were highly alert to the democratic precedents government officials set with each passing year of the young country. Unlike furniture commissioned for private spaces, seen by only small social or familial circles, furniture for public buildings would have had an impact on people from across the country and around the world. This may explain the presence of two faint, illegible pencil signatures freshly discovered on Key’s desk. The cryptic marks appear in the back right corners of either pedestal; the consistency of their strokes indicates they were written by the same hand, and both underlined for emphasis. Further research is needed to reveal the name of this individual, however, who may be the cabinetmaker.
Key himself also signed the desk in numerous locations; the large, sweeping letters “F. S. Key” or “F. S. K.” appear in ink across the width of both pedestals, and on the underside of several drawers. What accounts for this vigorous labeling? Key may have marked the desk for transport from the cabinetmaker’s shop to his City Hall office. When the Keys relocated from Georgetown, perhaps he marked each piece before it was carried by cart down Bridge Street. Could he have been worried about theft in the event of a fire? Or if he had personally furnished the desk for the District Attorney’s office, perhaps he marked it for removal from City Hall after his three terms ended, in 1841.
Key’s prominence in the capital’s legal community also brought him squarely into the country’s debate on slavery. While he personally owned slaves and prosecuted abolitionists in his role as District Attorney, he also deplored the slave trade and took on cases, sometimes pro bono, on behalf of free and enslaved African Americans, including suits against slave-owners. Key vocally advocated for African recolonization, a movement that drew criticism from both sides of the slave question but gave rise to the modern state of Liberia.
No reference to the partner’s desk appears in Key’s will. His wife may have sold or given it to their friend James Dunlop, Jr. (1793 – 1872), a nephew of Thomas Peter and Key’s junior contemporary in Maryland’s legal community. for it was from the Dunlops that it came to Tudor Place. Dunlop and Key never joined in a law practice, but they collaborated on many civil cases. In November 1820, for example, they the estate auction of Fruit Hill plantation in Montgomery County, Maryland.9 In January 1824, they partnered in a civil case, charging their Frederick client $100 because “it was an extremely troublesome case to prepare for trial, & our success has been so complete.”10 The two men established a firm friendship, and Dunlop named his third son (b. 1827) Francis Key. Dunlop’s youngest son, William Laird (1830 – 1916), inherited the desk, probably after Dunlop’s death in 1872. It was Tudor Place’s third owner, Armistead Peter, Jr. (1870-1960), who purchased the desk from Sarah Peter Dunlop (1856 – 1935) in early December 1917, following the death of her husband. Peter paid $150, writing “Indeed I appreciate your letting me have it and shall always value it.”11
Much more than the author of the “Star Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key was one of the capital’s best known and hardest-working lawyers for nearly four decades, playing roles in formative legal issues of his day in Georgetown and Washington. His sturdy, unornamented desk from the 1830s offers a tangible window into the complex legalworld he helped shape and their impact on American life today.
Note: The author is grateful to Jerry McCoy, Special Collections Librarian, Peabody Room, Washington D.C. Public Library, Georgetown Branch; Marc Leepson, author of What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life (2014); and Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation (2014), for their insights on the life and material world of Francis Scott Key.
1Rosalie Steir Calvert to Charles J. Steir, Bladensburg, December 30, 1801, quoted in Margaret Law Callcott, ed. Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Steir Calvert, 1759 – 1821 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 31. [back]
2Steve Vogel, Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation (Random House, 2014), 15. Sina Dubovy, The Lost World of Francis Scott Key (WestBow Press, 2014), 117 – 120. Marc Leepson, What so Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life (Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2014), 16, 21. See also “FSK House” Research File, District of Columbia Public Library, Peabody Room, Georgetown Library. [back]
3The 1834 City Directory lists Key at the Corner of Washington and Beall, north side, but office still on Bridge Street. [back]
4Dubovoy, 123. Richard P. Jackson, Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C., from 1751 to 1878, Reprint (2011), 112. [back]
5Dubovoy, 117. [back]
6Dubovoy, 130-135. Vogel, 14-15. [back]
7Francis Scott Key to Anne Phoebe Key, January 2, 1814, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. As cited in Leepson, 39n5. [back]
8Dubovoy, 408. [back]
9Advertisement, Daily National Intelligencer. Washington, D.C., October 31, 1820. As quoted in Leepson, 97n6. [back]
10Dubovoy, 292. [back]
11Letter from Armistead Peter, Jr., Washington, D.C, to Sarah Norfleet Peter Dunlop, Rockville, Maryland, December 4, 1917. Tudor Place Archive. Collection of Armistead Peter, Jr., Ms. 14, Box 7, Folder 4. In February 1922, Peter, Jr., commissioned Maximilian F. Rosinski to repair and refinish the desk for $65.00. Tudor Place Archive, Ms. 14, Box 121, Folder 12. [back]
Callcott, Margaret Law, ed. Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1795 – 1821. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Delaplaine, Edward. Francis Scott Key: Life and Times. Stuarts Draft, Virginia: American Foundation Publications, 1998 Reprint.
Dubovoy, Sina. The Lost World of Francis Scott Key. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2014.
Ecker, Grace Dunlop. A Portrait of Old Georgetown. Richmond, Virginia: Dietz Press, Inc., 1951.
Jackson, Richard P. The Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C. From 1751 to 1878. Westminster: Maryland, 2011 reprint.
Leepson, Marc. What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life. Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2014.
Vogel, Steve. Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation. New York: Random House, 2014.
- The War of 1812 finds its voice in the accounts of two people closely tied to Tudor Place, founder Martha Custis Peter and her brother-in-law, Major George Peter, in an essay by Archivist Wendy Kail, War of 1812: Friends & Family.
- When a diplomatic mission led to his brief incarceration by British forces, Francis Scott Key was moved to write “The Star-Spangled Banner;” read the story behind the famous lines.