I want to extend a special thanks to Dr. Don Dahmann, the church’s historian. Gracious with his time, he provided me with copies of some documents on Key, gave me a fascinating personal tour of inside the church, and answered all my questions.
After the death of George Washington in 1799, a group of prominent citizens in Alexandria formed the “Washington Society of Alexandria” (The Washington Society of Alexandria by Robert G. Whitton, Alexandria History, annual publication, 1982). The organization’s admiration and respect for the nation’s first president came easy. For fifty years prior, Washington called Alexandria a home away from home.
Prominent citizens were among the first members of the Society, including Chief Justice John Marshall, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, George Washington Parke Custis (step grandson of Washington) and Key. The organization was dedicated to sponsoring events to remember our first president, as well as continuing his work with charities.
On February 22, 1814, the members met at Triplett’s Hotel. There is scant info on this hotel, but it was probably near Market Square, the city’s beehive of activity with many choices for tavern goers.
After conducting their business, the members marched ceremoniously to the Old Presbyterian Church at the northwest corner of S. Fairfax and Wolfe Streets. They were accompanied by the music and drum beats of Captain McKnight’s “Independent Blues” company.
Inside the church, Key gave the oration. In his book, “Washington, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen” (1932), William Buckner McGroarty (editor) provides the text of Key’s speech, over a dozen pages long.
Of the presentation, Myer notes that it was “the first time he spoke publicly of the tie between religion and patriotism.” Key’s audience that day was partly made up of patriots who had fought beside Washington in the Revolutionary War, men who would find a final resting place in the small graveyard behind the church.
Weybright notes the speech was a “plea for religious spirit instead of party spirit in the country.” Delaplaine reminds us what was on everyone’s mind – “the war clouds grew blacker and more ominous.” He also noted the distinction of the invitation to speak.
The building the congregation worships in today was rebuilt after the church was partially destroyed by a fire in 1835. One surviving peephole to its past is the clock that hangs behind the pews. The time stands still at 10:20, a tribute to Washington and the time he departed us.
Behind the church lies another window into some of Alexandria’s earliest chapters. Several prominent friends of Washington and important early citizens of distinction are buried there. The brick flounder house is the original Manse, built in 1787.
It’s not known how many times Key visited Alexandria, which was a half-dozen miles horse ride from his home in Georgetown, but a little fun can be had by speculating where he might have visited while in town.
Harry "Light Horse" Lee lived at a house on Cameron Street near Washington Street. They were both members of the Society.
Other buildings in existence in 1800 were the Carlyle House, Christ Church where Washington worshipped, Ramsay House, now the Visitors Center, and the Stabler-Leadbetter Pharmacy. And one can easily imagine Key taking steering his horse to the river for a waterside trot.