LaFayette Square – Back to Barton Key

Our tour of LaFayette Square offered a wealth of side stories. With this blog, we’re going back to two earlier characters: Philip Barton Key and Dan Sickles.

Barton Key
Philip Barton Key
(Harper’s Weekly,
Matthew Brady photo)

Following in his father’s footsteps, Barton Key would be appointed a US District Attorney in Washington, DC. Key won this appointment with the help of his Congressman-friend, Daniel E Sickles. Key served in that post up ‘til that fateful day in February, 1859. But you know, Philip Barton wasn’t the only son of Francis Scott Key to be killed. Key had another son – actually he had eleven children, six of whom were sons. Daniel Murray Key, Philip’s older brother, was a midshipman, having joined the Navy when he was but seventeen years old.

For some reason, Daniel took a distinct disliking to a fellow midshipman, John F Sherburne. From the scant accounts that exist, it appears that Key was the aggressor, picking on Sherburne for one perceived fault after another. One account says that the two argued over the draft of a boat on the Potomac River. That’s about the level of their animosity. But whether it was that argument or some other nit-picking complaint, Key would end up challenging Sherburne to a duel. At first, Sherburne scoffed at the notion but Key pressed the issue and the two eventually met at the secluded dueling ground just over the border from DC – the Bladensburg Dueling Ground. Key would be mortally wounded – and his parents wouldn’t even know about this until his body was brought to the family doorstep on Capitol Hill. Daniel Key, dead at age 20.

Daniel E Sickles (Library of Congress)
Daniel E Sickles
(Library of Congress)
Thad Stevens
Thaddeus Stevens
(US House of Representatives)

And finally, I’d like to make one more point regarding Dan Sickles’ “insanity defense.” Congressman Daniel Sickles might have been the first to successfully use that defense but he wasn’t the first to attempt it. Early records tell us that this defense had been used by one of Sickles’ fellow Congressmen: colorful, erudite, sabre-tongued Thaddeus Stevens. In the early 1800s, Stevens defended a man convicted of murder, trying to convince a jury that the man was insane. But he lost the case — and the man was hanged. Stevens would go on to use the defense in subsequent cases, successfully, but, his first attempt was unsuccessful and both the case — and the man — have  been pretty much lost to history. And just where did all of this take place? Gettysburg, PA. The very place where Dan Sickles would end up in July of 1863, during the epic three-day battle.

We’re still not done with LaFayette Park, but for now, we’re setting aside that area to focus on Abraham Lincoln. In our next dispatch, we’ll talk about some of the “outdoor” Lincolns, starting with the earliest Lincoln Memorial in America.

Until next time.


  • “Our Neighbors on LaFayette Square,” Benjamin Ogle Tayloe
  • “The President’s Square,” Frances F Donaldson
  • “Francis Scott Key,” Francis Scott Key Smith

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