Star Spangled Banner celebrates beating the British, not slavery

· August 30, 2016  
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United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs | Wikimedia

49’ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a storm of controversy several days ago, choosing to remain seated during the playing of our National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. Kaepernick explained his (in)action thus:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. […] To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Leaving aside whether this view is justified by current events — even the Obama administration doesn’t think so — the most consequential “hot takes” on Kaepernick’s protest have sought to justify it by pointing to the lesser known third verse of The Star Spangled Banner:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Certain left-wing writers have seized on the language, alleging that The Star Spangled Banner’s composer, Francis Scott Key, was rejoicing in the downfall of slaves who had joined the British forces during the war of 1812. As Jon Schwartz wrote for The Intercept,

Almost no one seems to be aware that even if the U.S. were a perfect country today, it would be bizarre to expect African-American players to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Why? Because it literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans.

Schwartz and others argue that Key’s personal slave ownership and prosecution of abolitionists, and his assumed rage at the British arming and training escaped slaves, make our National Anthem a “celebration of slavery.”

This would seem to be a bombshell discovery, until we ask why no abolitionists or civil rights leaders took issue with The Star Spangled Banner for 200 years. On the contrary, famed former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas loved playing the tune on his violin, and was devoted to the American flag as a symbol of freedom to all peoples.

Conscientious Americans can rest easy: when they sing the 3rd verse, or any verse, of the Star Spangled Banner, they’re celebrating the brave men at Fort McHenry holding off invading British forces, not celebrating slavery.

The answer is that the line “hireling and slave” was always understood to refer to the invading British forces, and that twisting it to refer to American chattel slavery is anachronistic and dishonest.  

There are several reasons why.

1. From the context of the song itself, it is clear Key is simply referring to an invading force which will be repelled. Here are the preceding lyrics which Schwartz conveniently omits from his article:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

2. American contempt for conscription under foreign monarchies explains Key’s vitriol: one of the major causes of the War of 1812 was the British Empire “pressing” American sailors into service — kidnapping US citizens and forcing them to work on board British ships. Further, in 1814, there were many living Americans who remembered George Washington fighting Hessian troops, imported by the King’s Army, in our War for Independence.

Thus, it was a common pejorative to refer to the armies of foreign monarchs as “slaves” or mercenaries — because, in practice, they often were. In American Christian communities of the early 18th century, it was common to hear biblical condemnations of kingship from the pulpit, as this verse from 1 Samuel 11:

This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.

3. The terms of “slavery” and “hireling” or “mercenary” were common in literature and song of both American anti-monarchist circles and global republican movements of the era. Take, for example, the second and third verses of the (rather violent) La Marseillaise:

What do they want this horde of slaves
Of traitors and conspiratorial kings?
For whom these vile chains
These long-prepared irons?
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage
What methods must be taken?
It is us they dare plan
To return to the old slavery!

What! These foreign cohorts!
They would make laws in our courts!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would cut down our warrior sons…

Indeed, there are many examples of similar “slavery” rhetoric of the era, with reference to opposing the foot soldiers of despotism, not actual slaves:

4. Arguments against Key’s lyrics are based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence of Key’s personal feelings on the institution of slavery, and nothing that would directly support the interpretation that he was writing a song attacking black American slaves.

It is quite inconvenient to this revisionist narrative that as a lawyer, Key represented slaves petitioning for their freedom, free of charge, and that he manumitted (freed) all his own slaves. This makes him no saint, nor absolves him from participating in that wicked institution in the first place, but casts doubt on the point that bloodthirsty hatred must have informed his lyrics.

Key’s career offers more evidence that he accepted the odious law of the land, which apparently put him at odds with fellow slaveholders as often as not: his work on behalf of certain slaves prompted hateful parties to dub him the “N***** Lawyer.”

5. Key’s personal life pales in importance to the meaning his composition held for his fellow Americans. In the months and years following the War of 1812, The Star Spangled Banner was celebrated, sung, and reprinted in newspapers across our young nation. It was played by Union troops during the Civil War — and, as was mentioned earlier, had its enthusiasts among abolitionists and civil rights advocates. Although it was only officially declared our National Anthem by law in 1931, it had been our national song for a century.

Conscientious Americans can rest easy: when they sing the 3rd verse, or any verse, of the Star Spangled Banner, they’re celebrating the brave men at Fort McHenry holding off invading British forces, not celebrating slavery.

Countless men and women of every race and creed have sacrificed everything over the last 200 years to expand the natural rights of the Declaration, the lawful freedoms of the Constitution, and the promise of our National Anthem to all Americans.  And if they found inspiration in The Star Spangled Banner, then perhaps we may find it there as well.

Of course, this doesn’t erase the evil of slavery as a historical fact. But we know that slavery itself did not erase the virtue of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or the fundamental equality of “We the People.” It merely delayed the fulfillment of these concepts  — a fulfillment which would come after a brutal civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

In the end, slavery did not conquer the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The land of the free and the home of the brave conquered slavery.


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Billy Gribbin is a guest contributor to Conservative Review.

Author: Daniel Horowitz

Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.