WASHINGTON, January 6, 2017: Across the country, the assault on American history continues. Now, the “Star-Spangled Banner” is under attack by the incoming mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Recently, Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, where both George Washington and Robert E. Lee were parishioners, decided to remove a pair of plaques from the sanctuary that memorializes Washington and Lee.
The church argues that some people might not feel”welcome” if the Washington plaque remained.
In his inaugural address, Melvin Carter III, the incoming mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, says that the Star-Spangled Banner is an “ode to slavery.” Not only is this an ignorant statement, but it also highlights the lack of historical education held by the mayor.
The ignorance of false accusations: The Star-Spangled Banner is not an “ode to slavery’?
Mr. Carter, who is African-American, said he would approve of playing the national anthem but only if “all” the verses were played, including the verse he insists proves that the song celebrates slavery.
“We cannot ignore the painful reminder, written into our anthem’s third verse, of just how deeply injustice is rooted in the American tradition…Our national freedom song is an ode to slavery,” Carter said during his address. He continued: “This is the American paradox, passed from generation to generation, dating back to the noble group of rich, white, straight male landowners; who embodied into our founding principles a yearning for a set of God-given rights they sought to secure for only themselves.”
The mayor went on to quote the verse he claims has been, purposely left out of the anthem:
And where is that band who so valiantly 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 save
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.
Few historians substantiate Carter’s interpretation of the verse.
Words have changed over the centuries. In his pronouncement, Carter pointed to the line, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave” as proof that the song celebrated slavery.
Historians will argue that the words actually referred to the British Navy’s practice of impressing American sailors into serving the Crown, essentially making them slaves to the British Navy.
That practice, known as impressment, was one of the causes of the Revolution and, later, the War of 1812.
In addition, large numbers of black soldiers were fighting for the U.S. during the War of 1812, which sparked Francis Scott Key’s writing the tune, and he was aware of that.
Mayor Carter also overlooked the fact the version of the song officially adopted as our national anthem does not even include the allegedly offensive verse. The verse had been removed from the song during the decades following the Civil War and up to when it officially became our national anthem in 1931. Not due to content, but to shorten it for public use.
Assaults on the Star-Spangled Banner and its creator
The strange campaign against the Star-Spangled Banner is gaining momentum in some circles.
In September, vandals defaced a Baltimore statue of Key with the words “Racist Anthem” written with red spray paint. In November, the NAACP’s California chapter called on Congress to remove the Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem, making reference to the third verse.
Jason Johnson, the political editor of The Root, an online news magazine addressing issues related to black Americans, disparaged the song in 2016:
“It is one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American, lexicon, and you would be wise to cut it from your Fourth of July playlist.”
In his view, the slaves referenced in the song were the Colonial Marines, a group of runaway slaves who fought against the Americans in the British Royal Army with the hope of gaining emancipation.
Francis Scott Key, Star-Spangled author
History, despite the proclamations of Mayor Carter and the NAACP, is a bit more complex, as is the man Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner as he watched bombs from the British fleet fall on Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.
Walter Olsen, a senior fellow at The Cato Institute, notes that,
“At the time Key was writing, the word ‘slave’ had long functioned in English as a wide-ranging epithet, hurled at persons of any and all colors, nationalities and conditions of servitude or otherwise.” He points out that Shakespeare commonly used the word as an epithet.
Professor Mark Clague, a musicologist at the University of Michigan, believes:
“The middle two verses of Key’s lyric vilify the British enemy in the War of 1812” and “in no way glorifies or celebrates slavery. For Key, the British mercenaries were scoundrels and the Colonial Marines were traitors and threatened to spark a rebellion.” The anti-British nature of the third verse caused its omission in sheet music during World War 1, when the U.S. and Britain were allies.
In Clague’s view, “The reference to slaves is about the use, and in some sense, the manipulation of black Americans to fight for the British with the promise of freedom. The American forces included African-Americans as well as whites. The term ‘freemen,’ whose heroism is celebrated in the fourth stanza, would have encompassed both.”
The Star-Spangled Banner honors all Americans
According to this analysis, Key’s 1814 lyric honored American soldiers, both black and white. The Star-Spangled Banner celebrates the heroes who defended Ft. McHenry in the face of almost certain defeat against the most powerful gunships of the era. America’s soldiers included free and escaped blacks. Escaped slave William Williams served in the U.S. Infantry at Ft. McHenry and was killed by a fragment of a British bomb. Another escaped slave, Charles Ball, writes in his memoirs of being among the American soldiers of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla who courageously repelled a night attack and saved the city.
It is Dr. Clague’s assessment that,
“The Star-Spangled Banner honors American military heroes, black and white, without regard for race. In this respect, the Star-Spangled Banner is not racist.”
Francis Scott Key’s attitude toward slavery was hardly favorable. He owned seven slaves through inheritance. He freed four of them and to one. Clem Johnson, Key offered to provide a “home until his death.” As a founding officer of the American Colonization Society, Key viewed slavery as a moral wrong that required a solution.
Rather than abolish slavery, however, the society purchased slaves and offered them passage to Africa. The African settlements created by the American Colonization Society became the independent nation of Liberia in 1847. In his recent biography of Key, Marc Leepson writes that,
“In the context of his era, Key was surprisingly progressive.”
Key helped establish the Georgetown Lancaster School for freed people of color and taught there. Over one thousand black children were students at the school and most attended tuition-free. Key put his skills and reputation as an attorney at the service of blacks suing for their freedom.
Star-Spangled Banner an ode to America’s fight for freedom
Most notably in the 1825 case of the slave ship Antelope (a precursor to the Amistad). Addressing the U.S. Supreme Court, Key described the treatment of slaves as “extreme cruelty” and slaves as “unhappy victims.”
Key said that those aboard the ship were men, of whom it cannot be affirmed that they have universally and necessarily an owner.” Key lost his case, but most of the enslaved captives were returned to Africa, a moral if not a legal victory.
While he sometimes represented slave owners as clients, Key won the freedom of Henry Quando in 1830 and Joseph Crawford in 1834. He undertook these cases gratis.
He also led a fundraising campaign to help defend a man, woman, and child represented by an abolitionist lawyer.
Francis Scott Key was a complex man living in difficult times. The Star-Spangled Banner is not an ode to slavery, which those who insist upon simplifying history would like us to believe, but an ode to freedom.
If Mayor Carter, the NAACP and others who are leading the historic attack upon the Star-Spangled Banner, cannot live with the complexity of our history, of all human history, hopefully, the rest of us can.