Is The Star-Spangled Banner A Racist Song From A Racist Man?

Thanks to the benching of Colin Kaepernick, the debate over the national anthem is alit. If you read history, you’ll discover that this is nothing new, however, this is the most prominent it has ever been. Anti-American sentiment fueled the first rounds of Anthem hating, and now this current round is fueled by the wisdom of an athlete who wants to promote change so much that he refuses to vote in elections.

Presently, the main reason to cut ties with the Star-Spangled Banner as our anthem is because of alleged racism. This argument is two-fold. First, Francis Scott Key owned slaves. Second, Key is an alleged racist and injected racist sentiments into the Star-Spangled Banner. Let us briefly consider these charges. To the first charge, it is true that Key owned slaves. However, that has no relevance to our discussion on the merits of the Star-Spangled Banner. Those ill-thinking zealots who believe that nothing good ever came from anyone who owned slaves do not realize that many things are indeed mutually exclusive. Any rational thinker will see how seriously flawed, and dangerous, that line of reasoning is: “X owned slaves; therefore, we must dismantle everything connected to X, and any appreciation for X’s contributions in other domains is the same as supporting slavery”. If one seriously held this idea constantly, the number of things with which they would cut ties is limitless. This is idiocy, and I need not say more, for at this point, one either agrees or disagrees, and nothing I say will help break their delusion.

To the second point, alleged racism. This is more complex than Key’s critics admit. For Key had a mixed and rather confusing record with Black Americans. On the one hand, he fought against abolitionists, and his prosecutorial aggression in court to convict a black man on trial may have helped spark the Snow race riot of 1835. On the other hand, he donated his legal services to represent Black Americans who were fighting for their freedom. And on another occasion, he faced down a lynch mob attempting to hang a man, by standing between them and their target Arthur Bowen. What are we to conclude from this other than a mixed and confusing record regarding race? With no certainty can one claim that Key was only a raging racist, for if he were, he did not understand what that meant. The only proper conclusion is that Key was not a one-dimensional racist man, he was a complicated and complex human of his time; shocking.

Another way to convict Key as an irredeemable racist is to use his own words against him. The most damning is this oft quoted answer he gave to an interview where he stated that blacks were, “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” However, this is not as it seems, for Key did not say this in the first person. The quote comes from a question posed to him in an interview. He is asked what the “Christian Colonizationists at the South” think about emancipation. Key answers, in effect, “well they say this and believe that.” Meaning he was giving what he thought a certain group of Southerners believed. The quote is still reprehensible, but it can not be attributed to him personally. Did he agree with this view? Did he disagree? It is not clear. But is it fair to demonize a man for what he said another group believed? That would be like asking you to answer: what would the Nazis say about the Jews? To which you would reply, “well the Nazis believed this about Jews,” and then armchair historians arrive to condemn you for what you said, even if you did not believe it yourself. We can conclude definitively that Key was not speaking in the first person when he said this. As to whether he believed it himself or not, is unclear, and anyone suggesting otherwise, without providing more evidence, is simply pushing their agenda. See for yourself, below is an image of the page, and quote, in question.

Next, let us consider the combatants at Baltimore. Some attest that in the third verse, the line referring to “hiring and slave,” Key was specifically referring to the British Colonial Marines, which contained escaped black slaves who fought for the British. They allege that Key added this line to put down Black Americans. It is possible, as many things are, but is it likely? No. Black combatants made up about 6%. That is hardly a force to draw much attention. Couple this with the fact that both freed and enslaved blacks contributed to the defense of Baltimore for the Americans; would Key use such language to deride a group of people who also contributed to the miracle at Baltimore? Seems unlikely. Additionally, Baltimore, the third largest US city, contained the largest population of free blacks — many of whom just defended the city from British attack. This would hardly be the audience, or time, for some racists remarks, and Key would be aware of this. (See Stevenson University. Racism, Rhetoric, and Research. https://www.stevenson.edu/academics/undergraduate-programs/history/blog-news-events/racism-or-rhetoric-francis-scott-key-and-the-defence-of-fort-mchenry).

Lastly, let us examine the historical use of the phrase, “hireling and slave.” It has long been used by writers and poets to deride and insult, most often aimed toward mercenaries, and hired soldiers — which the British used in the War of 1812. It was also generally used as an insult aimed at a free person doing something at the whim of someone else, often a powerful person. Examine the list below to confirm that this coupling of “hireling” and “slave” were in common usage. This list is from “The Common Room” Blog (http://thecommonroomblog.com/2020/12/hirelings-and-slaves.html).

1796, “Essays and Poems read in Theatres at Oxford: “…they thus became the ready agents of the highest paymaster; content to substitute for the disinterested enthusiasm of the patriot and the hero, the rapacity of the hireling and the devotion of the slave…”

1787, Robert Southey’s poem Elinor: “sink the slave Of Vice and Infamy! the hireling prey Of brutal appetite!”

1793, Hannah More: No, not an hireling slave Shall hail Great HEZEKIAH in the grave: Where’s he, who falsely claim’d the name of Great? Whose eye was terror, and whose frown was fate? Who aw’d an hundred nations from the throne…”

1794, Pig’s Meat… In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a State-hireling for treason to his Country…. A Slave of State, hired by a stipend.

An accurate new spelling dictionary, and expositor of the English language … The sixth edition, much improved, 1798, uses hireling and slave to define the word mercenary.

Politics for the People, Daniel Eaton, 1794- “Excite a sense of shame in the breasts of those numerous hireling slaves, who are always ready at the command of their masters to destroy their fellow citizens. Rouse all the powers of human nature to oppose this subversion of social laws….”

J. Ridgway, late 1700s, in a pamphlet or book called Criticism of the Rolliad writes scathingly of a dinner composed of members of the aristocracy opposed to liberty, describing the gathering as a “dull and miserly association of ducal toad-eaters and dependants, …slaves, government runners, pimps, and hirelings of all descriptions.”

1779, G. Cawthorn, The Historical, Biographical, Literary, and Scientific Magazine, vol 1: “not till the enemies of his country, the slaves of power, and the hirelings of injustice, were compelled to abandon their schemes, and acknowledge America as terrible in arms as she had been humble in remonstrance.

Thomas Underwood in the late 1700s wrote a poem on Liberty. There’s a line calling for ‘curses on the mem’ry of every hireling slave. In fact, he calls down curses several times on political mercenaries, those political hacks who oppose freedom for what they can get out of it. He refers to them as hireling slaves, elves, lurkers in the dark, bravoes of the night (a bravo at the time was a brigand, a mugger, a thug), and my favourite, not just elves, but “venal, mercenary elves.” and more. He asks of the hireling slaves who write in opposition to liberty, ‘shall such slaves, detested be the thought, who work for pay, and therefore sold and bought, usurp dominion? Must we then obey, submit our thoughts to their despotic slavery? He’s not talking about chattel, race-based slavery here.” (1768)

1767, The Political Register… refers to the practice of buying votes and seats of officers in a standing army resulting in hirelings and slaves. “… they now in fact purchase great part of the votes which support their opposition… corrupt means as the ministry retain and procure seats for their hirelings… The opposition well know that these slaves care not what master they serve for they are paid for it…”

A New and Impartial History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Signing of the Preliminaries of Peace in the Year 1762, Volume 7 John II Barrow, refers to a debate in the time of William III over the merits of a standing army (termed mercenaries and hirelings, as they serve for pay and a job and not for love of country) vs an all volunteer force. In the same paragraph he refers to the army as hirelings he says that those mercenaries were the only slaves in the kingdom.

The Poet: A Poem by Percival Stockdale. He was staunchly and publicly opposed to the slave trade, but he uses the terms slaves and hirelings in a different fashion here in a deliciously brutal take-down of what he views as current mercenary and Philistine trends in poetry resulting in the disappearance of poetry as art:

No longer now the nine Aonian maids

Find hospitable haunts in royal shades

Poets are left to penury a prey

The slaves of trade, the hirelings of the day

Some pert prim Cadell or some rougher Turk

Prescribes the theme the measure of the work

Checks the free thought, lops off the ardent word…”

What are we to then conclude? Key owned slaves, but is the Anthem really racist? There is no evidence to support this claim. Historical evidence of the battle does not support this claim; historical evidence of Key’s personal life is inconclusive at best; historical quotes, incorrectly attributed to him, are not reflective of his personal beliefs; and historical usage of the phrase “hireling and slave” was common at that time, found in many writings, and almost never refer to chattel slavery in almost any context. We can conclude that there is no evidence to suggest the Star-Spangled Banner is racist, supports racism, or upholds racism in any way. Unfortunately, a lack of evidence has never stopped the zealots from seeing what they want. Hopefully it will be different for the reader.

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Thinker. Writer. Sto Pro Veritate.

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