Far from Las Vegas, the racist cant of the National Anthem and its lyricist

racist cant of the National Anthem

Francis Scott Key

You might think that President Donald J. Trump, who demands that pro football players stand for the National Anthem, would at least know its words himself and sing them with hearty gusto. Alas, it was painfully clear from his White House event yesterday, rebranded as a patriotic “Celebration of America” function after most players on the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles signaled they would skip the visit, that he doesn’t and can’t. Per the video,Trump seemed to have trouble remembering and vocalizing all the lyrics.

But overall that may not be such a bad thing. As I have pointed out before, “The Star-Spangled Banner” contains lyrics–mercifully, rarely sung–that welcomes the killing of fleeing slaves. Moreover, lawyer Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), the man who wrote those words as a poem in 1814, was a slaveowner himself who opposed abolition and who as a government prosecutor once tried to jail a writer who truthfully wrote that the nation’s capital was a stinking, lousy place for blacks to live.

Growing up in the Philadelphia area long before becoming New To Las Vegas, I rooted for the Eagles. The forthright position now of the team’s players, who unlike some on other NFL teams never failed to stand for the anthem (contrary to what Trumpeter Fox News reported for a time) but respected those who didn’t, makes me think I should repeat some of the bad history. 

The biggest problem with the National Anthem is its third stanza, which you probably have never heard. (In case you wonder, there actually are four stanzas, each ending with “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”) Here is the third stanza in its entirety:

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!  

The reference in the fifth line to refuge of the slave refers to the fact that British ships in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812 (one of our more obscure conflicts) were willing to take away runaway slaves, something that Key opposed during his public life. Indeed, the slaves who fled to the Brits represented the largest mass freeing of indentured-for-life blacks until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation a half-century later during the Civil War in 1863. The “hireling” Key referred to meant mercenary, a paid soldier from other European countries.

Aside from slavery, the inspiration for Key’s words was the Battle of Fort McHenry, part of the larger Battle of Baltimore in the summer of 1814. Key actually witnessed it from a British warship, where he was part of a U.S. delegation negotiating a prisoner exchange. That means he probably saw some of the ex-slaves facing “the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” It’s also possible that some of the ex-slaves saw him and wondered if they might be handed back. (They weren’t.)

Key had a long public career, much of it tied up in racial issues. He was critical of slavery’s obvious cruelties, but not so much of the institution itself. Key was a founder and leader of the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to ship freed blacks to Africa. He was eventually bounced from its board when the organization pivoted to a pro-abolition position.

Nearly two decades after writing his famous poem, Key was the district attorney for Washington, D.C. In that position he indicted the editor and printer of an anti-slavery publication in 1833 for criminal libel for writing, “There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people” in the nation’s capital, where slavery and segregation were both legal. Key’s charges said the article “was intended to injure, oppress, aggrieve, and vilify the good name, fame, credit & reputation” of the authorities.

Now that’s language that might resonate with Trump and his repeated complaints about “fake news.”

After the indictment, the editor skipped town. The printer, however, stayed and was acquitted. Even then, truth was a complete defense to libel–another concept Trump has had trouble getting his head around.

Key’s views on slavery, it seems, were rooted in Christianity. In 1816 he was a founder of the New York City-based American Bible Society, serving as a vice president until his death. Best known today for printing Bibles, the ABS was founded on an abolitionist philosophy, but Key worked from the inside to minimize its influence in that respect.

You shouldn’t be surprised to find the whiff of slavery in something as venerable and sacrosanct as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which actually didn’t officially become the national anthem until 1931. Slavery infected many of our country’s earliest notions. As I argued here recently, the Second Amendment and its “right of the people to keep and bear arms” was added to the U.S. Constitution to make it easier for Southern states to preserve slavery.

Trump, who has bragged he doesn’t read books, clearly is no student of history. But given the background of Key and his famous poem, that might be good. Otherwise, the president might get the notion he should issue some kind of pardon.

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