No, the national anthem is not about slavery

The Star-Spangled Banner
The original Star-Spangled Banner, in the Smithsonian Institution

One would think that the availability of the internet would increase the general truthfulness of human discourse. When it’s so easy to check our facts, our facts ought to be more… factual.

The actual effect, as far as I can see, has been to simply facilitate the spread of misinformation. Which ought to prove the doctrine of Original Sin beyond all dispute, it seems to me.

The misinformation I have in mind today is the urban legend, popularized in the wake of the recent controversy over a football player (who shall remain nameless here, because he doesn’t need the publicity) who refused to stand for the national anthem. The urban legend says that all black people should refuse to stand for the song, because it was written by a slave owner for the purpose of glorifying slavery.

This is hogwash. Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder, and a supporter of slavery, in common with most of his family and neighbors. But the song has nothing to do with that.

The offending lines, which are quoted as proof that the Star-Spangled Banner is a celebration of the institution of slavery are these:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:

Now look at the context. Here’s Keys’ entire poem:

O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

When you look at the entire poem, it’s obvious that the words “hireling and slave” do not refer to black slaves, who are not mentioned at all in the poem. The hirelings and slaves here are the British armed forces, whose defeat at Fort McHenry Key is celebrating. Key is taunting them, speaking as a free citizen of a republic, for being unfree and slavish subjects of a tyrannous English monarch. The insult intentionally contrasts with the first line of the last stanza, where he writes, “O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.” His argument is that it’s inevitable that free men, voluntarily defending their homes, will always defeat the demoralized subjects of a king, who can only be made to fight through payments of money and threats.

That’s the truth of it. Not that telling the truth will matter to anybody.

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