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Nation Under SiegeThe ugly rea­son ‘The Star-​Spangled Ban­ner’ didn’t become our national anthem for a century

It was Sep­tem­ber of 1814. The British had sacked Wash­ing­ton and torched the White House. The con­flict became known as the War of 1812, even though it was in its third year.

The British had also taken pris­on­ers, includ­ing a pop­u­lar doc­tor from Prince George’s County in Mary­land. A friend of the doc­tor sailed on a ship fly­ing a truce flag to nego­ti­ate a pris­oner exchange with the Royal Navy.

The mis­sion was suc­cess­ful; British com­man­ders agreed to free the doc­tor. But while on the ship, the man — a 35-​year-​old lawyer named Fran­cis Scott Key — over­heard plans for a sur­prise attack on Bal­ti­more. He and the doc­tor would not be allowed to leave until the attack was over.

That’s how Key ended up wit­ness­ing the bom­bard­ment of Fort McHenry while aboard a British ship. He couldn’t tell from his van­tage point who had won or lost. But at dawn, he saw the Amer­i­can flag, 15 stars and 15 stripes at the time, still wav­ing over the fort and was inspired to write a poem. Soon, it was set to the tune of an exist­ing song.

That’s the short ver­sion of how “The Star-​Spangled Ban­ner” came to be.

The longer ver­sion — of both the song and the story of the man who wrote it — reveals not only why it has become con­tro­ver­sial now, in this sea­son of racial reck­on­ing, foot­ball and pres­i­den­tial cam­paign­ing, but why it was too con­tro­ver­sial to become the national anthem for more than a cen­tury after it was written.


First, a few things to know about the War of 1812: One of the main issues was the British prac­tice of impress­ment — the forced con­scrip­tion of Amer­i­can sailors to fight for the Royal Navy. Plus, the British promised refuge to any enslaved Black peo­ple who escaped their enslavers, rais­ing fears among White Amer­i­cans of a large-​scale revolt. The final provo­ca­tion was that men who escaped their bonds of slav­ery were wel­come to join the British Corps of Colo­nial Marines in exchange for land after their ser­vice. As many as 4,000 peo­ple, mostly from Vir­ginia and Mary­land, escaped.

It’s impor­tant to know these things because

This 1912 painting, “By Dawn's Early Light” by Percy Moran, dramatizes Francis Scott Key's writing of the poem that became the national anthem. (Library of Congress)The Star-​Spangled Ban­ner,” orig­i­nally called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” has more than one verse. The sec­ond half of the third verse ends like this:

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.

These lyrics are a clear ref­er­ence to the Colo­nial Marines, accord­ing to Jef­fer­son Mor­ley, author of “Snow-​Storm in August: Wash­ing­ton City, Fran­cis Scott Key, and the For­got­ten Race Riot of 1835.” They are clearly meant to scorn and threaten the African Amer­i­cans who took the British up on their offer, he wrote in a recent essay for The Wash­ing­ton Post. Key surely knew about the Colo­nial Marines, and it’s even pos­si­ble he saw them among the con­tin­gent of British ships that sailed into Bal­ti­more Harbor.

But Mark Clague, a musi­col­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan and an expert on the anthem, dis­agrees. In 2016, he told the New York Times: “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.” He also noted that Black peo­ple fought on the Amer­i­can side of the war as well.

Whether manip­u­la­tion or not, the British kept their word to Colo­nial Marines after the war, refus­ing the United States’ demand that they be returned and pro­vid­ing them land in Trinidad and Tobago to reset­tle with their fam­i­lies. Their descen­dants, called “Merikins,” still live there today.

And even if these lyrics aren’t meant to be explic­itly racist, Key clearly was. He descended from a wealthy plan­ta­tion fam­ily and enslaved peo­ple. He spoke of Black peo­ple as “a dis­tinct and infe­rior race” and sup­ported eman­ci­pat­ing the enslaved only if they were imme­di­ately shipped to Africa, accord­ing to Morley.

Dur­ing the Andrew Jack­son admin­is­tra­tion, Key served as the dis­trict attor­ney for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he spent much of his time shoring up enslavers’ power. He strictly enforced slave laws and pros­e­cuted abo­li­tion­ists who passed out pam­phlets mock­ing his juris­dic­tion as the “land of the free, home of the oppressed.”

He also influ­enced Jack­son to appoint his brother-​in-​law chief jus­tice of the United States. You may have heard of him; Roger B. Taney is infa­mous for writ­ing the Dred Scott deci­sion that decreed Black peo­ple “had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.” A statue of Taney and a school named after Key have been recent sub­jects of scrutiny dur­ing the protests fol­low­ing the police killing of George Floyd.

Although “The Star-​Spangled Ban­ner” and all of its verses were imme­di­ately famous, Key’s overt racism pre­vented it from becom­ing the national anthem while he was alive, Mor­ley wrote. There was no offi­cial anthem, and many peo­ple chose to sing other songs, like “My Coun­try ‘Tis of Thee.”

Key’s anthem gained pop­u­lar­ity over time, par­tic­u­larly among post-​Reconstruction White South­ern­ers and the mil­i­tary. In the early 20th Cen­tury, all but the first verse were cut — not for their racism, but for their anti-​British bent. The United King­dom was by then an ally.

After the mis­ery of World War I, the lyrics were again con­tro­ver­sial for their vio­lence. But groups like the United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy fought back, push­ing for the song to be made the offi­cial national anthem. In 1931, Pres­i­dent Her­bert Hoover made it so.

The ele­va­tion of the ban­ner from pop­u­lar song to offi­cial national anthem was a neo-​Confederate polit­i­cal vic­tory, and it was cel­e­brated as such,” Mor­ley wrote. “When sup­port­ers threw a vic­tory parade in Bal­ti­more in June 1931, the march was led by a color guard hoist­ing the Con­fed­er­ate flag.”

Gillian Brock­ell is a staff writer for The Wash­ing­ton Post’s his­tory blog, Retrop­o­lis. She has been at The Post since 2013 and pre­vi­ously worked as a video editor.

Editor’s Note: For those who call them­selves white peo­ple, know the nation’s his­tory! No one can blame the deeds of the past to the peo­ple of the present. All one can do is to make sure one is not twist­ing the knife in the womb, by not know­ing his­tory. And thereby being par­ti­san to that of which you know lit­tle. Because in these days any­one can be a racist. Once you stop think­ing in divi­sion, then you see every one is some shade of brown. Beige, is just another shade of brown. And racism, in it’s essence, is the power to deny some other per­son, or per­sons, their rights or pisi­tion arbitrarily.


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