In Defense of the National Anthem and Francis Scott Key

Today, Sept. 14, is the 203rd anniversary of the song that would become our national anthem.

Yesterday, a monument to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and to its author, Francis Scott Key — who lived in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. — was vandalized in Baltimore, birthplace of the song.

The words “Racist Anthem” were spray-painted on the stonework and base and a statue of Key was splattered with paint. Lyrics from the third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were spray-painted on the base and sidewalk, along with “slave owner.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh instructed city officials to clean it up. The statue is staying put, police are investigating and some Americans need an urgent history lesson.

The following is an amended version of a Georgetowner newspaper editorial of Sept. 14, 2016.

“Defence of Fort McHenry,” the original title of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” became a hit after the Battle of Baltimore, when the Royal Navy withdrew away from the harbor in September 1814. The fort took many mortar bombs and cannonballs, but the British could not pass.

Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key had sailed earlier with a federal official to meet the top British officers — Admiral George Cockburn and General Robert Ross — on their ship, seeking release of an American prisoner. They had to stay on their truce ship as the enemy launched the attack.

At first an opponent of the War of 1812, Key saw through the morning haze of Sept. 14 the flag still waving above Fort McHenry — an incredible, emotional revelation to him — in sight of the conquerors of Napoleon.

This is what is so powerful about the song: it captures how Americans felt about their 38-year-old nation. Its impact cannot be underestimated. To most people, the hand of God was at work.

Weeks before, on Aug. 24, 1814, troops of Ross and Cockburn burned the official buildings of fledgling Washington, D.C., after defeating the Americans at Bladensburg. The Brits entered the nation’s capital unopposed. All of Washington, D.C, Georgetown, D.C., and Alexandria, , D.C., were in panic. President James Madison fled to Virginia and then to Maryland. It was a national humiliation we can only imagine through the lenses of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, let us briefly respond to the likes of Colin Kaepernick, who refuse to stand for the flag, contending that this nation is racist — and a few who say the anthem is, too. They are within their rights as Americans to protest.

Some cite the third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for its use of the word “slave” as proof of racism.

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.

Key wrote the stanza as an invective against the arrogant British, America’s enemy at the time. Yes, runaway American slaves fought with the British, but free blacks and runaway slaves fought with the Americans’ Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.

A slave owner, Key was conflicted about slavery. As D.C. attorney general, he prosecuted slaves, but also represented them in lawsuits to obtain their freedom — including one against Georgetown College. He was highly respected in the city and in the federal government. For his time, he ought to be perceived as progressive.

The accusation that the poem itself is racist is off the mark and lacks historical context. How is Key’s use of the word, “slaves,” who were part of the enemy force, offensive? How many texts contain the word “slaves”? In such excluding minds, what’s next? The sculpture in Francis Scott Key Park on M Street in Georgetown, next to Key Bridge? What about the equestrian statue of liberator Simón Bolívar, a slave owner, at 18th Street and Virginia Avenue, across from the Organization of American States?

We should not let the historiphobes frame such discussion for their narrow goals. Name one society, culture or civilization, going back to ancient Mesopotamia, which did not have its hands in some form of slavery. All have sinned — even in 2017 there are millions of people enslaved around the world.

In the nation’s capital, such a narrow, ill-informed opinion seems especially ironic, where Georgetown University has sought to atone for its slavery past and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened for all Americans, celebrates its first anniversary on the National Mall. These accomplishments are unifying and inclusive — unlike those exclusive, ideological special interests which decry history for their own benefit.

On this day, let us recall that unity we had for a moment 16 years ago this week during our shock and recovery from the destruction and loss of life in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia and take to heart, renewed, the fourth stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand,
Between their loved home, 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.


30 comments on “In Defense of the National Anthem and Francis Scott Key”

  • Deborah Smith says:

    Thank you.

  • Sunny Dee says:

    And you sound just like your president. And to the likes of you, let me ask you a question — were the slaves free when that song was written. Sure you had some fighting with the British and the Americans, but were all of them free. You see, they were not fighting for my ancestors freedom. They were fighting for their own freedom, while continuing to keep our ancestors enslaved. Just like Kaep is entitled to how he feels, you are too . . . so don’t try to knock him. One last thing, is there not police brutality going on in AmeriKKKa . . . the racists and their confederate flags are out in full force. Where is your article on that Mr. Devaney?

    • Aenne says:

      “Hirelings and slaves” is a metaphor for the BRITISH SOLDIERS who either joined the army voluntarily for the money (hirelings) or who were conscripted into the army, sometimes by force. (slaves). Leave it to some to see racism where it isn’t.

    • Allamun says:

      Your forgetting the 750,000 men that flag represents that died fighting in the civil war to stop slavery. The greatest loss of lives in any US engaged war in history. Dont think any other country on earth has done that. So let’s stop trying to hold on to the past so hard to fit a narrative. when so many fought to change it.

      • Adam Taylor says:

        I know you don’t really think white people were fighting for black people to be free in the 1800s. It was a war over labor.

      • ADG says:

        Yes there were quite a few slaves who fought in the civil war and turned the losing tide of the war. The north should be thankful that the enslaved saved the union.

  • Iman says:

    A bunch of BS. So people should just accept that we have monuments up of people who contributed to the slavery of Black people. He should be considered progressive for his time you say? Typical response! No one today wants to take responsibility for their ancestors wrong doing. Meanwhile Black people are still dealing with the mistreatment and discrimination that our ancestors endured! Own up to your shit!

    • Allamun says:

      How come no one mentions how Egypt is in Africa and they enslaved Jewish people for over 2000 years. And Africa still deals in the slave trade today in 2021.
      In America, we ended the importing of slaves and fought a war with the British and a war among
      ourselves to end slavery in the US. Claiming over 750,000 lives in the Civil war alone, to see slavery ended. The greatest death toll in any war the Us has ever engaged in. So to call a country racist that brought a people with them to this country and then fight to free them is a little far fetched to say the least. Of course there are bad people in every country and slavery still exist in 2/3rds of the world today. But to try and say someone is holding these accomplished singers, comedians, dancers, actors,
      athletes, Mayors, Governors,
      Congress Men, Woman, and
      The Vice President of the United States of America back from a better life is a little ridiculous. Everyone one is this country have the same opportunities Racism exist everywhere, in every country, ( in every race )in the world. But to say a country of people that lost as many lives as the US did fighting for the same ones calling it systemically racist is absurd. By the way the ones saying this are the ones the US fought against to end slavery.

      • TheMan says:

        The Jews who lived in Egypt for 2,000 years looked no different from the people who enslaved them, so what’s your point? Racism is a social construct and nowhere on the face of the planet was it so absurd as was and still is in the United States of America. Go do some research on the Jim Crow South, and no the Civil War wasn’t about freeing black people from slavery that was an afterthought. The Civil War was about money.

      • Sabrina says:


  • Gman says:

    I don’t understand Iman’s response about Whites taking responsibility for the actions of people that lived over 200 hundred years ago. If you hold this to be true Mr. “Iman”, then you should know that the first slave owner in the Americas was a Black man. Also, many slaves were sold to Slave traders on the African coasts by Black people. Slave trade is still ongoing today in many African nations. My question to you Mr. “Iman” is when are you going to take responsibility for your ancestors and your present people?

  • Tony says:

    Ok, if the National Anthem is racist, then America was founded on racism inasmuch as among the founding fathers, George Washington owned slaves. So as a disabled veteran who loves this country, I offer two solutions… Let’s eliminate Washington DC as the Nation’s capitol (since it was named after a slave holder) and move the seat of Government to COMPTON, California! Ice Cube will be the new president. Easy E can be Secretary of State. MC Ren Secretary of Defense, and Yella can be Secretary of the Interior. If that isn’t acceptable, then let’s abolish the Star Spangled Banner and the ENTIRE COUNTRY WITH IT! LETS RE TARGET OUR NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND NUKE OURSELVES!

    • Rosie says:

      Stop believing the fairytales you grew up with. Your “forefathers” weren’t even the first to colonize this land. The Spanish were already doing that about 100 years before the British. As for the monuments, statues, etc ARE reminders of the dehumanization and slaughter of millions. To help you understand, what if your little girl was raped? Should we celebrate that evil with a statue of the rapist and place it everywhere as a reminder? What if we call it; National Rapist Day and celebrate with fireworks and apple pie? What if your wife was sold to the highest bidder, shall we erect a monument in honor of the sellers and buyers? What if your son was hung free for neither reason than being white, should we mark that tree a landmark? What if we twist the truth and call you a liar and blame your family. What if we make come up with anthem to celebrate the dehumanization of your family? Wearing a uniform doesn’t take away from your ignorance.

      Yes, we should abolish the star spangled banner.
      Given that your “hero” FSK said the following:

      “Free Blacks are a ‘distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts the community” – Francis Scott Key

      • Allamun says:

        Key was reading the belief of the beliefs of the Christian Colonizationanist of the South *aka the Democrats., not his own beliefs. Re read it and you will see he wanted to send them where they would be accepted, and not considered less.

  • Victoria says:

    I don’t think America will ever get it. The wrongs of the past need to be made right today in our modernity! If FSKey was a progressive in the day and is ill thought of today, because of his slave-ownership, than take the monuments down. Trust me, the monument won’t care and this gives all free folk the ability to drive down the street without ‘in the face’ reminders of enslavement. I for one would like to see all monuments either be replaced, torn down, or renamed appropriately. And the fail safe argument that damn never everyone owned slaves is about as logical as ‘all the neighbors kick dogs’ so ‘I’m going to kick dogs too!” That’s crazy talk! No one gets to kick the dog! No one gets to be proud of having been a slave owner (black or white) either. And rename Washington DC…no one refers to it as such anyway…it’s usually referred to as DC. Folks, we are smarter than this, wake up, it is 2018 and it’s time we acted like it.

    • Gunnar says:

      God help us all. You want to remove every single vestige of America – monuments, flag, anthem, founders, place names, and more. Doing that isn’t “righting wrongs”, doing that is cheap, feel good “I’m a rebel” garbage. Righting past wrongs HAS been done: thousands of mostly white Union soldiers died to end slavery; the Civil Rights Act was passed; we now have black millionaires, professionals, and politicians. Yes, we can do more, but destroying the past puts you on par with the Taliban who attacked museums and blew up a 1,500 Buddha statue because they “offended them”.

      Lost on those who see white racists and racism behind every tree and in everything is the fact that black Africans helped white slavers. Lighter skinned African blacks owned darker skinned black Africans as slaves, some Native Americans had slaves, including black slaves, a black man from Angola was given the right to own black slaves in 17th century Virginia by the colonial court there. NO ONE takes them to task or condemns them for it. All you’ve got is one big fat ball of hate for white people and a nation that millions of non-whites want to come to, despite it being the racist hell hole that you say it is.

      • Zanza says:

        I think we should get rid of the wheel as well. Wheels were used on vehicles that transported slaves. While we’re at it, we should uproot every tree in America, because trees were used by lynch mobs.

  • Cyeid says:

    Stop comparing slavery of the ancient world to the brutally mortifying and inhumane form of chattel slavery the European used against Africans! Two totally opposite sides of the spectrum. Show me in history where the slave owners taped the male slaves to break their spirit in buck breaking camps. Where they used the babies of slaves as alligator bait. Where laws were created to protect the slave owning women from prosecution from murdering slave children and infants. I can go on damn near infinitely with the devilishment. Then you try to justify it with name a society that hasn’t? Problem is there is only one

    • Rosie says:

      So, you think Hebrew slaves had it any easier? I bet you believe they built pyramids, the sphinx, and huge structures with Legos, that they drank tea with the Pharoahs, and spent the weekend at the lake relaxing. I bet you also believe in martians. Slavery is slavery, cruel, evil, monstrous acts of crime committed by demons to dehumanize humans. Educate yourself before you make an ignorant assumption.

    • Richard Ingrahm says:

      Seriously? Enslaved blacks in the US and enslaved people centuries ago in other cultures are “two different sides of the spectrum”? Talk about twisting history to make it fit a narrative. Slaves centuries ago were treated just as badly as black slaves in the US were. You make it sound like they got health care, took vacations and got a gold watch after 25 years. What silliness.

  • Dean says:

    “Hirelings and slaves,” was referring to the British Army, not Africans. America was about escaping the tyranny of Great Britain. The British soldiers were either forced into service by the king or hired by the king’s purse.

    • Rosie says:

      It’s sad how white try to justify their lies, with ignorant explanations. Why are you terrified of the truth? Francis S. Key was a slave holder against abolishing slavery. It’s time to wake up and smell the stench of your “great” Americans’ evil.

      “Free Blacks are a ‘distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts the community” – Francis Scott Key

      • Allamun says:

        Key was reading the belief of the beliefs of the Christian Colonizationanist of the South *aka the Democrats., not his own beliefs. Re read it and you will see he wanted to send them where they would be accepted, and not considered less.

  • Rosie says:

    Quoted from link below for the deeply programmed whites still in denial. Being educated is golden.. Ignorance makes you an epic failure. YOU are the greatest evil that afflicted this land.

    “Free Blacks are a ‘distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience
    proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts the community” – Francis Scott Key

  • Steve R says:

    ● Francis Scott Key describes the British as arrogant and boastful in the lyrics ‘that band who so vauntingly swore’
    ● He is venting his anger at the British with the “foul footsteps’ pollution” lyrics inferring that the British poisoned the ground on which they walked
    ● But the poison and corruption had been washed away by the blood of the British
    ● The Star Spangled Banner lyrics “the hireling ” refers to the British use of Mercenaries (German Hessians) in the American War of Independence
    ● The Star Spangled Banner lyrics “…and slave” is a direct reference to the British practice of Impressment (kidnapping American seamen and forcing them into service on British man-of war ships). This was a Important cause of the War of 1812
    ● Francis Scott Key then describes the Star Spangled Banner as a symbol of triumph over all adversity

    • Zanza says:

      Thank you, Steve R! Clearly you have done your research and you care more about the facts as they were in the time of Francis Scott Key than the misinformed rhetoric that is thrown around today. I salute you, sir.

  • Allamun says:

    Key was reading the belief of the beliefs of the Christian Colonizationanist of the South *aka the Democrats., not his own beliefs. Re read it and you will see he wanted to send them where they would be accepted, and not considered less.

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