The National Anthem Does Not ‘Celebrate Slavery’: The Meaning of Lyric Used to Defend Kaepernick

Much like the San Francisco 49ers themselves, the left has been playing really bad defense in justification of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, which has ignited a public debate about the role of patriotism in American culture.

The 49ers quarterback’s career has been spiraling out-of-control (much like his deep ball) and his move to sit out the national anthem at a football game last Friday night has captured him a generous dose of headlines. (Guilty as charged.)

In the ensuing storm of controversy that has gathered around the NFL player’s provocative stance, including numerous statements (even one blasting Hillary Clinton!), an article has arisen that got attention for seeming to justify Kaepernick’s position.

Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The article “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery,” written in The Intercept by Jon Schwarz, points to a verse in “The Star Spangled Banner” (as my colleague Virginia Kruta points out, which nobody even sings and hardly anyone knows about) in support of Kaepernick’s protest.

The problem with claiming the national anthem is a “celebration of slavery”? The verse at hand doesn’t necessarily even refer to runaway American slaves fleeing from their former masters. It may mean slaves who were fighting with the British against the United States during the War of 1812.

The chained hand of a slave in the Emancipation statue, depicting a slave breaking the chains of captivity as Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclomation, is seen on February 9, 2009 in Washington, DC. The slave in the statue is Archer Alexander who was the last slave captured under the fugitive slave law. President Lincoln stands above him and encourages him to rise up. The 200th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln, the 16th president of the US, is February 12. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Image credit: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

These would be slaves who were “impressed” (forced or employed into military services) by the British and hence enemies of the United States (for any cause), but not simply “runaway slaves.” Alternatively, the verse may even be referring to British mercenaries themselves!

The verse in question, in context:

And where are the foes that so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war & the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save—the hireling & 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 & the home of the brave.

The Intercept article argues that this “Star Spangled Banner” verse about the “hireling and slave” penned by the slave-owning Key glorified the killing of runaway slaves:

So when Key penned “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.

With that in mind, think again about the next two lines: “And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The reality is that there were human beings fighting for freedom with incredible bravery during the War of 1812. However, “The Star-Spangled Banner” glorifies America’s “triumph” over them — and then turns that reality completely upside down, transforming their killers into the courageous freedom fighters.

There is a serious lack of academic and historical clarity about the meaning of this verse.

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 12: Members of the The Fort McHenry Guard Field Musicians perform at the base of the Battle Monument during the Star Spangled Spectacular September 12, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland. Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the United States' national anthem, Baltimore's Inner Harbor will host tall ships, fireworks displays, concerts, historic tours and other events. The anthem's lyrics come from 'Defence of Fort M'Henry,' a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships during the War of 1812. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Houston Chronicle writer Kathleen McKinney cited the website American Historama in defense of an alternative explanation. Indeed it states:

  • 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

As a Snopes article rightly argues, the verse (written in the nineteenth century and out of popular usage for over a century) could very well refer to the British practice of impressment:

In fairness, it has also been argued that Key may have intended the phrase as a reference to the British Navy’s practice of impressment (kidnapping sailors and forcing them to fight in defense of the crown), or as a semi-metaphorical slap at the British invading force as a whole (which included a large number of mercenaries), though the latter line of thinking suggests an even stronger alternative theory — namely, that the word “hirelings” refers literally to mercenaries and “slaves” refers literally to slaves. It doesn’t appear that Francis Scott Key ever specified what he did mean by the phrase, nor does its context point to a single, definitive interpretation.

In addition to Key never clarifying what he meant by the verse, there is further ambiguity due to the fact that the song’s adoption as the national anthem by a 1931 act didn’t specify a particular arrangement.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30: A rare first edition of the sheet music of the "Star Spangled Banner", estimated at $200,000-$300,000, is displayed at a press preview for the Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts including Americana sale at Christie's November 30, 2010 in New York City. It is the only known copy, one of 11 total, in private hands. The Christie's sale will take place December 3rd. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Image credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

As a piece at the University of Michigan debunking myths about the song put it:

The 1931 act making Key’s song America’s anthem does not identify an official arrangement, in part because the song as sung in the 20th century had already departed from what Key had known. During World War I, attempts were made to codify the arrangement, resulting in both a military “Service Version” and a “Standardized Version” endorsed by the Department of Education.

Adding to confusion about the “official lyrics” of the song, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., in 1861 added a “fifth verse” in support of the Union and against slavery:

When our land is illum’d with Liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchain’d who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

This was not an “official” verse of the national anthem, but was printed in songbooks during the Civil War.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11: New York police and firefighters and Port Authority police salute during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner at one of the entrances of 9/11 Memorial Plaza during the tenth anniversary ceremonies of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center site, September 11, 2011 in New York City. New York City and the nation are commemorating the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on lower Manhattan which resulted in the deaths of 2,753 people after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As for the Service Version, standardized under Woodrow Wilson in 1917 after commissioning a group of five musicians, including John Philip Sousa, there are three stanzas from Key’s original version, but the stanza with the lyrics regarding the “hireling and slave” is flatly missing.

Thus, by the time “The Star Spangled Banner” was culturally adopted by the American people in the twentieth century as the national anthem, only recognized by a 1931 Act under Herbert Hoover, not only were the three additional stanzas largely forgotten, but official versions used by the military and sanctioned by the U.S. government did not contain the lyrics about the “hireling and slave.”

Image credit: Chip Somodevilla

Hence, the only things Americans “celebrate” when they stand up for “The Star Spangled Banner” is their nation and their hard-won freedom.

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