The California chapter of the NAACP’s call to remove “The Star-Spangled Banner” has ignited the usual alarms and condemnations, huffing and puffing from both sides. A history lesson is in order. To bring some sense to this highly emotional fray.
The lyrics were composed by Francis Scott Key during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of
1812, perhaps the most forgotten and important American war. Just a few decades after America’s successful War of Independence, the United States declared war on the British Empire, the world’s most power nation at the time. Most Americans don’t know that in response to assorted and real insults to our sovereignty, we invaded Canada, and in this Second War of Independence nearly lost our liberty and once again became a vassal of John Bull.
Many Americans thought it would happen after the British captured Washington D.C., burning the White House, the Capitol and every government building except the Patent Office. Fighting with the British was the Corps of Colonial Marines, composed of escaped American slaves.
The Corps of Colonial Marines saw extensive military action from Canada to
Georgia [during the War of 1812] in the years 1814 to 1816. These former slaves often had extensive local knowledge of tidal creeks and riverine routes of the US South during that period. Because of that knowledge they participated in numerous battles, skirmishes, and raids during the War of 1812. They supported the British forces who burned Washington, D.C. in 1814 and who were later repulsed by US troops at Baltimore, Maryland. The Colonial Marines assisted Britain’s Southern Coastal Campaign by guarding the British Army’s right flank during the invasion and subsequent Battle of New Orleans in 1815. When the 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, the Corps of Colonial Marines was transferred to British bases in Bermuda.
In other words, Americans had cause to dislike the Corps of Colonial Marines. They were fighting against America, jeopardizing its very existence and its recent costly fight for liberty. Thus the allegedly racist third stanza (the offending phrase below is in italics):
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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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.
The stanza clearly refers to the invading British. The Corps was indeed fighting against a country that endorsed and legalized the slavery of African-Americans. Yet, slavery also was legal in Great Britain; not until 1833 was it abolished. So the freed slaves were fighting on the same side as a nation that sanctioned slavery (although it had abolished the slave trade in 1807).
Thus, the hirelings and slaves the Key wrote about was clearly a reference to men who were fighting on the other side against the whole of the United States and not just the slave-holding South.
This interpretation is explained from the different viewpoint of Jason Johnson (“Star-Spangled Bigotry: The Hidden Racist History of the National Anthem“) who said:
In other words, Key was saying that the blood of all the former slaves and
“hirelings” on the battlefield will wash away the pollution of the British invaders. With Key still bitter that some black soldiers got the best of him a few weeks earlier, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is as much a patriotic song as it is a diss track to black people who had the audacity to fight for their freedom. Perhaps that’s why it took almost 100 years for the song to become the national anthem.
For some Americans, that makes the song racist. Others with the opposite view should not be ridiculed and condemned as racists if they see the same set of facts differently. Sadly, we have run into yet another fight that divides us.
I know something about the Battle of Baltimore, the War of 1812 and the role of escaped blacks from my research for my historical novel “Madness: The War of 1812.” In it, you can follow Henry, an escaped slave who thinks about joining the British, [spoiler warning] but ends up fighting on the American side. Go to www.madness1812.com to read more and how to order it.