Given all the recent kerfuffle about the proper way to listen to the Spar Spangled Banner, we thought it might be interesting to look in more detail at the anthem and specifically talk about the anthem and it’s relationship with slavery.
The hallmark line of the anthem of course is, “the land of the free.” The birth of our government did in fact describe and protect a number of new individual freedoms. Well, not exactly the “birth” in 1776, but with the ratification of the Bill of Rights 15 years later, the basis for many freedoms were established. Well, again, if you want to be really picky, these rights were initially rather narrowly interpreted. But the seed was planted.
The War of 1812 was with the British, over a number of issues which could broadly be described as the British throwing their weight around and/or meddling in our affairs. At the end of this war, Francis Scott Key penned the tune that would become our national anthem.
The anthem was not officially adopted by the government until much later. The Navy in 1889 picked it up, but it was not until 1931 that a congressional resolution recognized it as our official national anthem. However, until that time it was a popular patriotic song and was widely performed.
At the time it was adopted as the anthem, we were pretty much all free. The slaves had been freed in 1865 after the bitterly fought civil war which was over pretty much the exact issue of the legality of slavery. Civil rights were another matter and would not come along for almost another 100 years, but slavery itself was abolished.
The world wide trend to abolish slavery
Looking at the world theater in the 1700s, the mindset could be described as shifting towards not allowing slavery. Many nations were passing laws ranging from simply limiting the slave trade, or limiting ownership, to flat out outlawing slavery in general. It didn’t happen overnight by any means but there was something of a groundswell of opposition starting around this time.
England was one of the relatively “early adopters”. In 1706, in the case of Smith v. Browne & Cooper, Sir John Holt, Lord Chief Justice of England, rules that “as soon as a Negro comes into England, he becomes free. One may be a villein in England, but not a slave.”
As such, if Britain had won the War of 1812, the possibility existed that the fate of the slaves would have been to become free men. To be fair, that’s not at all certain as Britain continued to allow slaves in their colonies for some time.
The northern United States began making slavery illegal shortly after the founding of the United States. Many ask why this wasn’t done initially with the founding of the country and at the federal level. In the context of political change, I think they were biting off a pretty big piece by declaring independence and organizing the coalition for resistance to the crown. I can certainly understand why a divisive issue such as slavery could have stopped the train. As we were to see 100 years later, that issue itself would require another war to resolve.
What did Francis Scott Key think about slavery?
The relatively unknown 3rd stanza of the banner says:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave
There is much debate about what exactly this means. But it seems to pretty clearly acknowledge the existence of the (at that time) legal institution of slavery. Alongside the famous line about “the land of the free”, other nations around the world found this to be rather ironic.
It turns out that Key was a prominent slave holder and spoke publicly about the inferiority of the black race. He was a well known attorney at the time and there is much written about him and his influence. This view of things was not at all uncommon at the time and he likely would have felt little (if any) remorse at expressing these sentiments. So this line, whatever it means, was likely no accident, no mere looking for a rhyme.
What does this mean today?
Sensibilities have changed. This is a much different world than existed in 1814. Should vaunted symbols from the past be tampered with to reflect these changing mores? Frankly, I think they should. The constitution has been changed. I think we can change a song. Attitudes shift and just because something is old and established doesn’t make it right. If we genuinely want the banner to stand for all people, we need to eliminate the debate.
In closing I’ll just note that singing the national anthem or reciting the pledge are, in the context of those modern sensibilities, starting to seem a little, how you say, “North Korea.” I could go with scuttling them completely but I suspect I’m well in the minority there. Instead, I would recommend making it clear that the first verse is the anthem and the other verses have no official recognition.