In Defense of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Over the last few weeks, our National Anthem has been at the center of controversy—a fact that is painfully obvious to anyone watching/reading/listening to the news.

It began with headlines when San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner as it was played before a game against the Green Bay Packers.  He later offered the following explanation for his refusal: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

In the days the followed, others came forward and posited that the song itself was inherently racist, with Jon Schwartz writing the article, “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery” and Shaun King explaining “Why I’ll never stand again for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”  A key element of their argument is that the third verse (rarely sung… or for that matter, much remembered today) makes reference to “hirelings and slaves.”  They have gone on to argue that The Star-Spangled Banner was only adopted as our National Anthem relatively recently, so why not chuck it altogether?

I hesitate to say much about Kaepernick’s original protest, other than to note that the issues he raises are real ones, and I support his right to protest.

I do take issue with the resulting discussions, however. I don’t agree that The Star-Spangled Banner is inherently racist, or that the lyrics are fundamentally about slavery.

Francis Scott Key's poem,"Defence of Fort M'Henry," celebrated an implausible American victory during the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key’s poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” celebrated an implausible American victory during the War of 1812.


Most know me now as an arts writer or a music commentator, but previous to this I was a historian, and had the pleasure of teaching history at the University of Kansas for many years.  In my time, I’ve seen a great deal of revisionist history; sometimes fresh thinking or a different perspective can help shed new light on a historical topic, but other times it can go too far and lose credibility.

I think the current National Anthem controversy is an example of the later. Let me explain.

* * *

Where Does the Song Come From?

First, let me provide a bit of context.

The Star-Spangled Banner has a curious history, especially for a hallowed national anthem.  A number of tall tales have sprung up about the song’s origins, with one oft-repeated story suggesting that it was originally a drinking song.

Not so.

The tune was written by John Stafford Smith around the year 1773, with the title To Anacreon in Heaven.  Technically speaking, it was a “glee”—a specific type of part-song sung by amateur, all-male singing societies called glee clubs.  With their mix of music, shared food and camaraderie, glee clubs were hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic.  By the early 1800s every significant US city had at least one local glee club, as did most major colleges.  Indeed, glee clubs quickly became indispensable from college life in places like Harvard, Yale, or Wesleyan University.  It’s humorous to note that during the nineteenth century glee club concerts were so wildly popular that colleges often scheduled them as fundraisers to help support their athletic programs.

To Anacreon in Heaven was a well-known, and well-loved part of this tradition.  It was the official song of the Anacreontic Society in London, and offered a pseudo-classical homage to club’s “patron saint.”


Right from the start the song was regarded as something special; by 1800 it was hugely popular in both England and the newly-independent United States. In fact, it was recycled often, with new lyrics added to it nearly every year, for a bewildering number of occasions. Francis Scott Key knew the tune well, and in 1805 used it to set a patriotic song honoring naval heroes Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart, which included a reference to a “star-spangled flag.”

In 1814, Key watched American forces defeat the British at the Battle of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore.  Seeing the American flag still flying at dawn, he was moved to dash off a celebratory poem on the back of an envelope.  He clearly had To Anacreon in Heaven in mind for a musical setting, as the meter of his poem perfectly matches that of the tune.  Broadsides of the poem printed in Baltimore the in the days following made the connection explicit, referring to the poem as lyrics to specifically be fitted to that familiar tune.


And thus, The Star-Spangled Banner was born.


Becoming the National Anthem

There has been much criticism recently that the song is a bit of a johnny-come-lately as far as national symbols go.  It only became the official anthem in 1931, right?

Well, yes… but that overlooks its long patriotic history.

In the wake of the War of 1812, The Star-Spangled Banner quickly became established as a popular patriotic song, joining other important tunes of the time like Hail Colombia and Yankee Doodle.  It was a mainstay at military parades and historical pageants throughout the country.  During the Civil War-era it was somewhat overshadowed by more topical songs that spoke more explicitly about freedom and union, like The Battle Hymn of the Republic  or Rally ‘Round the Flag.  Even so, The Star-Spangled Banner continued be used by the union army, and in 1861 poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a new verse to support the Union cause in the Civil War and denounce “the traitor that dares to defile the flag of her stars.”

After the war, the song’s popularity increased.  It was officially recognized for use by the U.S. Navy in 1889, and was particularly associated with raising the American flag.  So closely was the tune associated with the navy, and America as a whole, that Italian composer Giacomo Puccini quoted it in his 1904 opera Madama Butterfly, for music sung by the male lead—an American naval lieutenant named  B. F. Pinkerton. 

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the song to be performed by military bands at patriotic occasions.  It was sung during the seventh-inning stretch during the 1918 World Series, to brilliant effect.  That same year, legislators first proposed making it the official National Anthem, although it did not pass.  Political haggling went on for many years, but proponents continued to introduce bills to honor the song.  It was only in 1931—after the five attempts and a petition signed by 5 million people—that congress designated The Star-Spangled Banner as the Anthem of the United States of America.

So yes, the song’s official status came rather late, but by that time it served as an unofficial National Anthem for over a century.


What About the References to Slaves?

Much of the present controversy revolves around the song’s third verse, which until recently had been nearly forgotten.  In full, it reads:

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.

So yes, there is clearly a reference to slaves.  But I would argue that taking that phrase to literally refer to African slavery as practiced in the US is not entirely accurate—no more does “bombs bursting in air” refer to nuclear weapons.

Jon Schwartz and Shaun King argue that that the references to “hirelings and slaves” refers to the cold-blooded murder of African slaves, either to a group of African soldiers in the battle or generally.

But that takes things completely out of context.

In a response to these claims, Mark Clague—a musicologist and professor of music history, American culture, African and AfroAmerican studies, and entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan—points out:

‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in no way glorifies or celebrates slavery. The middle two verses of Key’s lyric vilify the British enemy in the War of 1812, what Key refers to in Verse 3 as ‘hirelings and slaves.’ This enemy included both whites and blacks, largely British professional soldiers (hirelings) but also the Corps of Colonial Marines (slaves). The Colonial Marines were escaped black American slaves who joined British forces because of the promise of freedom in return for fighting their former masters.

Fortunately, Britain honored this promise after the war, relocating the former slaves and their families to Halifax and Trinidad. For Key, however, the British mercenaries were scoundrels and the Colonial Marines were traitors who threatened to spark a national insurrection.

This is good, but I’d push this further.  For one, the poem itself is essentially a kind of victory ode, whose roots go back to the ancient Greeks. It is not a journalistic account of the battle as a whole, but rather a poetic, allegorical account of one specific, shining moment—that breathless instant when the flag could finally be seen.  Everything about the text must be understood in that light.

In a song where two verses set up that dramatic moment where the flag could be seen, thus driving the British to flight… why would Key suddenly make a statement about brutal killings that took place all too frequently in plantation slavery? Or for that matter, why comment on the ethnic make-up of the invading British army at that particular moment?

To that point, throughout the poem, Key uses general terms like “foe” without specifically naming the British or the Royal Navy that was, in fact, shelling Ft. McHenry.  So why would it be that the only discrete group he does name be African slaves?

For me, there is an Occam’s razor-appropriate response.  In the wake of the two wars the fledgling country fought against the British Empire, a new ideology had grown up in the U.S.—that we are the free people, and they still kneel in chains before a tyrant king.  We are free, they are slaves.  This was part of all kinds of nationalistic propaganda during the era.  The fact that the Brits used mercenaries—hirelings—was another failure.  We here are ruddy, rugged individuals saving our homes, they are so cowardly and effete that they have to hire people to fight for them.

While Key could certainly be making key distinctions about separate parts of the British forces, it’s also likely that he’s simply using a poetic flourish to disparage the enemy.  I mean, the British forces were certainly not “frozen” with “dread silence” at the sight of the flag, so why are other parts of the poem to be taken literally?

Similarly, I would argue that in the fourth verse Key doesn’t use “freemen” in the legalistic sense but in a poetic sense to refer to Americans who had thrown off the yoke of British tyranny.   This issue was particularly potent during the War of 1812, as it was a key reason the U.S. declared war on Britain.

As the Napoleonic Wars progressed, Britain’s only salvation was its navy, which kept Napoleon from invading the country or starving it into submission.  But after years of steady fighting, the British navy was running terribly short of sailors.  As the war dragged on it resorted to desperate “recruitment” measures… which increasing meant ambushing American ships and forcing American sailors to serve in the Royal Navy at gunpoint.

Why? For one, the Crown refused to accept naturalized American citizens as legitimate.  In the wake of the American War of Independence, many Brits left the country to become U.S. citizens, and many of those landed on naval careers.  In 1805, there were more than 9,000 British-born sailors serving on American ships. The Royal Navy wanted them back.  It therefore instituted a policy of capturing American ships at sea, and impressing British-born sailors, claiming they were British citizens… and legally, deserters.  The U.S. protested vociferously, but the British navy continued the controversial practice. Ultimately, the forced conscription of American sailors became too much to bear, and the U.S. declared war.

In light of this, it is no surprise that Key uses images of slaves and freemen—this was a critical and well-established cause of the War of 1812.


Was Key a Racist?

One reason the text has come under such criticism are Key’s supposed ties to racism and the support of slavery.  In this context, he isn’t given the benefit of the doubt.

But is that a fair assessment?

As Clague points out, this isn’t a cut-and-dry issue.  He writes:

Francis Scott Key owned seven slaves through inheritance, and, as attorney for the District of Columbia, he notoriously prosecuted the abolitionist Reuben Crandall in the aftermath of the 1835 race riot in Washington. Key was not an abolitionist, yet he was not an ardent supporter of slavery either and is better understood as one dedicated to ending slavery.

I’d also point out that while Key’s prosecution of Reuban Crandall is damning, and makes for uncomfortable reading, the reality is that as a lawyer and district attorney, he was paid to make a case for an unpleasant cause.  I doubt any lawyer would want us to extrapolate his or her beliefs based on the prosecution of one particular case.  Indeed, Key was later to fight legal cases on behalf of Africans suing for their freedom.

Also, while the owning of slaves is detestable, the unpleasant truth is that a great many of the Founding Fathers did as well.  The cognitive dissonance between these leaders’ lofty principles stating that “all men are created equal” with the reality of owning other humans is both bewildering and alarming.  The country has continued to grapple with this dislocation ever since, and likely it always will.

And Key’s views on slavery were particularly complicated.  Like George Washington before him, Francis Scott Key did ultimately free some of his slaves.  He also founded the American Colonization Society, which worked to buy slaves from the American owners and repatriate them to Africa, leading to the creation of the independent country Liberia in west Africa.   Later, he was a proponent of educating freed people of color, helping to establish the Georgetown Lancaster School for this purpose.

I doubt such a man would set out to glorify the killing of slaves, or former slaves fighting for Britain, in a patriotic ode celebrating an unexpected military victory.

Of course, Francis Scott Key could hate slavery still be a racist; these ideas are not mutually exclusive.  As we know, many abolitionists certainly were racist as we understand the term today.  But I think the situation is complex, and it’s dangerous to paint Francis Scott Key with too wide a brush.

And to the point at hand, I don’t know that he was such a profound racist that we need to read racism into his works as a whole, or to his poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” specifically.

* * *

In the end, I think much of the controversy surrounding the National Anthem is unfounded.  What began as a discussion about racism in America has somehow morphed into a discussion about racism in The Star-Spangled Banner… and in the heart of Francis Scott Key.

Yes, the nearly-forgotten third verse mentions “slaves,” In my reading of the text, it is hard to equate that with the institution of slavery as practiced in the U.S. during the nineteenth century.  And reading it as a reference to black military units is possible, although a bit of a stretch given the poem celebrates a single, specific instance—the sighting of the flag.  This interpretation feels unduly complicated.

The far more straightforward reading is that Key is using allegorical language to set up a distinction between Americans who had thrown off the yoke of tyranny, and the British who were still in the thrall of a cruel despot.   Other readings are of course possible, but to be credible they need to be backed up by clear documentation or some other evidence.

The authors mentioned above do present some of Key’s legal writings as proof he was a racist.  I agree that the case cited is sobering, but at the same time it’s clear that in other times Key expressed deep reservations about slavery and the treatment of slaves.

I don’t think the case is proven.

In the end, I’m sad about the controversy.  There are many ways of looking at The Star-Spangled Banner, and I’m aware that for some, its negative connotations outweigh the positive.  Fair enough, but that’s not the case with me.  As a singer, I’m brutally aware of its problems as a song… spanning more than an octave, it can be cruel on the voice.  But I’ve seen again and again how it can be a positive force for unity and shared reflection.

One of my favorite musical moments, in fact, revolves around the song.  In 2015, the Minnesota Orchestra made history by being the first major cultural exchange with Cuba, after President Obama relaxed relations between our two countries.  As I reported for MinnPost at the time, Music Director surprised the crowd by playing the Cuban national anthem, followed immediately by The Star-Spangled Banner.  I can’t tell you the power of that moment, with us both belting out our national anthems to the applause and hugs of the others.  It was a shared moment of unity and possibility, where two very different people came together.  That’s the power of music.

At its best, that’s also the power of The Star-Spangled Banner.



7 thoughts on “In Defense of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

  1. Thank you so much for this educational explanation “In Defense of the Star Spangled Banner.” I learned SO MUCH! Some of what I suspected to be true was confirmed by your Blog. Context is indeed a pesky problem to those who attempt to make something “fit” in order to prove their point.


  2. You provided a useful treatment of the anthem itself, but there is still the question of why it is sung at sporting events. It isn’t typically sung before other public events — just sporting events. And national anthems are not sung before sporting events in other countries. How did that custom begin in the US, and why, and how can we end the conflation of team spirit and patriotism?


    • Hi and thanks for the comment. Singing The Star-Spangled Banner at ballgames—particularly baseball games—goes way back. I mentioned that in 1918 it was sung during the seventh inning stretch of the World Series in Chicago (as it turned out, Babe Ruth’s last post-season appearance with the Red Sox), and that is often listed as the origin of the tradition. There is evidence that the song was sung informally as part of the season opening ceremonies in Philadelphia in 1897 and at the Polo Grounds in New York starting in 1898, but the 1918 World Series appearance marked the first time The Star-Spangled Banner was deliberately added to the program. It was done with the hope of building a sense of patriotism; the U.S. had entered WWI some months before, and the country was becoming increasingly appalled at the industrialized carnage from the trenches. Plus, Chicago itself had just suffered a demoralizing tragedy, as a bomb ripped through the Chicago Federal Building the day before the Series started. Chicago’s planners felt the city needed a positive jolt, and requested that a military band take the field during the seventh inning stretch and launch into a rousing rendition of the The Star-Spangled Banner. It caused a sensation, and electrified the crowd. So profound was the impact that the New York Times led off their coverage of not on a recap of the action, but with a stirring account of the moment when the song rent the air. Sensing a crowd-pleasing winner, the Red Sox added the song to the games in Boston too, and soon it became a fixture at World Series games and other holiday games. It seems that the tradition of singing it before every game developed during WWII, as part of a concerted effort to build morale and foster a sense of shared national unity. Once the tradition was firmly entrenched in professional baseball, other sports followed suit. So the short answer is the song was added to build war-time morale, and the tradition has stayed with us ever since.


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