Star Spangled Slavery?

I don’t generally bother to get involved in whatever the current trending national outrage phenomenon happens to be.  Our country loves to be outraged, so there’s always something different, and it’s usually petty.  So when a random sports guy did something to protest something else, I just let it pass by unnoticed.  After all, he’s probably just another overpaid egoist who does something I’ll never care about for a living.

So I ignored the furor, the counter-furor, the anti-furor furor, and the inevitable Fuehrer comparison — until someone mentioned history, in particular military history.  The points on the ends of my ears stood upright and I suddenly took notice.

What Happened

Turns out I was right in my snap judgment:  A young and overpaid sports guy failed to stand for the national anthem.  He released a statement saying, in part, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”  Fair enough; he’s protesting over a matter of principle.  I can understand that, though I’m not sure I like his choice of protest.

Of course, I don’t have to like it.  We’ve got free speech in this country, and there’s a ton of things done here that are worth protesting.  In specific, I’d agree with a lot of the principle behind his protest; too many people are in prisons in this country for us to really call it the “Land Of The Free” any longer.  I’m pretty sure that law enforcement kills people in a racially neutral manner these days, but that’s the least important point; a lot of people are getting killed for doing things that aren’t terribly wrong, and that’s something worth protesting regardless of color or creed or national origin.

I guess my only criticism here is that failing to show respect for the flag or the national anthem are acts that infuriate, not convince.  So it’s not my preferred choice of protest.  Got to admit, though, that he successfully drew attention to his cause; a ton of folks got offended, and then other people got offended about the first people being offended.  Lots of free press there.

Then, when the storm started to die down and cooler heads began to say “So what?”, a reporter decided to spray some metaphorical lighter fluid on the topic.  His article showcases the contention that our national anthem celebrates murdering African-Americans.  That’s the part of this that truly drew my attention.

Does Our National Anthem Really Celebrate Slavery?

The Star Spangled Banner.  Most people know only the first verse; it’s sung at ball games, and after a ton of repetitions you can’t help but memorize that sort of thing.  And most people know the history behind it, or at least a little of it.  It’s a rare American that knows all four (or even five) verses, however — and it’s the little-known third verse that’s at issue.  Here it is:

“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
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

There.  You see?  The word “slave” appears right there in bold print.  And it’s talking about how these hirelings and slaves are destined to flee in terror or die, one or the other.  Obviously it must be celebrating slavery, especially murdering the slaves.  So, since it seems plausible at first blush, let’s check Snopes to see if it’s true.

Turns out the Snopes article takes us right to the heart of the issue, and tells us about how the song started off as a poem written by a slaveowner who thought people with darker skin were subhuman.  It then points at the Corps of Colonial Marines, a unit composed largely of volunteer former slaves who were offered manumission in exchange for their military service, and it explains how they fought against their oppressors at the very battle for which the poem was written.  All of which is stirring as hell, but the reasoning doesn’t really hold up.

Normally, right now is where I’d warn against judging the attitudes of people who lived in other times; enlightenment is a relative thing, after all.  But I’m going to skip over that on the theory that, if you don’t already understand the concept, this really isn’t the ideal topic in which to acquaint you with it.

Instead, let’s explore the details, the actual history of the song, of slavery, and of the War of 1812.  As they say, the devil’s in the details, so pay attention.

1812:  The Details

In 1803, the Peace of Amiens was shattered and the United Kingdom was once again at war with revolutionary France.  Because England’s might was naval, their strategy was to win at sea, by destroying French commerce and blockading French ports, and when practicable to destroy the French fleet.  Unfortunately for England, they’d just spent the past year dismantling their navy and cutting taxes, so they were rather ill-equipped — particularly as Bonaparte was mobilizing an invasion force just on the other side of the Channel.  As was their wont in such times, the British fleet resorted to press gangs in order to crew their ships, drafting every sailor they could get their hands on for involuntary service.

This wouldn’t be remotely relevant except that the English tended to impress pretty much everyone who spoke English, including Americans.  This, combined with their suppression of the African slave trade after 1807, served to provoke the Americans, who were otherwise neutral in the European war.  Eventually, the major powers began to seize every American trading ship that went into port to deliver cargo, and that was enough to provoke war.

When that happened, though, England was still quite busy fighting Napolelon.  They sent a couple of large squadrons of ships and some soldiers (largely mercenaries) in an effort to defend Canada (which America desperately wanted), and they allied with the native tribes under Tecumseh, supplying their attacks on settlers in Ohio and Indiana.  Escalation followed outrage in the west, eventually culminating in an American raid against the civilian settlement and British supply depot at Dover, the nominal capital of Upper Canada.  In response, the Royal Navy set sail for Washington D.C.

The Maryland campaign was the worst disaster in American military history.  After the local (militia) defenses were routed at Bladensburg, the British under General Ross proceeded to Washington, where they burned the Presidential Mansion and the Capitol.  The American defenders were conspicuously absent, but the unopposed invaders were precise in their reprisal burnings, avoiding any unprovoked acts against civilians or private property.  The force then re-embarked, heading for the great port city of Baltimore just a short distance to the north.

And in the battle of Baltimore are the events to which the song refers, specifically the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which defended the town.  A preceding infantry engagement at North Point had resulted in the death of the English commander, General Ross, and had delayed the attackers, permitting last-minute ground fortifications to be completed for the defense of the city.  The British were somewhat outnumbered, and the massive overnight bombardment was designed to overcome that American advantage.

As it happened, lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key was with an American cartel accompanying the British fleet, working to arrange the release of an elderly civilian physician being held prisoner on the legal fiction that he was loyal to the Crown.  The cartel’s departure was prevented until after the bombardment was completed, and so Key watched anxiously through the night, hoping the fort had held out.  When dawn finally came, he was greeted by the sight of an oversized American flag flying over the fortifications; the Americans had remained at their posts, and the plan to attack Baltimore was foiled.  The squadron then sailed off toward New Orleans and destiny.

The poem, called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry”, commemorates the extended engagement, including the Battle of North Point, and in the wake of the recent military disaster at Washington, it was taken up by a triumphant population (and set to music).

Most of the song describes the bombardment and praises the steadfast resistance, but the third verse in particular refers to the composition of the attacking force, which included the sailors on the ships, the army, and a detachment of marines.  Among these marines were two or three short companies of the Corps of Colonial Marines, which was recruited from a population of escaped slaves and refugees congregating at the British-held Tangier Island just off the Virginia coast.  They had earlier fought at Bladensburg (one killed and three wounded) and took part in the engagement at North Point (three killed and six wounded).

There’s very little likelihood that Key would have had any clue whatsoever about the detailed structure of the invading force while he was writing the poem.  Bear in mind, it was composed over a very few days while he closeted himself in his rooms, and the initial draft was scrawled on the back of an envelope while he was stuck on a cartel ship in Baltimore Harbor.  It’s only today, long after the fact, that we are even aware of the British force, which contained over a hundred men from the Corps of Colonial Marines — insignificant compared to the vast numbers of the British invaders.

But more to the point, that’s not what Key was writing about at all.  His poem was about the battle, not politics or philosophy — or, to be more precise, it was about his own particular philosophy.  It’s worth taking a look at Key’s character in order to gain more insight.

Who Was Key?

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer and an amateur poet, and he was a staunch defender of slavery.  He was influential; his presence at the battle was on an errand for the president himself.  But even knowing those things we don’t have much of a portrait of the man.

Key’s writings are available to us, but having dipped only lightly into them I can tell you that it’s plebian, not the sort of thing any researcher or historian would find stirring.  Indeed, most modern readers would find it poor stuff, unpleasantly bombastic, smug, and unwontedly superior.  Unfortunately for Key’s memory, we can easily read his character from his writings.

Imagine if you will a gentleman with a vast contempt for anyone who would willingly exist in a condition of slavery rather than simply opt to die.  This would be a man with an extremely narrow mind and not much of a soul, so it’s not a great stretch to imagine him as a lawyer, a patriot, and a fellow who associates with politicians.*

He’s also, oddly, an idealist.  His particular ideal is that the free person, one who with no condition of debt, no chains to a throne or feudal lords, is by nature far superior to any poor soul who exists in a condition of servitude.  It is apparent to this fellow that any free man fighting in defense of his home and liberty will never run, never falter, will be not just willing but eager to risk all on the smallest chance of victory.  That victory, in defense of the new nation of America, where liberty was the highest ideal — that victory would be inevitable, for how could mere employees and chattel that had to be driven to the battlefield possibly resist the valor of freedom?

It is probable that he had heard by this time of the militia’s poor performance at Queenston Heights, and it’s certain he was aware of the Bladensburg debacle, but like many with a fine yet flawed ideal he was unable to comprehend a world in which the truth could be anything other than he believed it to be.  Thus, that tiny scrap of soul within him created from the triumph of the Baltimore defense a paean to freedom, a vivid ode to the superiority of the individual over the massed might of the foremost power in Europe.

Was he a good man, or great?  Hardly.  Key was but a man of his time, a patriot in a generation of poltroons, a fine and upstanding citizen in a society founded on the twin paradoxical ideals of slavery and liberty.  Just as today we idealize money, Key lived in a culture where class and condition provided the definitions for individual value, and he knew his place: On top.  Certainly higher than those poor fools who fought to serve some king and their generals and the noble lords, the sailors who were kidnapped from their homes and families by an armed mob and forced to serve in hellish conditions.

He was a free man, and proud and arrogant in that freedom. He thought (mistakenly) that his condition demonstrated his value, that he deserved to be who he was.

And yet the poetry he wrote is still moving, the more so when one considers the pitiable spiritual plight of the writer, a blind and self-righteous fool, a prig and a dandy and worst of all a two-faced lawyer come lying to the British while on a mission of mercy.  He’s a pitiful figure, and yet somehow he drew something glorious from within himself and painted a stirring picture for future generations.

To my mind, the lesson of Key is to always remember this: We are free not because we deserve freedom but solely because we are lucky enough to have been born to it.

So What Does All This Mean?

Key’s poem, now our national anthem, is not at all about the institution of African slavery.  It’s about a battle between a force of volunteer militia defending their homes and another force composed of the finest professional fighting troops in the world.  The theme of the third stanza in particular is quite clearly that of the superiority of an armed militia to a navy staffed through impressment and a paid military.

Impressed sailors = slaves.
Paid soldiers = hirelings.

Remember: This was the early United States, a nation of three thousand merchant ships but with only seven armed frigates in its navy — and for decades Congress had opposed the construction of those frigates on the grounds that a standing army was a great evil, the natural enemy of democracy.  Indeed, it wasn’t for nearly a century that the government of the United States revised the definition of the militia to permit a National Guard and involuntary conscription into a Federal corps.  To this day, the subject is a contentious one, and the moral philosophy underlying it is frequently debated.

The word “slave” is indeed used, and in contemptuous fashion.  But in no wise is the poem a celebration of forced servitude, especially not that practiced in America at that time.  Such a meaning would be entirely foreign to Key himself and to those like him.  He considered himself a gentleman, and slaves and servants a subject hardly fit for polite conversation, much less inclusion in a triumphal ode on honor and the valor of free men.

(Had one such as Key actually thought through his own ideals on freedom and liberty, and had he acknowledged the existence of those of lesser birth and condition as his moral equals, I believe he could never have countenanced slavery. That he did accept it as natural illustrates the workings of his mind and of those like him; they believed in a Divine order which protected social class.)

Instead, he called the British soldiers mere hirelings and the British sailors slaves, for in his mind that’s what they were.  In truth, in my own mind it’s hard to think of them in any other fashion than as slaves; they were held in a condition of involuntary servitude, often fighting against their own countries, and many had been so for thirty years and more until their deaths of old age or violence.  Though they were occasionally paid, the metaphor is nevertheless sound, for what is money to a person who isn’t free?

And, despite the lessons of Bladensburg and Queenston Heights, there can be no doubt but that an armed militia force outfought a professional military at Baltimore and again at New Orleans.  Militias may be outdated and militarily inferior, but at those times and places, they proved their worth and the value of free men fighting for their homes.


*IMPORTANT NOTE:  I do know a couple of lawyers who are also decent human beings.  Not all of them are soulless and contemptible.  If you doubt me, I’d be glad to introduce you.

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