The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Land of the Free, Home of the Oppressed

Image of "The star spangled banner," published by Currier & Ives between 1856 and 1907. Source: Library of Congress

“The star spangled banner,” published by Currier & Ives between 1856 and 1907. Source: Library of Congress

The decision of Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, to kneel during the national anthem has sparked a media frenzy. Opponents call the display inappropriate and even anti-American. Yet, sales of Kaepernick’s jersey have skyrocketed and similar demonstrations are sweeping across the National Football League. Most notably, Seattle Seahawks players, staff and fans linked arms during the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during yesterday’s 9/11 tribute.

Some supporters also point to what they see as the anthem’s racism, citing the song’s rarely-sung third verse and the political career of author Francis Scott Key as evidence.

Today, Americans stick to the first verse of Key’s poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But the poem contains four stanzas–all of which were taught in schools for many years. The third verse, in particular, remains contentious, specifically the following lines:

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

Historians have offered various interpretations of the lyrics, but most agree that Key was referring to the Colonial Marines, a battalion of runaway slaves who fought alongside the British in the War of 1812.

The war started in June 1812, when the U.S. declared war on the British. The war was incredibly controversial and many in New England opposed it, but supporters pointed to a long list of lingering grievances with the British, including impressment of American sailors, intervention in U.S.-French shipping routes, and Britain’s occupation of western forts, from which they traded and allied with many native peoples. Some Americans also hoped to conquer portions of British-held Canada.  

As during the U.S. War for Independence, the British guaranteed slaves their freedom, in exchange for military service. Many experts maintain that Francis Scott Key’s anthem derides these slaves, although some feel that it simply celebrates American sovereignty in the face of British imperial control.  

BackStory caught up with Jefferson Morley, former editor at The Washington Post and author of “Snow-Storm in August: The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington’s Race Riot of 1835,” to gain some insight into the anthem’s origins and how Americans have reacted to it through the years. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: How did slaves end up aligning themselves with the British during the War of 1812?

A: When the British invaded, they invaded on the coast of Maryland. One of the tactics they used when they landed was that in areas with big plantations and lots of slaves, they put out the word: “we’ll give you your freedom.” This was to paralyze the Americans’ defenses, because slave owners couldn’t leave their plantations to fight against the British without losing all their slaves. So the slave owners had to stay home. But a lot of slaves just jumped ship; they ran away and put themselves under British protection, with the promise of their freedom. And they were in a position to help the British because they could tell the British how to get to Washington, or how to get to a certain territory. So, the British advanced through the countryside and met the Americans at Bladensburg, on the outskirts of Washington. The Americans had about 10,000 men and the British had about 5,000, but the British soldiers were very experienced troops–they were like the Marines of England–and they blew the Americans away. The British destroyed them and walked into Washington and by the end of it, several thousand black people had come over to the British side.

Q: Help us understand why Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

A: After the British forces left Washington they went up the road to Baltimore and took a hostage along the way who happened to be a friend of Key’s. Key asked President James Madison for permission to approach the British and ask for his friend’s release. Key went to Baltimore where his friend was being held on a British ship. The British told him to wait while they attacked the American defenses of Baltimore by sea.


An image of "Original manuscript of Star Spangled Banner" by Harris & Ewing, 1914. Source: Library of Congress

“Original manuscript of Star Spangled Banner” by Harris & Ewing, 1914. Source: Library of Congress

Key was forced to sit on a British ship and watch the attack on Fort McHenry for an entire night. He watched the bombardment as Americans basically just put their heads down and waited it out. By the dawn’s early light, Key saw that the American flag was still flying. They had defended Fort McHenry, and the British sailed away– they had made their point, and they didn’t want to invade the real city and risk their soldiers to real fighting. The point was to spank the Americans and leave. But for the Americans, they had survived the biggest thing the British had, and they were happy. So Key wrote the song that became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (Note: Key didn’t actually call the song “The Star-Spangled Banner;” the printer of the song added the title later.)


People were very happy the British had been defeated, so they started singing it in bars. Eventually, it got printed up and distributed, and so it became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key wrote four verses that night. Now, we only sing one of them, but for a long time, whenever you sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,”  you sang all four verses. It wasn’t until the 1950s that people limited themselves to just the first verse and stopped teaching all four verses in schools. When you look at those verses today, they seem very jingoistic, or very obscure. The third verse is particularly controversial, but its meaning is absolutely clear: Key was hoping for victory over the British, and scorning the slaves who had joined the British cause in search of their freedom. He thought they were ungrateful, and had betrayed their masters and their country. When we look at it today, we say “they were going for their freedom, what else could they do?” By modern standards, [the anthem’s third verse] isn’t a very attractive sentiment, but at the time it was the essence of patriotism. There’s really no dispute about who he was talking about. If you know the story of who Francis Scott Key was, he is obviously talking about slaves and black people.

Q: Key was an anti-abolitionist but he also defended African Americans in court on numerous occasions. His stance on slavery seems to be complicated– how would you describe it?

A: Key was a colonization man, which was a very popular solution to the problem of slavery at the time. The idea behind colonization was that black people and white people could never live together, but slavery was still a bad thing, so we’ll free the black people and they can go back to Africa. That led to the creation of Liberia, but the problem was that black people were not interested– they had never lived in Africa, they were American and they just wanted their freedom. For white liberals who did not want to fully oppose slavery, though, colonization was the answer.

In his personal law practice, he [Key] did defend black people and take their cases as a lawyer. But the important thing to remember about Key is that he was very politically ambitious–and this is the part of Key that we don’t really talk about. He was not just a patriotic poet. Key was a disciple of and advisor to President Andrew Jackson, and he had ambitions to be part of the White House. Jackson appointed Key to District Attorney in the city of Washington. He wanted his own man in the job of enforcing laws in the nation’s capital, because he wanted to enforce the slave laws. He wanted to reinforce the white man’s constitutional right to own property and people. Key totally agreed with that position. He didn’t like slavery, but he said that under the American system, white men had that right. Therefore, he thought abolitionists were the unconstitutional ones. Key had a philanthropic image, and he was not a cruel man himself– his own slaves he did not mistreat– but he was definitely pro-slavery, without question. In 1836, the abolitionists mocked Key with a variation of his most famous lyrics. They said Washington was the “Land of the Free, Home of the Oppressed.” If you think about it, that’s not too different from what Kaepernick is saying today.

Q: Do you think the fact that Key was pro-slavery creates a problem for us singing the national anthem today? Do we need a new anthem?

A: Until 1931, “The Star-Spangled Banner”  wasn’t the only national anthem. Over the years, many songs were considered national anthems– Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful, and so on. In the 1920s, the NAACP adopted “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as their official song, which came to be known as the black national anthem. I don’t think “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be the only national anthem; I think people should be free to choose whatever national anthem they want. So I would change that law. And it is important to note that the designation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem was the work of southern interests–in particular, the Daughters of the Confederacy.

An image of a clip from the "Baltimore Sun," June 15, 1931. Courtesy of Jefferson Morley

Clip from the “Baltimore Sun,” June 15, 1931. Courtesy of Jefferson Morley

When supporters of “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrated its designation as the national anthem in 1931, they had a parade and at the front of the parade were two flags, the American flag and the Confederate flag.  The neo-confederate roots of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are explicit in the history of the song becoming the national anthem, and I think people should know the history, and the baggage “The Star-Spangled Banner” carries. That’s not to say it’s a racist song, but it embodies how racism and patriotism became entwined in America — which is really what the Francis Scott Key story tells us.




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Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist