Slavery And The Star Spangled Banner
There is a terrific Backstory episode about the War of 1812. This is a conflict that is not much thought about, even during its bicentennial. It was not a good war for people of color. Native tribes fought with the British in Michigan, and were soundly defeated. After this war, the attitude of the white man towards the natives got worse.
Perhaps the most famous product of the War of 1812 is The Star Spangled Banner, a.k.a. the national anthem. There are a few legends about writing this song that skeptical bloggers like to shoot down. At the 43 minute mark of the backstory episode, another aspect of TSSB is discussed.
It seems as though slaves were escaping their owners, and fighting with the British. Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key was a slave owner, and thought that the slaves would be better off with their owners. This is the sentiment behind the third verse of TSSB.
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.
The image of F.S. Key has been cleaned up over the years. This biography omits the third verse of TSSB, and does not mention his slaves. Wikipedia tells a different story.
“Key was appointed as a United States District Attorney from 1833-1841. Key used his position to suppress opponents of slavery. In 1833, he indicted Benjamin Lundy, editor of the anti-slavery publication, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, and his printer, WIlliam Greer, for libel after Lundy publishing an article that declared, “There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people in this district,” referring to the District of Columbia.” Lundy’s article, Key said, “was intended to injure, oppress, aggrieve, and vilify the good name, fame, credit & reputation of the Magistrates and constables” of Washington. Lundy left town rather than face trial; Greer was acquitted. …
In 1836, Key prosecuted New York doctor Reuben Crandall, brother of controversial Connecticut school teacher Prudence Crandall, for “seditious libel” for possessing a trunk full of anti-slavery publications in his Georgetown residence. In a trial that attracted nationwide attention, Key charged that Crandall’s actions had the effect of instigating enslaved people to rebel. Crandall’s attorneys acknowledged he opposed slavery but denied any intent or actions to encourage rebellion. In his final address to the jury, Key said “Are you willing gentleman to abandon your country, to permit it to be taken from you, and occupied by the abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the negro? Or gentleman, on the other hand, are there laws in this community to defend you from the immediate abolitionist, who would open upon you the floodgates of such extensive wickedness and mischief?” Crandall was acquitted.”
The Huffington Post has a story about F.S. Key, ‘Land of the Free?’ Francis Scott Key, Composer of National Anthem, Was Defender of Slavery.
Buying and selling humans remained a respectable business in Washington City. The slave holding elite of the south had a majority in the Congress and a partner in President Andrew Jackson.
As black aspirations collided and white supremacy, Francis Scott Key invoked the law to defend the slave system and Jackson’s political agenda. Personally, Key was a decent master of the people he owned. A prim many he was incapable of violence. He relied on black man, Clem Johnson, to supervise the enslaved people who worked on his plantation north of Frederick, Maryland. During his lifetime, Key freed seven slaves from his own household. In his work he sometimes assisted blacks in bringing cases to the circuit court, which was housed in City Hall in Judiciary Square. Key was sometimes critical of slavery’s cruelties in public. He was an active leader of the American Colonization Society, which sought to send African-Americans back to Africa. The colonization society was studiously neutral on the question of whether slavery should be abolished. So was Key. As long as slavery was legal, Key stoutly defended the white man’s right to own property in people….
To reassert the rule of law, Key set out to crack down on the anti-slavery men and their “incendiary publications.” Informants had reported to the grand jury about an abolitionist doctor from New York who was living in Georgetown. Key charged Rueben Crandall with bringing a trunk full of anti-slavery publications into the city.
In the spring of 1836, Key’s prosecution of Rueben Crandall was a national news story. In response, the American Antislavery Society circulated a broadsheet denouncing Washington as “The Slave Market of America.” The abolitionists needled Key for the hypocrisy of using his patriotic fame to defend tyranny in the capital: “Land of the Free… Home of the Oppressed.”
Key shrugged off his liberal critics. In front of courtroom crowded with Congressmen and correspondents Key waxed eloquent and indignant at the message of the abolitionists. “They declare that every law which sanctions slavery is null and void… ” Key told the jury. “That we have no more rights over our slaves than they have over us. Does not this bring the constitution and the laws under which we live into contempt? Is it not a plain invitation to resist them?”
Pictures today are from The Library of Congress.