The National Anthem, slavery and the meaning of liberty
James Preston Allen, Publisher
Francis Scott Key, the author of the National Anthem for these United States of America, came from a prominent legal family in Frederick, Md.
During the War of 1812, which some have called the Second War of Independence, Key was appointed to act as the prisoner exchange agent and was aboard the HMS Tonnant the night Fort McHenry was bombarded during the Battle of Baltimore.
The British confined him to the ship that night. He had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units. The British were intent on attacking Baltimore.
Key witnessed the attack, from which came the lines, “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” He was better known for his legal skills than his skills as a poet. After its first publication, more than a century would pass before the song was adopted as the primary national anthem for the United States—first through an executive order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, then ratified by Congress and signed by President Herbert Hoover in 1931.
The only reason this history is pertinent today is because of the action taken, or lack thereof, by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the national anthem, inviting criticism from all corners of the sports world. This followed the seemingly innocent act by Gabrielle Douglas of the Gold Medal-winning U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastic team, who neglected to put her hand over her heart while the anthem played during medal award ceremonies. Both athletes are black.
Kaepernick’s protest was not accidental. “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world,” he said.
Kaepernick is not the first black American athlete to use his position as a platform to protest injustice—think Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
What partially explains this perspective are the uncommonly sung lyrics of our National Anthem:
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 mention of “slave” is not entirely remarkable. Slavery was alive and well in the United States in 1814. Key owned slaves and was an ardent anti-abolitionist who once called black people “a distinct and inferior race of people.” At the time, the British offered freedom to any slave who chose to fight against these rebellious former colonials.
This core issue of human bondage versus the expanded interpretation of liberty and justice for all would come to tear apart this nation in our bloody fratricidal Civil War two score-and-a-half years later. It is this fundamental crucible at the very heart of the American experience that shadows us these many generations later. This dichotomy is expressed by yet another American writer, Richard Henry Dana Jr., also a famous lawyer and the author of Two Years Before the Mast.
Dana, who came from the blue blood Brahmin society of Boston, Mass., was a bit of a rebellious non-conformist. He left Harvard in his junior year and instead of taking a grand tour of Europe, as was the privilege of his class, signed on as a merchant seaman aboard the Pilgrim and sailed off to the coast of California. This turned out to be a pivotal life-changing experience that would color the rest of his life and career.
His experience as a seaman in those years was not much better than that of a slave. After witnessing a flogging on board the ship, he vowed to help improve the lot of the common seaman and develop a lifelong dedication to fight injustice.
In a recent biography on Dana, Slavish Shore—The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr., Jeffrey L. Amestoy wrote: “Dana’s sense of justice made him a lawyer who championed sailors and slaves and put him at the center of some of the most consequential cases in American history: defending the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, justifying President Abraham Lincoln’s war powers before the Supreme Court and the prosecution of Confederate president Jefferson Davis for treason.”
Dana and Key are two prominent examples of the argument over abolition and racism that shaped the history of this nation—an argument that continues this day. And, oddly enough that argument is held mostly by white people amongst themselves over the rights and actions of blacks—just watch who’s criticizing Kaepernick.
In Kaepernick’s defense, the words of Dana himself might be of some use:
We have got to choose between two results. With these four millions of Negroes, either you must have four millions of disfranchised, disarmed, untaught, landless, thriftless, non-producing, non-consuming, degraded men [women had not yet been considered for suffrage at this point], or else you must have four millions of landholding, industrious, arms-bearing, and voting population. Choose between the two! Which will you have?
Clearly there have been many eloquent black voices over these intervening decades arguing for liberty, equality and justice, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X to list just a few.
However, it still remains an argument for white America to resolve with itself over the inherited and inherent injustices in this country—a country that regularly pledges to support liberty and justice for all but falls short of this fundamental creed.
What is needed at this point is a far more inclusive discussion about what it means to be a “patriot in the home of the brave and land of the free.”
I think that those of us who side with Richard Henry Dana Jr. should thank Colin Kaepernick and all other voices over the generations who have demanded, protested and died asking, “if not now when?”
Our nation’s most courageous patriots aren’t just ones in uniform fighting in some distant land for often-questionable political ends, but include ones without a flag, fighting for human rights and justice here at home.