A Not-So-Sympathetic Read of the National Anthem

For many Americans, The Star-Spangled Banner may be one of the most recognizable tunes. With its message of patriotism and national triumph, it has firmly rooted itself within our national canon. Many of us, however, are only familiar with the first stanza of this song.

The third stanza reads as follows: (click the link)

Star Spangled Banner stanza 3

Other than the explicit reference to runaway slaves, this stanza is somewhat difficult to pick apart without an understanding of the historical context. Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, was a lawyer, and later, a U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, was a staunch anti-abolitionist who used his position as U.S. District Attorney to suppress and prosecute abolitionists for taking a public stance against slavery. Key wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner while he observed the successful defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

Though some scholars as well as some widely held popular opinion would assert that the Star-Spangled Banner’s 3rd stanza is a celebration of the institution of slavery, I would like to provide a reading that is not so reductive. During the War of 1812, the British army raided southern coastal areas of the United States. As part of these raids, they would offer slaves their freedom if they would fight for the Crown during the ongoing conflict. Many now-former slaves took advantage of this offer and joined a regiment of the British army that would be known as the Corps of Colonial Marines. A detachment of the Corps assisted in the burning of Washington D.C. in August of 1814 (Blackburn 288-290).

With this context in mind, Key’s bitterness over freed slaves fighting against other Americans becomes clear. In addition to celebrating American success in the Battle of Baltimore, he also uses the poem as a denouncement, or a sort of “not so hot now, are you?” of these former slaves who would dare to fight for their freedom against their former masters. All the same, the stanza is not so much a celebration of the institution as it is a denouncement of those who would try to end it.

Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848. London, Verso, 1988. P.p. 288-290.

Key, Francis Scott and John Stafford Smith. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sheet Music Consortium. Accessed 21 October 2019. http://webfiles.wulib.wustl.edu/units/music/supplcat/b10015188.pdf

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