The national anthem hasn’t always…exactly been the national anthem.
On August 24th 1814, British forces attacked Washington and burned down many government buildings, including the Navy Yard and the White House, then known as the Presidential Mansion. It was the only time in American history that the capital had been under the command of a foreign force. The occupation lasted just 26 hours however, after a hurricane and subsequent tornado put out the fires and forced the British into an early retreat, back to their ships which were heavily damaged by the freak storm.
Within a week, the British had turned their attention to the busy port city of Baltimore. And on September 7th, a lawyer and soldier by the name of Francis Scott Key was dispatched by then President James Madison to facilitate a prisoner exchange, specifically for a man named Dr. William Beanes, a friend of Key’s who had misled the British command into thinking he was sympathetic to the Crown.
Dr. Beanes was successfully released, but the exchange party, including Key and a man named John Stuart Skinner, the federal Prisoner Exchange Agent in the area, was not permitted to leave because now they had information about an impending attack on Fort McHenry, a critical embattlement defending the city. They were forced to stay where they were under British guard and wait out the battle, which came during the night of September 13th, 1814. During the night, British naval vessels pounded with fort with bombs and cannonballs, and attempted a landing nearby.
But in the morning, as the mist cleared, Francis Scott Key witnessed the raising of the ceremonial American flag above the fort. The British had not taken Fort McHenry during the night and retreated to beyond artillery range. Francis Scott Key was, in that moment, inspired to commemorate the victory and began writing a poem which he would later finish once he returned ashore.
That poem you know as the Star-Spangled Banner. But what do you really know about Francis Scott Key? And what about the next verse? That’s today…on Signal Cannon.
This year, America is 241 years old. But its national anthem has only been official for 86 years, when it was finally adopted by Congress and President Herbert Hoover in 1931.
The national anthem hasn’t always…exactly been the national anthem. For more than a century a number of songs competed for the title and drifted in and out of popularity at public national events. Some of them are still around, like “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
One, called “Hail Columbia,” (Hail Columbia) you might not recognize even though to this day it’s played fairly frequently. Composed in 1789 for George Washington’s first inauguration and thus the inauguration of the first U.S. president, “Hail Columbia” is now the ceremonial entrance march of the Vice-President. Here’s Mike Pence earlier this year at his swearing in. “Columbia” is an 18th century name for the Americas, and more specifically the United States, sometimes personified by a woman wearing an American flag. This was before the Statue of Liberty supplanted it as the female symbol of the U.S.
Like a lot of old patriotic songs, “The Star-Spangled Banner” predates the nation’s formation and actually comes from an older tune.
Key’s poem he called “Defence of Fort McHenry.” These lyrics were later combined at his suggestion with the melody of, “In Anacreon in Heaven,” a song already popular in England and America at the time. Written about 1775 by a man named John Stafford Smith, the tune was originally the “constitutional song” (essentially a drinking song) of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s musicians club in London.
Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet noted for his praise of love and wine. The song became very popular in America, where it was used to accompany a number of verses, including the patriotic song called “Adams and Liberty,” before 1814. Francis Scott Key himself used the tune for his 1805 song, “When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar,” written to honor U.S. naval sailors Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart, who raided and disabled the sailing ship USS Philadelphia to keep it from falling into enemy hands in Tripoli during the Barbary Wars in 1803.
The lyrics of “When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar” are actually kind of a predecessor to what would become “The Star Spangled Banner,” and share certain turns of phrase with that later song. Each stanza ends with “…the brows of the brave.” Which would eventually be retooled to “…the home of the brave” and calls the American flag by name, quote:
In the conflict resistless, each toil they endured,
‘Till their foes fled dismayed from the war’s desolation:
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscured
By the light of the Star-Spangled flag of our nation.
The Flag of Fort McHenry, the flag hoisted after the naval bombardment by the British, still exists, even after 200 years. Called the Great Garrison flag, it features 15 stars and 15 stripes, and it lives in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. And it’s HUGE. Originally 30 feet tall and 45 feet wide, about 8 feet of its length was cut up and given away as souvenirs to soldiers after the battle.
While in common practice only the first stanza is sung, “The Star Spangled Banner” actually contains not one, but four stanzas. The poem continues on to describe the flag emerging atop the fort, and then later recalls the U.S. motto “In God We Trust,” describing the country as quote: “the Heaven-rescued land that the Power hath preserved.” Power being capitalized and referring to God.
In 1861, 47 years later, the country was embroiled in civil war, and a physician and writer from Boston named Oliver Wendell Holmes penned a semi-official fifth verse to convey his indignation at the war. Holmes was a member of the Boston elite, a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose son enlisted against his wishes and was subsequently injured 3 times. His version made its way around the North, published in songbooks of the era, and warns of the destructiveness of division, with lyrics, quote:
When our land is illumined with Liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
Further lyrics have also been interpreted as being anti-slavery, though Holmes was primarily a unionist and had previously criticized the abolitionist movement as traitorous. Nevertheless, quote:
By the millions unchained who our birthright have gained,
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
The “millions unchained” referring to black slaves. The Star-Spangled Banner as it is officially written is not without some controversy. And, as is much of American history, it lives squarely within the contradictory and flat-out racist founding of the United States. A place where Thomas Jefferson can pen that “all men are created equal” while owning over 170 black slaves.
Francis Scott Key himself is a problematic figure. A slave owner from a Maryland plantation, he became a lawyer and served as the District Attorney in Washington under President Andrew Jackson in the 1830’s. He represented the federal government in a number of high-profile cases involving slavery. During his tenure he prosecuted cases against the abolitionist movement and defended the rights of slaveholder states in line with the Southern majority in Congress and a complicit Jackson administration. He was a staunch opponent of abolition in America.
By the mid 1830’s the abolitionist movement had garnered increased public sympathy and there was growing resentment on the part of whites over freed black slaves competing for jobs. Fear of slave uprisings was also very rampant. The largest in American history, Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, which resulted in the deaths of at least 55 people, took place four years earlier and was still in the minds of white Americans.
And so instances of severe violence against freed black people began cropping up in the Capital, which the abolitionists made the epicenter of the anti-slavery movement. Mostly notably was the Snow Riot of 1835 in Washington, 25 years before the Civil War. White rioters and lynch mobs looted and destroyed the businesses of freed black slaves and a school believed to have had connections to the abolitionist movement. The riots lasted for days until Andrew Jackson himself intervened.
Looking to make an example of and take the fire out of the abolitionists, was District of Columbia prosecutor Francis Scott Key. He arrested a physician named Reuben Crandall, suspected of disseminating anti-slavery pamphlets and inciting the unrest throughout the city. District Attorney Key charged Crandall with publishing “seditious libels, by circulating the publications of the anti-slavery society.” Essentially, he made Crandall the poster boy for the current civil unrest.
The trial was a national story, which took place in April, 1836. Key argued essentially that the right of slave owners to their property (human beings) took precedent over Crandall’s right to free speech because it was inflammatory. Key charged Crandall’s actions would instigate slaves to rebel. He said to the jury, quote: “Are you willing, gentlemen, 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, gentlemen, 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?” Key attempted to appeal to the jury’s racial fears, but ultimately failed. Reuben Crandall was acquitted after a 10-day trial.
Key’s legal and political life after the war is largely defined by race. In his time he was noted to be a “decent” (in quotations) slave over and freed 7 of his own slaves. Throughout his life however he maintained the white supremacist notion that freed black people couldn’t handle the responsibilities of freedom in the United States and perpetuated the colonialist notion that they would be better off emigrating back to Africa, particularly Liberia.
While he did in some instances defend cases involving black people arguing for their freedom pro bono, he was disappointed that what he saw as a noble effort wasn’t particularly effective…and is quoted as saying, “I have been…instrumental in liberating several large families and many individuals…I cannot remember more than two instances, out of this large number, in which it did not appear the freedom so earnestly sought for them was their ruin.” Meaning that the slaves he helped free as legal counsel, he felt, did not pay him back enough by becoming successful.
Francis Scott Key was a proponent of African colonization, which helped found the colony of Liberia, which eventually became an independent state for freed American slaves. He was a founding member and continuing leader of the American Colonization Society whose aim was to end slavery through the repatriation of freed black slaves to Africa. Liberia declared independence in 1847 and by 1867 the ACS had helped 13,000 Americans relocate to the country. In Key’s case, and the Chesapeake Bay region in general, colonization likely found an audience as a way to avoid further slave rebellions. It’s notable that in the 14 years Francis Scott Key was an active member, fundraising and unsuccessfully lobbying Congress, the American Colonization Society arranged transportation for only about 2000 freed people. Meanwhile during the lifetime of the society itself the American slave population grew by 400,000. Key was removed from the board in 1833 as its policies shifted toward abolitionist, something he would remain critical of for the rest of his life.
Francis Scott Key’s relationship to slavery adds credence to the racist interpretation of the Star-Spangled Banner’s third verse, which reads:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
The British had made a habit of recruiting slaves to fight for their side in exchange for their freedom. The War of 1812 from the British perspective was actually a rather small sideshow to what was really going on in Europe, which was Napoleon’s all-encompassing conquest of the continent; England needed men.
Great Britain’s practice of impressment, or the capture and conscription of sailors for the war effort against their will was one of the defining reasons for America’s declaration of war against the Crown.
Some historians argue that the lines in the song glorify the defeat of the Corps of Colonial Marines, one of two British units made up of black slaves recruited between 1808 and 1816 with the promise of freedom. The next two lines:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
have been interpreted as meaning a triumph over black sailors specifically, who it’s speculated Key may have resented for their fighting against the United States. As the interpretation goes, the flag is depicted as symbolically flying over the heads of that unit, in spite of their bravery and perhaps even mocking it.
When The United States and Great Britain finally signed the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, ending the conflict, Great Britain refused to return some 6000 people the United States demanded were its property. Those freed 6000 black sailors eventually settled in Canada and Trinidad, whose present-day descendants are known as Merikins. M-E-R-I-K-I-N-S.
Francis Scott Key died at the age of 63 of pleurisy in January, 1843. A man of contradicting and outdated worldviews, his legacy lives on every year in the celebration of the nation’s founding and the poem of victory he was inspired to write.
Appallingly, the echoes of slavery are still deeply embedded in the fabric of American society and are front and center in the lives of many black Americans every day. The Star-Spangled Banner lingers as a reminder that “the home of the free” was not then, and is still yet to be…for everyone.
This is Signal Cannon.
Signal Cannon is produced by me, Billy Donahoe. It’s distributed by Play Too Much. For more Signal Cannon and other great podcasts, visit PlayTooMuch.com
Our theme music was written by Eric Donahoe. Show art by Julianne Waber.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the U.S. Army 1st Armored Division Band.
“Hail Columbia” performed by the United States Navy Ceremonial Band.
Mike Pence Inauguration from PBS NewsHour. “Four Ruffles and Flourishes” performed by the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets. “Hail Columbia” performed by the United States Marine Band.
“To Anacreon In Heaven” is from The Smithsonian Museum of American History.
I’m Billy Donahoe, and this is Signal Cannon.
Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. Verso, 1988. P-286-290. Google Books. Accessed 11 July 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=JndLInWWjx4C&pg=PA288#v=onepage&q&f=false
Butterworth, Hezekiah; Brown, Theron. The Story of the Hymns and Tunes. American Tract Society, 1906. pp. 333-335. Google Books. Accessed 11 July 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=yL0MAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=holmes&f=false
Veltman, Chloe. “Why We Should Sing The Star-Spangled Banner’s Obscure Fifth Verse.” KQED, https://ww2.kqed.org/arts/2017/03/02/why-we-should-sing-the-star-spangled-banners-obscure-fifth-verse/
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Morley, Jefferson. Snow-Storm in August: The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington’s Race Riot of 1835. Anchor Books, 2012, pp. 40-42. Google Books. Accessed 11 July 2017. https://goo.gl/TXwxYd
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“Francis Scott Key” National Park Service. 26 February, 2015. Fort McHenry: National Monument and History Shrine Maryland, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/francis-scott-key.htm
“The Star-Spangled Banner and the War of 1812” Smithsonian Institution, https://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmah/starflag.htm
“The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem” Smithsonian National Museum of American History, http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/default.aspx
The Trial of Reuben Crandall, M.D. H.R. Piercy, 1836. John Baily Pamphlet Collection (Library of Congress) https://www.loc.gov/item/18013204/
“The 58th Presidential Inauguration, January 20th, 2017” Marine Band, http://www.marineband.marines.mil/Unit-Home/Presidential-Inauguration-2017/