In Defense of "The Star Spangled Banner"

Jul 4, 2020 2:42 PM

In Defense of “The Star Spangled Banner”

This past week a Facebook friend (whom I’ve never met) posted in favor of ditching “The Star Spangled Banner” as our National Anthem. The individual self-presented as a patriotic American of a generally conservative point of view who has been stirred by current events in race relations to reexamine whether some of our customs are worthy to retain—and in particular, this song.

Two arguments were presented: That the third stanza of the song (which is practically never sung, and which the vast majority of people don’t know exists[i]) contains a racially objectionable line; and that the author, Francis Scott Key, not only owned slaves but also bought and sold them.

I’m not going to address here the second argument, which goes to a larger call by agitators to disavow all persons in American history who had anything to do with the institution of slavery, including primary founders Thomas Jefferson and even George Washington. (Which makes it curious to me how popular is the Broadway musical Hamilton among the Left when its titular protagonist was himself a slaveholder who bought and sold slaves.) That is a whole issue by itself.

It’s the first point I want to speak to because it is entirely unfair, based upon an apparent misunderstanding of what the offending line is about.

Here is the lyric that created the offense:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave

The writer of the post did not elaborate but simply left it out there, assuming every reader would understand that the use of the term “slave” must refer to the institutionalized enslavement of Africans in the plantation economy of the American South. For this reason, the entire poem must give tacit support to slavery, and is therefore infected with an immoral, racist philosophy.

The hastiness of that judgment is evident in the failure of the objector to ask what that line means and why does it appear in this poem.

Why, surely this is referring to slavers hunting down and killing the slave who is fleeing for his life and freedom, right? But what does that have to do with the “hireling” with which he is paired? A hireling isn’t a slave, but a paid employee. Why is he fleeing, and why are they killing him?

The first rule of interpreting literature is context. “The Star Spangled Banner” was written during a hot war being fought on American soil by an invading British army. Few people know much about this war, and how viciously it was waged on all fronts. But it is important to know that the context for this poem was a war in which the United States, less than four decades old, was fighting for its very survival as an independent nation. Context!

Francis Scott Key wrote this poem in celebration of the failure of the British assault on Ft. McHenry. It is, in terms of literary type, a taunt song, a form of literature that goes back thousands of years (a biblical example of the taunt song is the Old Testament book of Nahum, a taunt that celebrated the fall of Ninevah, capital of the cruel Assyrian Empire). As taunt songs go, Key’s is relatively restrained and civilized.

But after expressing in the first two stanzas his exhilaration over the stars and bars still waving over the battlements of the fort, he gives vent to his feelings about the invaders. Here is the whole third stanza:

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.

“That band” refers to the invading British force, whose intention was through “the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion”—i.e., through military force—leave “us,” the citizens of the United States “a home and a Country…no more.” This is poetry, folks. It’s written different from prose. And what does he say about the invaders? “Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps pollution.” That is, they attacked us, and they paid for it in blood.

Now we get to that offending line: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Who are the hireling and slave? The attackers, whose repulsed assault has resulted in a futile flight for their lives. Why is he calling the British troops hirelings and slaves? It is an insult. He is saying that the only people the British can get to fight for them are hirelings (mercenaries who are fighting for the money) or slaves (conscripts who have no choice having been pressed into service against their will).

Again, his use of the words “hireling and slave” have nothing whatsoever to do with the institution of slavery. It is an insult, a poke in the eye of British pride. It is a jibe, completed in the fourth stanza when he refers to Americans as “free men.” He is saying, “You British have to drag men out of their homes in England and pay others from Germany and elsewhere to come fight us, but we are coming out to defend our homes and country as free men.” It’s a grand, overstated boast, to be sure, but it completely fits the context of the taunt song. (“Freemen,” by the way, is not freemen as opposed to slaves on a plantation, but as opposed to being subjects of a king and an empire.)

But see now how the last stanza lifts the whole poem to another level, to being more than the celebration of a single victory but a prayer for posterity:

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto - “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

By the way, the words “In God We Trust” first appeared on coins in 1864 and was made official as our national motto by act of Congress in 1956. Are those words made hurtful and offensive also because of their association with the rest of this song?

 Now, the use of “The Star Spangled Banner” as our National Anthem has been debated before, many times. While I personally do not favor changing it, I am not presently trying to present a holistic argument toward preserving it. But we are living in a day when emotionally charged mobs are tearing down statues not only of Confederate generals but of Union generals responsible for their defeat, and not only Founders who owned slaves but also those who were abolitionists. Before getting caught up in all that mindless iconoclasm, perhaps we should pause and consider whether our feelings have anything to do with fact or reason.



[i] The full text of the poem may be found here: