Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Star-Spangled Banner (cont'd.) …

A recent post inking to a piece titled No, the national anthem is not about slavery | Brandywine Books, provoked this comment from Jeff Mauvais:
I suggest that Mr. Walker familiarize himself with the Corps of Colonial Marines, units of runaway slave that served in the British Army during the War of 1812. Those units were especially active in the series of engagements --- Bladensburg, Washington, North Point --- leading up to the Battle of Baltimore memorialized by Francis Scott Key. Their participation in these battles caused a wave of fear that spread throughout the slaveholding elites in Maryland and Virginia. Given that Key was a member of that class, it's quite reasonable to conclude that the third verse of the anthem does indeed celebrate the deaths of runaway American slaves. History is history, no matter how much one might want to sugarcoat it. As you suggest, let those who can read, read ... especially before posting invective of the sort supplied by Mr. Walker.
But it turns out the matter is more complicated. The intrepid Dave Lull saw the comment and did, as only he can, some research and came up with this:
The National Anthem Does Not 'Celebrate Slavery': The Meaning of Lyric Used to Defend Kaepernick. This, after pointing out that no one seems quite sure what Francis Scott Key meant by the the verses inspiring the controversy,  reaches the following conclusion:
 … by the time "The Star Spangled Banner" was culturally adopted by the American people in the twentieth century as the national anthem, only recognized by a 1931 Act under Herbert Hoover, not only were the three additional stanzas largely forgotten, but official versions used by the military and sanctioned by the U.S. government did not contain the lyrics about the "hireling and slave."
Anyway, we all know the reason why we stand at the playing of the national anthem, and it is not
to celebrate slavery.
As for Francis Scott Key, his record regarding slavery is, to say the least, mixed.
Speaking for myself, I'd rather "America, the Beautiful" were the national anthem.


  1. Jeff Mauvais1:43 AM

    I was not suggesting that the lyrics in the third stanza of the national anthem celebrate slavery per se, but that they celebrate the deaths of black men whom Francis Scott Key was unable to see as anything but chattel. In reality, they were fighting as free men, something that, 200 years later, still seems to confound the writer to whom you most recently linked.

    The Corps of Colonial Marines was not composed of impressed slaves. The Marines were runaway slaves who were granted immediate freedom upon enlistment in the British Navy; received training, pay and benefits equal to those of the all-white Royal Marines; and were promised resettlement as free men in the British Empire upon the cessation of hostilities. They were literally fighting for the freedom of themselves and their families, who were sheltered by the British on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake while the men fought. Anyone minimally familiar with the War of 1812 knows the story of the Colonial Marines. I learned it personally from the superintendent of the Fort McHenry National Monument when I lived in Baltimore 35 years ago.

    Most legitimate historians of the early post-colonial period believe that Key was referring to Hessian mercenaries with the word 'hireling' and to the Colonial Marines with the word 'slave'. Why? Because, at the time he wrote the lyrics, Key was feeling a particular animus toward the black Marines, believing (incorrectly, it turns out) that they were responsible for plundering the family tomb in Chaptico, Maryland several weeks earlier. On the other hand, there is no historical evidence whatsoever that he intended the word 'slave' to be understood as a metaphor for one living as the subject of a monarch, which is the claim made by Mr. Walker in his original posting, as well as by the writer in your most recent link. Both this claim and the claim that 'slave' refers to impressed blacks are nothing more than unsupported assertions. (And, obviously, mutually contradictory!). The men referred to as 'slaves' by Key were in fact free for the first time in their lives.

    My ire was raised in particular by Walker's use of the phrase 'urban legend' in dismissing claims about the lyrics of the third stanza. The historical facts outlined above should make clear the most likely meaning of Key's lyrics. Though I doubt he intended to engage in racial coding, Walker's choice of the word 'urban' is unfortunate. The claims are neither urban nor legendary, so his use of the phrase is sloppy at the very least.

    What's the end of the story of the Colonial Marines? The units were disbanded in 1816, and most of the Marines settled as free men in Trinidad. They were quickly dubbed Merikens, a word still used to describe their descendants. Sadly, their fellow slaves who remained in the U.S. did not earn the right to be called Americans until the ratification of the 14th Amendment fifty years later.

    1. I am not familiar with the makeup of the British forces in the War of 1812. Certainly Wellington had the King's German Legion at Waterloo, but did German units serve in America during that war?

  2. Jeff Mauvais2:24 AM

    I copied the following from the publisher's description on Amazon of a very good book called "The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832", written by Alan Taylor. The book won both the Pulitzer Prize in History and the National Book Award for Non-Fiction a couple of years ago. Professor Taylor holds the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Chair in History at the University of Virginia, and is regarded by his peers as one of the pre-eminent historians of colonial and early American history. As someone who has read all of his books, I can attest that he is one of the few historians of American history writing now who combines excellence in primary research with narrative vigor (the late Edmund Morgan was another). Anyway, the excerpt:

    "Frederick Douglass recalled that slaves living along Chesapeake Bay longingly viewed sailing ships as "freedom’s swift-winged angels." In 1813 those angels appeared in the bay as British warships coming to punish the Americans for declaring war on the empire. Over many nights, hundreds of slaves paddled out to the warships seeking protection for their families from the ravages of slavery. The runaways pressured the British admirals into becoming liberators. As guides, pilots, sailors, and marines, the former slaves used their intimate knowledge of the countryside to transform the war. They enabled the British to escalate their onshore attacks and to capture and burn Washington, D.C. Tidewater masters had long dreaded their slaves as "an internal enemy." By mobilizing that enemy, the war ignited the deepest fears of Chesapeake slaveholders."

    Does that sound like impressment to you?

  3. Even if — and I am inclined to agree — that Key is referring to the Colonial Marines, the fact that the lines are not included in the version that is used for the national anthem would seem to vitiate Kaepernick's complaint. No one stands for the anthem in order to honor slavery.

    1. Jeff Mauvais11:47 PM

      I agree with you completely, Frank. In fact, this simple point should have been the first and sole response to the claim that the anthem celebrates slavery. It may have indirectly done so at the time of composition in 1814, but in its current form certainly does not. My problem is with the widespread distortions of history that happen on all sides when these issues arise.

      The use of impressment as an explanation was especially egregious, as it implicitly suggests that any blacks fighting for the British could not have been free men exercising personal agency, but rather were simple brutes who were forced to exchange one form of subjugation for another. That's simply odious.

      Impressment involved the British Navy boarding U.S. merchant ships on the open sea, searching for and seizing British-born seamen who had joined the American merchant fleet seeking better pay and working conditions. Naturally, in an era when people did not carry standardized forms of identification, a good number of American-born seamen were taken, but were usually returned when their provenance became clear.

      The impressment argument advanced by Mr. Hickey, in the column reached through Dave's link, seemed to consist of two facts and a faulty conclusion: impressment of American sailors was one of the factors leading to the outbreak of the War of 1812; American-born blacks fought for the British during that war; therefore, those black troops must have been the victims of impressment. That's not critical thinking in my neck of the woods!