The lyrics to what is now known as “The Star Spangled Banner” were penned by Francis Scott Key on the morning of September 14, 1814. Its writing was inspired by the survival of Fort McHenry in Baltimore and the appearance of a large American flag flying over the fort after the British Royal Navy had bombarded it for more than 24 hours.
In order to properly understand these lyrics, one has to understand the historical events surrounding their writing.
The bombardment of Fort McHenry was one skirmish in the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. Although many Americans view the War of 1812 narrowly, as an American conflict, it was actually part of the Napoleonic Wars between Great Britain and France that played out on the continent of North America. The Napoleonic Wars raged from 1803-1815. The United States of America declared war on Great Britain in 1812 because the British enacted a policy to “impress” British subjects into service in the Royal Navy. The British did not recognize American citizenship. Therefore, anyone born a British subject who later claimed American citizenship was still considered a British subject. Impressment is a term used to describe forced military service.
Additionally, Great Britain had been interfering with U.S. trade and also attempting to restrict America’s westward expansion. The following text is from www.history.com/topics/war-of-1812:
“At the outset of the 19th century, Great Britain was locked in a long and bitter conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. In an attempt to cut off supplies from reaching the enemy, both sides attempted to block the United States from trading with the other. In 1807, Britain passed the Orders in Council, which required neutral countries to obtain a license from its authorities before trading with France or French colonies. The Royal Navy also outraged Americans by its practice of impressment, or removing seamen from U.S. merchant vessels and forcing them to serve on behalf of the British. In 1809 … new members of Congress elected that year–led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun–had begun to agitate for war, based on their indignation over British violations of maritime rights as well as Britain’s encouragement of Native American hostility against American expansion in the West.
In the fall of 1811, Indiana’s territorial governor William Henry Harrison led U.S. troops to victory in the Battle of Tippecanoe. The defeat convinced many Indians in the Northwest Territory (including the celebrated Shawnee chief Tecumseh) that they needed British support to prevent American settlers from pushing them further out of their lands.
In order to strike at Great Britain, U.S. forces almost immediately attacked Canada, then a British colony. American officials were overly optimistic about the invasion’s success, especially given how underprepared U.S. troops were at the time. On the other side, they faced a well-managed defense coordinated by Sir Isaac Brock, the British soldier and administrator in charge in Upper Canada (modern Ontario). On August 16, 1812, the United States suffered a humiliating defeat after Brock and Tecumseh’s forces chased those led by Michigan William Hull across the Canadian border, scaring Hull into surrendering Detroit without any shots fired.”
Viewed in its global and historical context, the War of 1812 was a war to ensure continued American independence from Great Britain.
During the War of 1812, Great Britain also used hired soldiers to fight against the United States - German Hessians. Key refers to these soldiers as “hirelings” in "The Star-Spangled Banner." Great Britain also promised freedom to any slaves held in America who would fight with the British against the United States.
We now arrive at the lyrics of "The Star Spangled Banner." The alleged racist verse three reads as follows:
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.
There is no doubt that Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," owned slaves. But that fact alone does not render the above verse racist simply because the word "slave" is present. When viewed in its historical context, this verse is nationalist, not racist. He asks the question, “And where is that band who so vauntingly swore?” Where is that foreign force that promised to destroy America? He answers that question: “Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.” They have been vanquished.
He then speaks of the hirelings and slaves recruited by the British. “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Key is saying that it doesn’t matter if you are a British army/navy regular, hireling, or emancipated slave; if you side against America, you will lose. “And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” This stanza is about American exceptionalism. It matters not the enemy, America will survive.
We also need to take a brief look at the fourth verse:
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.
In this verse, Key writes of the victory of “freemen” who fought to preserve the nation. Nothing in this verse makes a distinction between or among the types of freemen. There is an essay entitled Black Sailors and Soldiers in the War of 1812, which accompanies the PBC documentary, The War of 1812. The essay briefly tells the story of “Charles Ball, an escaped slave and self-declared ‘free man of color.’ … When Ball enlisted, African-Americans made up at least 15 percent of U.S. naval corps.” This essay also states that “besides the Navy and privateering, there were even a few black battalions in the American army.”
When Key wrote of the freemen who “preserv’d us a nation,” he was also writing about those African-Americans who fought to preserve the United States of America.
There is no doubt Francis Scott Key is a complicated historical character, much like Thomas Jefferson. But "The Star-Spangled Banner" is not a racist song. It is a song of nationalist pride.