It was September of 1814. The British had sacked Washington and torched the White House. The conflict became known as the War of 1812, even though it was in its third year.
The British had also taken prisoners, including a popular doctor from Prince George’s County in Maryland. A friend of the doctor sailed on a ship flying a truce flag to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Royal Navy.
The mission was successful; British commanders agreed to free the doctor. But while on the ship, the man — a 35-year-old lawyer named Francis Scott Key — overheard plans for a surprise attack on Baltimore. He and the doctor would not be allowed to leave until the attack was over.
That’s how Key ended up witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry while aboard a British ship. He couldn’t tell from his vantage point who had won or lost. But at dawn, he saw the American flag, 15 stars and 15 stripes at the time, still waving over the fort and was inspired to write a poem. Soon, it was set to the tune of an existing song.
That’s the short version of how “The Star-Spangled Banner” came to be.
The longer version — of both the song and the story of the man who wrote it — reveals not only why it has become controversial now, in this season of racial reckoning, football and presidential campaigning, but why it was too controversial to become the national anthem for more than a century after it was written.
First, a few things to know about the War of 1812: One of the main issues was the British practice of impressment — the forced conscription of American sailors to fight for the Royal Navy. Plus, the British promised refuge to any enslaved Black people who escaped their enslavers, raising fears among White Americans of a large-scale revolt. The final provocation was that men who escaped their bonds of slavery were welcome to join the British Corps of Colonial Marines in exchange for land after their service. As many as 4,000 people, mostly from Virginia and Maryland, escaped.
It’s important to know these things because “The Star-Spangled Banner,” originally called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” has more than one verse. The second half of the third verse ends like this:
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.
These lyrics are a clear reference to the Colonial Marines, according to Jefferson Morley, author of “Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.” They are clearly meant to scorn and threaten the African Americans who took the British up on their offer, he wrote in a recent essay for The Washington Post. Key surely knew about the Colonial Marines, and it’s even possible he saw them among the contingent of British ships that sailed into Baltimore Harbor.
But Mark Clague, a musicologist at the University of Michigan and an expert on the anthem, disagrees. In 2016, he told the New York Times: “The reference to slaves is about the use, and in some sense the manipulation, of Black Americans to fight for the British, with the promise of freedom.” He also noted that Black people fought on the American side of the war as well.
Whether manipulation or not, the British kept their word to Colonial Marines after the war, refusing the United States’ demand that they be returned and providing them land in Trinidad and Tobago to resettle with their families. Their descendants, called “Merikins,” still live there today.
And even if these lyrics aren’t meant to be explicitly racist, Key clearly was. He descended from a wealthy plantation family and enslaved people. He spoke of Black people as “a distinct and inferior race” and supported emancipating the enslaved only if they were immediately shipped to Africa, according to Morley.
During the Andrew Jackson administration, Key served as the district attorney for Washington, D.C., where he spent much of his time shoring up enslavers’ power. He strictly enforced slave laws and prosecuted abolitionists who passed out pamphlets mocking his jurisdiction as the “land of the free, home of the oppressed.”
He also influenced Jackson to appoint his brother-in-law chief justice of the United States. You may have heard of him; Roger B. Taney is infamous for writing the Dred Scott decision that decreed Black people “had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.” A statue of Taney and a school named after Key have been recent subjects of scrutiny during the protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
Although “The Star-Spangled Banner” and all of its verses were immediately famous, Key’s overt racism prevented it from becoming the national anthem while he was alive, Morley wrote. There was no official anthem, and many people chose to sing other songs, like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
Key’s anthem gained popularity over time, particularly among post-Reconstruction White Southerners and the military. In the early 20th Century, all but the first verse were cut — not for their racism, but for their anti-British bent. The United Kingdom was by then an ally.
After the misery of World War I, the lyrics were again controversial for their violence. But groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy fought back, pushing for the song to be made the official national anthem. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover made it so.
“The elevation of the banner from popular song to official national anthem was a neo-Confederate political victory, and it was celebrated as such,” Morley wrote. “When supporters threw a victory parade in Baltimore in June 1931, the march was led by a color guard hoisting the Confederate flag.”