Yet unknown to most people who stand for the national anthem, veneration of the piece is rooted in white supremacist thinking. While Key is celebrated today as the bard of “the land of the free and the home of brave,” his career as a pious, proslavery district attorney in the District of Columbia under President Andrew Jackson is a blank page in American history books. In the 1830s, abolitionists, Black and White, jeered at his proslavery patriotism. Key’s Washington, declared one anti-slavery broadsheet, was the “Land of the Free/Home of the Oppressed.”
The largely unknown history matters today because patriotic symbols matter. Republicans wrap themselves in the flag as way of claiming a monopoly on love of country. Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the singing of the national anthem, as a way of forging a different kind of patriotism.
In the awakening sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody, the conflict between these patriotisms has deepened. The campaign to take down Confederate memorials is a movement to extract White supremacy from public rituals, and Key is a legitimate target.
Anti-racist protesters have pointed out the troubling, original third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” often sung 100 years ago but now forgotten. In lyrics written near where Pence spoke, Key scorned the thousands of African Americans who joined the British invaders in 1812 in return for a passage to freedom in Canada.
Before the now famous and familiar refrain in the third verse, “And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wav/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Key’s original lyrics made clear that the people of color who aspired to emancipation would pay for their impudence: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” The assumption of White supremacy and Black slavery was integral to Key’s patriotism.
Nor was Key’s racial chauvinism just rhetorical. Two decades later, from 1833 to 1840, he served as the chief law enforcement officer in the nation’s capital. He presided over the daily enforcement of enslavement laws. He used his position to bolster enslavers’ power.
Key prosecuted two White anti-slavery activists for bringing abolitionist pamphlets to the capital. While both men were acquitted at trial, Key’s attack on First Amendment rights effectively banned anti-slavery publications from circulating in the nation’s capital until 1850.
In 1835, Key sought the death penalty for Arthur Bowen, a 19-year-old enslaved man accused of attempting to murder his enslaver. After Bowen was wrongly convicted, the district attorney wanted to see him hang. So wrongheaded was his case that President Andrew Jackson, an enslaver and racist, eventually pardoned Bowen. Yet Key had favored the death penalty for an African American who rebelled against bondage, even when the facts didn’t justify it.
In March 1836, Jackson nominated Key’s best friend and brother-in-law, Roger Taney, to be chief justice of the United States; Key used his celebrity to helped secure Taney’s Senate conformation. Chief Justice Taney went on to author the Dred Scott decision in 1857, effectively legalizing enslavers’ power even in free states and denying citizenship to Black people.
Through his public career, Key opposed emancipation unless the freed people of color were immediately sent to Africa. The “Negroes,” Key wrote, constituted “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience prove to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”
This record meant that in Key’s lifetime — he died in 1843 — “The Star-Spangled Banner” was too controversial to win acceptance as the national anthem. At the time, two other patriotic songs, “Hail Columbia,” now forgotten, and “America,” (also known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) were at least as popular.
It was not until after the Civil War that “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to gain official recognition. Southerners adopted the song as a symbol of reconciliation of North and South. Politically, “reconciliation” meant the end of the Reconstruction era, when the federal government defended the constitutional rights of African Americans.
Key’s song also boosted America’s emergence as a global military power. It was played after the U.S. Navy destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, marking an enormous expansion of the U.S. overseas empire.
In 1904, the Navy stopped playing “Hail Columbia” at its functions, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” its de facto anthem. That same year, the Army began requiring officers and enlisted men to “stand at attention and uncover” during the song. Even before it became the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had become the national song of the U.S. armed forces.
In the 1920s, the song became controversial again. After the carnage of World War I, the line “rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” seemed heinous, and some intellectuals called for a new anthem. Among African Americans, James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became known as the “Black national anthem.”
The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the United Daughters of the Confederacy responded by mobilizing to marginalize dissenters. These all-White organizations launched a petition drive to formally designate “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the one and only national anthem. In March 1931, Congress acquiesced. The elevation of the banner from popular song to official national anthem was a neo-Confederate political victory, and it was celebrated as such. When supporters threw a victory parade in Baltimore in June 1931, the march was led by a color guard hoisting the Confederate flag.
Acknowledging this historical context is critical. Yet as a symbol of patriotism, the song’s meaning is ever changing. Americans of all backgrounds have claimed it and made it their own. In 1968, Puerto Rican singer José Feliciano performed a gentle version at the World Series, which provoked a barrage of irate phone calls to NBC. Jimi Hendrix’s searing cover at Woodstock in 1969 was considered “anti-American.” Marvin Gaye’s transcendent rendition of the anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game infused Key’s lyrics with all the wisdom and compassion that its author lacked. (After hearing it, Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley said, “I morphed into an American.”) Performances criticized in the moment have become iconic because they have encapsulated the various patriotisms that Americans feel.
And so the history of our national anthem tells a story much bigger than Key. “The Star-Spangled Banner” has a history steeped in racism — but it has been culturally appropriated by artists of color to express a more inclusive, critical and generous patriotism.
The next step in this evolution would be making room for other anthems that better represent the diversity of contemporary America. This is already happening at sporting and cultural events that now open with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” not “O say can you see.” The idea of several national anthems does not sacrifice patriotism or erase history. Better to bring real American history back into our patriotic rituals than erase the reality of Francis Scott Key’s bigotry.