Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, decided not to stand for "The Star-Spangled Banner" when his team played on Friday. He said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Kaepernick’s act of civil disobedience opened up a conversation about patriotism, the role of celebrity in advancing racial justice, and the nature of "The Star-Spangled Banner" itself. As Jason Johnson at The Root wrote of the song earlier this year, “It is one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American lexicon, and you would be wise to cut it from your Fourth of July playlist.”
Today on the blog I talk to Jefferson Morley, a historian and journalist whose book Snowstorm in August: The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington's Race Riot of 1835 features the song’s author, Francis Scott Key, as one of its primary subjects. Morley and I caught up about the history of "The Star-Bangled Banner," and the politics of its writer, Francis Scott Key.
Me: You’ve told me before that Francis Scott Key was more famous than most people realize. Like he was a pop star, the Justin Bieber of his era.
Morley: He was extremely famous, and it’s important to understand the chronology of his life. There’s the familiar story of how he comes to write the Star Spangled banner, with the infamous racist lines. The song becomes very popular right away, but it’s not the national anthem for another hundred years. But because the song becomes very popular right away, Francis Scott Key becomes something of a celebrity, and he acts the part. He’s very active in the Episcopal church, he’s acts like a do-gooder, he gets into philanthropy and all that.
In the late 1820s, though, he becomes enamored with Andrew Jackson. Jackson is the first real outsider president, as the earlier presidents all came from Massachusetts and Virginia. He overturns the applecart and puts together an electoral majority based in the south and west. When Jackson gets elected, Key joins this coterie of men, who when Jackson wins the White House and comes to Washington, become Jackson's entourage of sorts.
So the famous Mr. Key attaches himself to Jackson. Jackson wants somebody in Washington to tamp down talk of abolition, because slavery is becoming more of a political issue. People in DC are talking about abolition a lot. There’s this sense that, even if there remains slavery in Virginia, maybe we shouldn’t have it here, in the nation’s capital, while we’re ostensibly building this great, free country. Jackson needed someone in city government to keep the abolitionists in line. He nominates Key to the be the district attorney for the city of Washington, and over the next eight years, Key becomes this crusading, moralistic style district attorney for the capitol. He tried to shut down all the Bawdy Houses, in which he was notably unsuccessful. But his other crusade was to shut down the abolitionists who were coming to town to hand out their literature.
These abolitionists are giving out leaflets in the capital, talking about the fact that America is the height of hypocrisy for maintaining slavery while talking about how great democracy is. Jackson wants to shut that down. Jackson doesn’t want to hear from the abolitionists at all, so Key suppresses all of the abolitionist talk. He even pursues libel charges against well-known abolitionists. He doesn’t get the verdict, but he chases prominent abolitionist Ben Lundy out of Washington, back to Philadelphia.
Me: How would you describe Key’s politics relative to the institution of slavery?
Morley: Key’s contemporary politics are completely supportive of the slave-holding order. The racist language in his song is still completely relevant when he’s in political power in the 1830s. Key’s best friend, I think it’s safe to say, and his brother-in-law, was Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He is most famous for having written the Dred Scott decision. Taney, who is appointed to the court by President Jackson in 1835, is the most prominent voice of the contemporary slave order, and Key is very much in his political sway.
By the standards of the day, Key was a “liberal.” He wanted Black people to have their own country, but that was the future solution. In the moment, he wanted to see that the slavery laws would be strictly enforced, in DC especially. Here’s the man who wrote "The Star Spangled Banner," but his legacy is leading the charge against the abolitionists, and free speech, in the city of Washington. It’s important to understand that crusade as the practical application of his so-called patriotic views.
"Francis Scott Key's legacy is leading the charge against the abolitionists, and free speech, in the city of Washington. It’s important to understand that crusade as the practical application of his so-called patriotic views."
Me: In your book, Snowstorm in August, you tell the story of one of Key’s most famous trials. How does that shape your understanding of his views on race?
Morley: In the midst of trying to drive the abolitionists – White and Black – out of Washington, in 1835 Key prosecutes an enslaved boy, who was charged with attempted murder. Key aggressively seeks the death penalty for a kid whose guilt is completely questionable, as the woman who was the alleged victim turns out to be his mistress. She later comes out and says, look, he was drunk, but he didn’t try to kill me. Key pursues the death penalty to the end, though. That’s the racial history that’s baked into the legend of Francis Scott Key. In his closing speech in the trial of the accused kid, he was explicitly racist about the inferiority of Black people. He made a very crude appeal to the racist notions of the day during that trial. You can’t let Key off the hook. His racism is so baked in there, that it’s invisible without digging deeper. It’s only when someone like Colin Kapernick stands up that we tell these stories.
Me: There’s a moral dance we tend to do when we discuss actions from two hundred years ago, because while we have an easy time judging people by contemporary standards, it’s important to understand their historical context. This is sort of happening with Woodrow Wilson right now, where it’s pretty clear that – even by the standards of his time – he was aggressively racist in his policymaking. How does Key stack up in his own time?
Morley: Keys’ actions were highly controversial at the time. There were people criticizing him for what he was doing, even people who weren’t abolitionists. People said that his suppression of abolitionist literature was a violation of free speech, that the enslaved boy wasn’t guilty and shouldn’t have been tried at all. It was not at all like he was acting in the norm. These issues were debated then, like they are debated now.
Me: It almost sounds to me like some two centuries old version of Trump getting elected and then appointing Giuliani to be the district attorney for the District of Columbia.
Morley: (Laughs) If you talk to old people, a lot of them will say that we used to sing all four stanzas of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It looks like the four-stanza version died out by the 1960s. In modern times it’s pretty much unknown to know all four stanzas. That happened, in part, because of the idea that the guy who wrote this song was a Giuliani-like bully in his prosecutorial conduct, who openly espoused racist principles. When Key was asked about the abolitionist movement, years later in a series of letters, he said that the abolitionists were “bad for the Blacks, because talk of freedom just makes the Whites control them more.”
Me: It’s not hard to trace that kind of rhetoric to some of the ugly things we hear today.
Morley: Yes, and "The Star Spangled Banner" has always been caught up in whatever the culture wars of the time happen to be. The song was not made the “national anthem” until 1931. The story of how it became the national anthem was mixed up in the culture wars of the 1920s, which I wrote about in the Daily Beast a few years ago. In the fight over making it the national anthem, Southerners who were cultivating a nostalgic view of the Civil War were the song's biggest proponents. On the day that it was approved and "The Star Spangled Banner" became the national anthem, there was a march in Baltimore, in the district of the congressman who sponsored the bill. The march was led by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The Union veterans refused to join the parade. Kaepernick is part of a tradition of civil disobediance, and cultural debate, over the meaning of this song.