"The Star Spangled Banner": a slave-owner's anthem?

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tags: Confederate flag, Star Spangled Banner



Marc Ferris is the author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem (Johns Hopkins University Press). His email is mferris16@yahoo.com.

As the backlash against Confederate symbols continues to embroil flags, statues and the names of roads, icons related to slavery are becoming fair game for censure and removal. Perhaps the country should consider also replacing the national anthem because poet Francis Scott Key owned up to 20 other human beings.

Beyond the transgression of its author, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a national joke due to our inability to sing it or to remember the words of even the first verse (there are four). Created during the War of 1812, one of our many forgotten conflicts, it seems to glorify militarism and is the most controversial song in American history.

Yet the anthem has lasted for 201 years as a secular prayer for the nation's well-being and is venerated by veterans and other patriots who have attempted to preserve it in a traditional form, with much success. The only lasting patriotic composition inspired by perilous circumstances, the anthem is adaptable to varied musical styles and offers an edgy, memorable melody.

Key never touted his song, even though "The Star-Spangled Banner" catapulted to instant popularity as the de facto national anthem soon after its creation (Congress made it official in 1931). After leaving a mixed legacy regarding race as attorney general in Washington, D.C. during the Andrew Jackson administration, Key died in 1843, leaving slaves to his wife but stating in his will that he preferred that she free them.

During the Civil War, Key's entire line of descendants fought for the Confederacy. As the divided Maryland legislature readied to decide which side to support, federal officials jailed his grandson, outspoken newspaper editor Frank Key Howard, along with other southern sympathizers at Fort McHenry in Baltimore — the place where Francis Scott exulted at seeing the flag "still there" in 1814. ...




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