FACT CHECK: No, the Star Spangled Banner Isn't About "Slavery"

As the protests by NFL players during the anthem continue, some of their supporters have taken to claiming that parts of the Star-Spangled Banner are actually a reference to slavery.

Advocates of this view point to some of the following lines as supposedly being a reference to black people, "No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave" and the following to white people, "O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand."

This meme plays on growing public ignorance of certain elementary aspects of American history. The people most likely to believe this have generally never heard these verses. And so they are primed to believe that they haven't heard of them because they needed to be hidden.

While back in the early 19th century, "slave" was used as an insult, today we largely associate it with the racist institution of slavery. 

To start with, let's look at the lines in context.

 

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.

 

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. 

 

"Hireling and Slave" were a commonplace part of contemporary discourse. 

Francis Scott Key's third stanza, which is largely at issue here, was clearly influenced by France's own anthem, La Marseillaise.

"Their blood has washed out their foul footstep's pollution" clearly echoes Marseillaise's, "Let an impure blood soak our fields!", and "And where is that band who so vauntingly swore" sets the narrative for the stanza in which a nameless "band" plotted to destroy America. But was thwarted. The narrative echoes the rhetoric of Marseillaise's "horde of slaves, Of traitors and conspiratorial kings" scheming to put France in chains.

Slaves, in both the French and American anthems, refers to servants of an enemy king, rather than to actual slaves.

America and France were both republics fighting monarchies. Accusing the servants of an enemy king of being slaves was a good 'Republican' (as in being patriots of a Republic, rather than a monarchy) sentiment. 

Hirelings and slaves both appear in the French anthem. Or at least some obscure parts of it. And here it is in the libretto for Rossini's William Tell. "Wars and disasters/these are your masters/hireling slaves, ye hireling slaves."

And there are plenty of American precedents from outside the South. Take the Ranger's Midnight Song. "Our cause is just in God 's our trust ; The hireling slaves we'll foil; Our pine-tree banner ne'er shall trail In the dust of freedom's soil. Our trumpet's throat brays out the note Of death to Albion's sons." 

The song commemorates the Battle of Germantown in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania flag carried the pine tree. References to hireling slaves had nothing to do with black slavery.

The contrast between "freemen" and "slaves" is also common in patriotic songs. And has nothing to do with race. Take the British naval hymn, Hearts of Oak. "To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves."

"The revisionists who claim that the Star-Spangled Banner is referencing slavery place a great deal of emphasis on the similarity of "hireling and slave" to an earlier pro-slavery poem. But the wording would have been second nature to people of a more religious time.

One might look to the translation of the Book of Job. "As a slave that longeth for the shadow, and as a hireling that looketh for his wages;" (Job 7:2)

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