The Third Verse of "The Star Spangled Banner"

Updated on October 3, 2017

Breaking Down the Third Verse

Everyday there are more debates over the protests by NFL players who choose to take a knee. After a massive protest this past weekend by the entire league, I watched a watered down version last night where the narrative was changed from a protest against police brutality to players locking arms in solidarity of team unity. Although I was upset over the message being changed by Aaron Rodgers who spoke for the team, I had to consider that Green Bay is an overwhelmingly white-populated city and they were definitely concerned about upsetting their fan base. Maybe the Chicago bears took the same stance because they were playing in Green Bay and wanted to get out of town safely. Over the past few days there have been a lot of posts about the flag code and how many people who claim to be patriotic, including the NFL owners, have been violating that code. By allowing the flag to be spread out horizontally over the field, you are in direct violation of the flag code. Also, every team has a small flag displayed on the back of their helmets, which is another violation. Then you have the Super Bowl champions whose logo contains a partial representation of the flag, which is yet another violation. These are just a few examples that you see on a regular basis. But this article is about the National Anthem, so let me get back on subject.

The third verse of the National Anthem goes like this:

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.

The controversy lies with the meaning of lines five and six of this verse and has become the topic of the day. What exactly does Francis Scott Key mean by these words, specifically the hireling and slave? No one knows because Key is dead and cannot explain what he meant in his own words, so we have to try to interpret them based on who he was as a person. I did some research and there are many articles on this subject, almost all of them calling it a racist verse. Now I know this is shocking to almost everyone reading this, and some of you may have stopped reading because this is not what you want to hear about our National Anthem. But here is just some of what I found, and you can do your own research as well.

On the Snopes website, which is used to debunk or verify most controversial issues, I found the following explanation.

".There are historians (notably Robin Blackburn, author of The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848, and Alan Taylor, author of “American Blacks in the War of 1812”), who have indeed read the stanza as glorying in the Americans’ defeat of the Corps of Colonial Marines, one of two units of black slaves recruited between 1808 and 1816 to fight for the British on the promise of gaining their freedom. Like so many of his compatriots, Francis Scott Key, the wealthy American lawyer who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” in the wake of the Battle of Fort McHenry on 14 September 1814, was a slaveholder who believed blacks to be “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” It goes without saying that Key did not have the enslaved black population of America in mind when he penned the words “land of the free.” It would be logical to assume, as well, that he might have harbored a special resentment toward African Americans who fought against the United States on behalf of the King. After the U.S. and the British signed a peace treaty at the end of 1814, the U.S. government demanded the return of American “property,” which by that point numbered about 6,000 people. The British refused. Most of the 6,000 eventually settled in Canada, with some going to Trinidad, where their descendants are still known as “Merikins.” In fairness, it has also been argued that Key may have intended the phrase as a reference to the British Navy’s practice of impressment (kidnapping sailors and forcing them to fight in defense of the crown), or as a semi-metaphorical slap at the British invading force as a whole (which included a large number of mercenaries), though the latter line of thinking suggests an even stronger alternative theory — namely, that the word “hirelings” refers literally to mercenaries, and “slaves” refers literally to slaves."

Ok, so I don't want to rely on just one version, although this clearly points to racism. Let's look at another source. I found this on American Historama's website:

● The Star Spangled Banner lyrics "the hireling " refers to the British use of Mercenaries (German Hessians) in the American War of Independence
● The Star Spangled Banner lyrics "...and slave" is a direct reference to the British practice of Impressment (kidnapping American seamen and forcing them into service on British man-of war ships). This was a Important cause of the War of 1812.

Now this version kind of whitewashes and exonerates Francis Scott Key, but doesn't really sound believable. So I went to another source. I found an article by Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Morgan State University, on The Root. Here is an except from his article:


"To understand the full “Star-Spangled Banner” story, you have to understand the author. Key was an aristocrat and city prosecutor in Washington, D.C. He was, like most enlightened men at the time, not against slavery; he just thought that since blacks were mentally inferior, masters should treat them with more Christian kindness. He supported sending free blacks (not slaves) back to Africa and, with a few exceptions, was about as pro-slavery, anti-black and anti-abolitionist as you could get at the time.


Of particular note was Key’s opposition to the idea of the Colonial Marines. The Marines were a battalion of runaway slaves who joined with the British Royal Army in exchange for their freedom. The Marines were not only a terrifying example of what slaves would do if given the chance, but also a repudiation of the white superiority that men like Key were so invested in.


All of these ideas and concepts came together around Aug. 24, 1815, at the Battle of Bladensburg, where Key, who was serving as a lieutenant at the time, ran into a battalion of Colonial Marines. His troops were taken to the woodshed by the very black folks he disdained, and he fled back to his home in Georgetown to lick his wounds. The British troops, emboldened by their victory in Bladensburg, then marched into Washington, D.C., burning the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building and the White House. You can imagine that Key was very much in his feelings seeing black soldiers trampling on the city he so desperately loved.

A few weeks later, in September of 1815, far from being a captive, Key was on a British boat begging for the release of one of his friends, a doctor named William Beanes. Key was on the boat waiting to see if the British would release his friend when he observed the bloody battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Sept. 13, 1815. America lost the battle but managed to inflict heavy casualties on the British in the process. This inspired Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” right then and there, but no one remembers that he wrote a full third stanza decrying the former slaves who were now working for the British army.

In other words, Key was saying that the blood of all the former slaves and “hirelings” on the battlefield will wash away the pollution of the British invaders. With Key still bitter that some black soldiers got the best of him a few weeks earlier, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is as much a patriotic song as it is a diss track to black people who had the audacity to fight for their freedom. Perhaps that’s why it took almost 100 years for the song to become the national anthem."

Another interesting interpretation and undeniably portraying the verse as racist. So I sought out another source. I found this article on "The Intercept" written by Jon Schwartz. Here are some excerpts:

"Almost no one seems to be aware that even if the U.S. were a perfect country today, it would be bizarre to expect African-American players to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Why? Because it literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans.

The Star-Spangled Banner,” Americans hazily remember, was written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. But we don’t ever talk about how the War of 1812 was a war of aggression that began with an attempt by the U.S. to grab Canada from the British Empire.

However, we’d wildly overestimated the strength of the U.S. military. By the time of the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814, the British had counterattacked and overrun Washington, D.C., setting fire to the White House.

And one of the key tactics behind the British military’s success was its active recruitment of American slaves. As a detailed 2014 article in Harper’sexplains, the orders given to the Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir George Cockburn read:

Let the landings you make be more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage. … The great point to be attained is the cordial Support of the Black population. With them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British Troops, Mr. Madison will be hurled from his throne.

Whole families found their way to the ships of the British, who accepted everyone and pledged no one would be given back to their “owners.” Adult men were trained to create a regiment called the Colonial Marines, who participated in many of the most important battles, including the August 1814 raid on Washington.

Then on the night of September 13, 1814, the British bombarded Fort McHenry. Key, seeing the fort’s flag the next morning, was inspired to write the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

So when Key penned “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.

With that in mind, think again about the next two lines: “And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The reality is that there were human beings fighting for freedom with incredible bravery during the War of 1812. However, “The Star-Spangled Banner” glorifies America’s “triumph” over them — and then turns that reality completely upside down, transforming their killers into the courageous freedom fighters.

After the U.S. and the British signed a peace treaty at the end of 1814, the U.S. government demanded the return of American “property,” which by that point numbered about 6,000 people. The British refused. Most of the 6,000 eventually settled in Canada, with some going to Trinidad, where their descendants are still known as “Merikins.”

Ok, so it sounds like most people who are writing about this have come to the same conclusion, that this verse is racist. So Colin Kaepernick's choice to use this as the basis to draw attention to his protest is understandable. Considering Key wrote this in 1814 during the height of slavery in America, the British were willing to accept African slaves into their military with the thought of winning their freedom. Consider that when America won the war, they wanted their "property" back, but the British did not go back on their promise to these people of freedom.

I encourage everyone to do their own research to draw their own conclusions. This is something I am just learning. I personally went to Ft. McHenry last year while visiting Baltimore and there was no mention of this anywhere, for what I now see as obvious reasons. This was before the protests had started. I always knew that the song was based on war, but I never knew, as I am sure most Americans don't, that it included this demeaning verse. Another thing I am sure of is that to a lot of people it won't matter.



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