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Oh Say Can You See
by Paul H. Belz
I love my country and its flag but want “The Star Spangled Banner” replaced as the national anthem.
The 1814 author of the anthem’s words, Francis Scott Key, was the enthusiastic prodigy of a traitor and he was a virulent racist. The composer of the 1770s tune, John Stafford Smith, was a citizen of the country that tried to destroy the United States in three wars. If England’s wishes had prevailed during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, or the Civil War, there would be no United States of America. The choice of Smith’s tune for our anthem is even more embarrassing when one considers that it was written as the theme song for an English men’s club named the Anacreontic Society which celebrated wine and revelry in the tradition of the Greek poet Anacreon. Plagiarizing the music of our mortal enemy to celebrate our independence from that very enemy in lieu of composing an original composition seems absurd.
Consider the subjects of patriotism and treason. Key was the legal prodigy of a beloved uncle, Philip Barton Key. He joined this uncle in Annapolis in 1796 to learn the law after graduating from St. John’s College. Later he named a son Philip Barton Key II to honor his mentor and gave the principle eulogy at his uncle’s funeral in 1815. Yet that man was a traitor.
Key’s uncle joined the British army to fight his fellow Americans in July, 1776. As a captain he attacked George Washington’s troops at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in June, 1778. In 1781 he was indicted for treason by a Maryland court. After fleeing to England he was granted a full pension for his service. He returned to the U.S. in 1785, escaped prosecution and built a thriving law practice in Annapolis and Washington culminating in his election to Congress. This was the role model for the author of our nation’s anthem. The third stanza of the anthem reeks of hypocrisy as Key promises death for slaves who fought for England in exchange for freedom. Action that was considered admirable when pursued by his uncle seeking the favor of the British monarch was considered despicable when pursued by slaves seeking their freedom. This hypocrisy demonstrated that for Key his career rather than his country was paramount. A true patriot would have disavowed this uncle and there is startling irony in the fact that our nation uses Key’s work as a primary trigger for eliciting patriotic fervor from military personnel, athletes, and loyal citizens.
There is added irony in that he is lionized for the anthem celebrating victory in the War of 1812. Key opposed that war because it was devastating his legal business. In a letter to close friend John Randolph on October 5th, 1814, he called the war “a lump of wickedness” and an “affliction.” In Congress, his uncle voted against the war. Again Key valued career as more precious than country.
A final point on the subject of patriotism is that most of Francis Scott Key’s male descendants fought as soldiers for the Confederacy and one grandson was arrested in Baltimore where his anti-Civil War newspaper was shut down by President Lincoln. Key’s heirs inherited his mindset. He was a loyal Jacksonian Democrat. On July 4th 1831 in the Capitol rotunda he remarked that states are independent republics and that the general government has limited power.
Next consider racism. Key was the beneficiary of uninterrupted slave service from his 1779 cradle to his 1843 grave, at which time he bequeathed eight slaves to his wife and freed none. Key despised abolition, feared racial mixing, and advocated deportation of blacks.
“Frank” Key, as intimates called him, was born on a Frederick County, Maryland farm where his father owned 60 slaves. His wife Polly grew up on Maryland’s Wye Plantation where her father owned 300-400 slaves, including Frederick Douglass. Key’s sister Anne married Roger B. Taney who became one of Frank’s closest friends and is widely reviled in 2017 for his Dred Scott Decision. Key supported the Dred Scott ruling and the Fugitive Slave Act.
Colonization societies were formed for the purpose of orchestrating the deportation of blacks from the United States. On December 21, 1816, the American Colonization Society held its organizational meeting in Washington. Key was a principle founder and speaker and became one of the 12-man board of managers. He used his oratorical skill to recruit new members, raise money from individuals and lobby Congress and state legislatures for funding. Key was so enthusiastic about colonization that he went to Baltimore to help establish another chapter.
Key’s loyal support of President Andrew Jackson was rewarded with appointment as district attorney for Washington D. C. and membership in Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet” of close advisors.
In 1835, Key sought and achieved a guilty verdict and the death penalty for a 19-year-old slave named Arthur Bowen for the bogus charge of attempted murder of a white woman. The woman was Anna Thornton, the widow of the Capitol’s first designer, William Thornton. Anna hadn’t been touched by Bowen and she wrote an 18-page letter to President Jackson to spare her slave. The day before the hanging Jackson did. Key never wavered in wanting Bowen hanged.
That same year, Key arrested a white doctor for distributing abolitionist literature, which Key considered a seditious act. Reuben Crandall was imprisoned for eight months before being found not guilty at his trial. His health was ruined and Crandall soon died. During the trial, Key called abolitionists “a set of men of most horrid principles.” Reading abolitionist literature made his “blood boil.” He admonished the all-male, all-white jury not to concede the country to abolitionists, “whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the negro.” He called abolition a “greater evil than slavery.”
In an October 8, 1838 letter to Reverend Benjamin Tappan, Key wrote that a society filled with black people would be “a severer system of constraint than that of slavery.” He added, “Freed blacks would constitute a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that could afflict a community.” He cited the example of a Maryland man who freed 200-300 slaves who then “crowded our cities, where their vices and idleness were notorious, and their sufferings extreme.”
Key’s apologists will posit that he was a man of his age or that he did some pro bono legal work for black people. Our anthem deserves an author who is a man for all ages. His free legal work simply demonstrated that his conscience recognized the correct moral path, making the fact that he ignored his conscience all the more reprehensible. John Adams was a founding father who followed his conscience and never owned a slave. He stated that he did so at great economic cost in competition with those benefitting from free slave labor. While Key publicly said slavery was wrong, he was too cowardly to act on that conviction by either freeing his slaves or supporting the hundreds of abolitionists who were risking life and property to immediately abolish slavery. On the contrary, he despised the abolitionists and they despised him.
Congress made numerous unsuccessful attempts to legally enshrine Key’s song as our national anthem. A bill finally passed and was signed in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover leading to the reasonable suspicion that our anthem’s birth was brokered and midwifed by unsavory facilitators in sordid back-room dealings.
Because our national anthem celebrates war; because its author was a racist and the prodigy of a traitor; and because its tune was plagiarized from our nation’s mortal enemy; “The Star Spangled Banner” should be replaced by “America the Beautiful” or a war-free themed original composition written by an American composer whose character will never require apologists.
Paul Belz Writings
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