Monday, January 25, 2021

Francis Scott Key - The Misunderstood Man of Our National Anthem

 O' say, can you see this post? You should note it, because I imagine it will end up making some people angry, but in the least I hope it gives people a more fair and balanced view of the place of Key in our nation's history.

Key and his immortal song, written aboard a British prisoner ship as he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, has always been one of my favorite parts of being an American. Although, interestingly, Key was a one hit wonder. He grew up writing poetry but his works were, to put it charitably, unenthusiastic. The Star Spangled Banner was the never before or since moment of his life, and even that didn't become the national anthem until 1931. Clearly, being a lawyer was his strong point, and he was damn good at it. That night and into the early morning in 1814, Key wasn't intending to write what would become our nation's song. But as he watched the British navy unload everything it had in an attempt to capture America's most important city at the time, he couldn't help but to record what he saw on the back of a scratch piece of paper from his pocket. That description and poem is what we hear each time the national anthem is played, although truthfully, the original song is longer than just the first section. What we hear is only the first 8 lines of what is actually a poem of 32 lines total, but the first 8 seem to be considered the best and most relevant to our nation and its ideals. Even though Francis did not support the War of 1812, the Star Spangled Banner is a tribute to America's resolve, and a reminder too all Americans and the world that we will die on our feet before we live on our knees in submission to kings and tyrants. For no matter how long the British pounded the fort, the Americans refused to leave or let the flag fall. Thus, when the firing stopped, our flag was still there and still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Key is a man of much debate and controversy, mainly because of his unfortunate connections to slavery. In fact, due to slavery in the United States at the time, his critics theorized that his song should have said, "Land of the free and home of the oppressed." But the character of Key regarding slavery is not one that is cut and dry. He was an outspoken critic of the slave trade, he was part of a colonization movement that helped freed blacks return to their homelands in Africa, and he defended slaves in court. Although it's also true that he owned slaves at times and was known to defend the rights of slaveowners. I think Key was torn between his conscience and his career. I don't think he liked slavery, but it was also something that was unfortunately part of his society. It seems that he probably had a fight inside him his entire life, between a lawyer's duty to defend his clients, and his objection to slavery as a whole. In short, I do not think Key would have joined the Confederacy, or had a lifechanging breakdown if he had lived to see the end of slavery. Although on the other hand, he was, in many ways, a product of his time. Not even Lincoln was a paragon of virtue. While he was against the enslavement of other human beings, he did not believe that blacks and whites were equals. As in his own words in 1858, "I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white race."

But we take the good things from our heroes and influential people. There is no one who has a completely clean slate, not you, not me, and not Francis or anyone else. Even if someone's misdeeds or faults are never brought to the forefront, it would be absurd to assume that any human being is or was perfect. What is America but a working progress? At the time the Declaration and the Constitution were written, the only people in America who were free were rich, white, male landowners. But we haven't thrown the Declaration and the Constitution away. They remain our guidebook for continuing to form a more perfect Union. We realize that their goodness and virtue is an asset, and that their shortcomings can be worked through. I myself, some ways, am I minority because I'm not Christian. So does it pain me when I also think about the fact that Key was nothing less than a Christian theocrat? Absolutely. But does that make me want to smash his statues or ban his song? No. The words he wrote transcend barriers and come to all Americans. 

If we live our lives by toppling or destroying any and everything that may have some negativity or wretchedness in its past, we won't even have a nation all together.

In the Goodness of the Gods,
Chris Aldridge.