An old controversy concerning the meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” re-erupted in August 2016 after NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick explained his refusal to stand during pre-game renditions of the national anthem as a protest against racial oppression.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in a statement posted on the National Football League web site. While the NFL stated in response that it recognizes “the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem,” Kaepernick was heavily criticized via social media, including by fellow players, former NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia among them:

Others came to Kaepernick’s defense, citing what has been termed a “celebration” of slavery to be found in the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner:

The article cited by journalist Radley Balko in the above tweet quotes the rarely sung third stanza of the anthem (see below), noting that the phrase “hireling and slave” refers to black slaves hired to fight on the side of the British during the War of 1812:

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.

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.

“With that in mind,” writes Jon Schwartz on the web site The Intercept, “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.”

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. It doesn’t appear that Francis Scott Key ever specified what he did mean by the phrase, nor does its context point to a single, definitive interpretation.

Key originally wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a patriotic poem first published in a Baltimore newspaper shortly after the event that inspired it. Set to the tune of the popular English song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” it became an unofficial national anthem during the 19th century, was officially adopted as such by executive order of President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and confirmed by Congress as the national anthem of the United States in 1931.

Sources:

Blackburn, Robin.  The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848.
   New York: Verso Books, 1988.  ISBN 0-86091-901-3.

Schwartz, Jon.  “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery.”
   The Intercept.  28 August 2016.

Taylor, Alan.  “American Blacks in the War of 1812.”  The Routledge Handbook of the War of 1812.
   New York: Routledge, 2015.  ISBN 1-31770-198-4.
   

Wilson, Christopher.  “Where’s the Debate on Francis Scott Key’s Slave-Holding Legacy?”
   Smithsonian.  1 July 2016.

Maryland in the War of 1812.  “A Corps of Colonial Marines, April 1814.”
   1 May 2011.

Britannica.com.  “Francis Scott Key, American Lawyer.”
   9 March 2014.