Francis Scott Key and the anthem we’re probably stuck with

Just read a really good book, thought I’d tell you about it.  The title: Snow-storm in August: Francis Scott Key, Washington City and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835, by Jefferson Morley.  Great read, illuminating a chapter in American history I’d frankly never heard of.

A lot of the book has to do with Francis Scott Key, and the writing of our national anthem.  The rest of it has to do with a guy I’d never heard of, a restauranteur named Beverly Snow.  Snow was a freed slave, taught by his master the art of good cooking.  Finally freed after his master’s death, he moved to Washington D.C. (known then as Washington City), and, with his wife (also a former slave, she kept the books), opened what may well be the first ‘fine dining’ restaurant in the US.

In addition to being a marvelous chef, Snow was an outgoing, charming guy. He offered great food at a higher price than any of his competitors, advertized brilliantly, and the various diplomats stuck in this American backwater came to appreciate the one place in town they could count on for a decent meal. Snow was also an uppity black guy in what was still essentially a Southern city.  When an inebriated eighteen year old slave named Arthur Bowen woke his spinster mistress, showing up in her bedroom holding an axe in the middle of the night, it set off a race riot, into which Snow somehow got caught up.  Snow barely escaped with his life, and his restaurant was destroyed.  Undeterred, Snow and his wife slipped away to Toronto, started another restaurant, and died a millionaire. Make a great movie–I’m thinking Terrence Howard as Snow.

Bowen was tried for attempted murder, despite his mistress’ certainty that he was just drunk out of his mind, and intended her no harm.  In a second trial, a white abolitionist, Reuben Crandall, found with anti-slavery tracts in his hotel room, was tried for inciting a riot, and (wait for it!) treason. Crandall and Bowen were both tried by the District Attorney for DC, none other than Francis Scott Key.  Yes, the guy that wrote the anthem.

Key was pro-slavery.  He was also quite the moralist, who made shutting down whorehouses the main focus of his time as DA. His best friend was a guy who eventually made it to the US Supreme Court, in large measure because of Key’s support and recommendation. That would be Chief Justice Roger Taney, who would later write the Dred Scott decision, easily the worst in the history of the Supreme Court.  In the Crandall case, Key argued that an abolitionist should receive the death penalty, that arguing against slavery promoted race riots, such as the Nat Turner rebellion.  Fortunately, he lost.  He won the case against Bowen, and the poor kid was sentenced to death.  But Bowen’s owner, a sweet little old lady named Anna Thornton, was convinced Bowen was innocent, and finally persuaded President Andrew Jackson to pardon him.

But Key. I didn’t know anything about Key.  I wasn’t even aware of how immensely popular the Star Spangled Banner was in his day.  He was sort of a national celebrity–the guy who wrote That Poem, celebrated wherever he went, a popular touring speaker.

As Morley describes it, Key wrote the anthem as an act of atonement.  In the war of 1812, he was a militia captain tasked with guarding the main road to Washington.  The British army marched on his position–he held a strong uphill redoubt, and had the Brits outnumbered.  One British volley, though, and Key’s men voted with their feet, a mad sprint in various directions.  And of course the Brits took the capital, burned most of the buildings.

Key felt terrible about the whole thing.  That’s why he volunteered to negotiate on behalf of a captured prisoner, which is why he was there at the battle of Fort McHenry, which led, of course, to the writing of the anthem.

I know a whole of people who love the National anthem, who get choked up when they hear it, who hold their hands over their hearts at ballgames and sing along.  I’m not one of them. I don’t like it, and I wish we had a different one.

I feel like something of a traitor for writing that.  My family has a long history with the anthem.  My Dad’s an opera singer, and sang it before every Indiana University home basketball game, for years.

I don’t exactly hate the anthem; mostly I think it’s funny. “Gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there.”  Well, why wouldn’t it still be there?  Fort McHenry got hit hard in that battle, rockets and mortars, but it’s not like the British really wanted to capture it, any more than they wanted to occupy and hold Washington.  The War of 1812 was a spanking.  The Brits were fighting for their lives against Napoleon–they wanted to teach us a lesson, and get back to the serious job of defeating the French. The National Anthem was written about a battle we essentially lost, during a war we basically lost, which we should never have fought, and on which we were basically on the wrong side.  (Napoleon was the guy who posed an authoritarian threat to international democracy–we should have joined the Brits, not fought them).

And I really hate the fourth verse.  “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’  My question is, when will we ever, as a nation, conclude that our cause isn’t just, and that God isn’t with us?  It’s certainly never happened yet, not when we invaded the Phillipines, not in Vietnam, not in Iraq.  I wish our national anthem celebrated something other than militarism.  And didn’t celebrate our blithe assumption that any military intervention, by us, is always just, is always blessed by God.

Do I have a better alternative?  America the Beautiful would be fine, I think.  But how about this song?  “This land is your land,” Woody Guthrie.  I love that song.  Love its inclusiveness.  That should be the message of our Anthem–that America is all of us.  That America means Arthur Bowen and Reuben Crandall, as much as a privileged lawyer like Francis Scott Key.  That America was about Beverly Snow, every bit as much as Roger Taney.

Francis Scott Key was an establishment guy, not a bad guy, but a defender of the status quo, a moralist and a careerist.  Woody Guthrie was a scamp, a commie, a guy who spent his life working with impoverished Okies, learning and honoring their folk music.  Who would you rather have write our National Anthem?


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