I am hopeful you will find a way to view this well-done documentary about the man who gave us the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key. Even if you don’t know whether you would be able to watch this video around Independence Day, I hope you will read about it and consider watching it at some point. And I really hope you will read past my remarks about the documentary and get to my discussion of a related issue of current importance– the previously little-known third verse of Key’s poem.

Recently, many American athletes have refused to honor the American flag during the playing of our National Anthem. Has the third verse of the National Anthem given them more reason to protest? Find foundations on which to base your opinion later in this article. This video gives a little background about Francis Scott Key’s involvement with slavery, but it wet my appetite for more information. I will later share some of the information I found in my research.

This documentary, entitled Proof Through the Night: Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the Hope that Transformed America, lasts 56 minutes. It is packed with costumed actors portraying Key and other characters involved in his story, who recite dialogue giving insight into the story. The presentation is enhanced by a narrator and the author of Burning Washington: The British Invasion of 1812, Anthony Pitch. Pitch gives insight into the British weapons of that time and how they affected the American soldiers. If you search for this video online by just entering “Proof Through the Night,” be sure to add the word “documentary” in the description for your search engine.
There is a book by that title, but it is a thriller with no relation to this video presentation.

Francis Scott Key was an amateur poet who began writing poetry early in life. Poetry used to woo his wife Mary is shared in the video. I was impressed by the fact that he continued to write poetry to her throughout their life together. Key became a very prominent lawyer, and eventually a District Attorney.

Key’s strong faith is very evident in the presentation. He began reading the Bible to his blind grandmother when he was young. He read it so well that she would invite others to come and listen. Key developed a life-long friendship with his second cousin, John Randolph, with whom he had common interests. Randolph became unpopular and had health problems, which led to depression. In a beautifully written letter, Key encouraged his cousin to find a relationship with God. One of the verses of the National Anthem expresses Key’s acknowledgement of the Power that helped to form and preserve our nation.

In this video you will hear interesting sidelights of the story. One such sidelight was Dolly Madison’s insistence on staying in the White House, while expecting the attack by the British, until the portrait of George Washington was safely removed. She felt it must be saved for posterity. The British later destroyed the White House by fire. Another interesting sidelight is that if it were not for a thunderstorm putting out the fuse on a British bomb that hit a powder magazine, the fort that formed the backdrop for our National Anthem may have been blown off the map. Also, I had not remembered learning that what ignited the War of 1812 was the fact that the British were stealing sailors from American merchant ships to help them fight Napoleon. The war with Napoleon was over in 1814, giving the British the ability to concentrate on trying to defeat the U.S.

By watching this video you will find out how, in 1814, a doctor ended up as a prisoner on a British ship and how Key ended up as a hostage on the ship with him, intently watching the attack of Ft. McHenry through an entire day and night. The lyrics of our National Anthem will take on a meaning for you. You will understand better how Key felt while he watched “the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air” throughout the night and the exhilaration he felt when “by the dawn’s early light” he witnessed the “Star-Spangled Banner” still proudly waving in the breeze.

Toward the end of the presentation, the video addresses Key’s involvement with slavery. It reveals that slavery is mentioned in the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It explains that Key was born on a plantation and that he himself owned a few slaves. It says that, over time, he released most of them but retained a few who were too old to find work. He believed slavery was wrong. He wanted to see a legal end to slavery. He didn’t want them released by means of a violent revolution wherein they might not be safe.

What do other sources say about Key?

I believe it’s a good idea to consult other sources about historical depictions, to try to make certain you are getting as accurate and complete a picture as possible of the circumstances. So I decided to see what other sources had to say about Key’s involvement in slavery. I found an article about Key on a website called wondersandmarvels.com. This website stated that it is no longer being updated, but I hope it will not disappear. The article I found is called “A Friend of Men of Color: Francis Scott Key and Slavery.” The article begins by telling a story of more than 70 carriages and a long line of horsemen following a casket to a cemetery. The man lying in the casket was William Costin, a leader of free blacks in Washington, D.C. All the mourners following behind were black, except one . . . Francis Scott Key.

The article goes on to say that Key owned slaves but opposed slave trafficking. [I believe that means he opposed importing more slaves from Africa.] It says that Key freed a few of his slaves and that records indicate that he treated his slaves humanely. Though a top lawyer in the Washington area, he was known for giving free legal advice to poor free and enslaved blacks. [Wikipedia states that “he also represented owners of runaway slaves.”] Rev. John T. Brooke wrote: “ he was their [blacks’] standing gratuitous advocate in courts of justice, pressing their rights to the extent of the law, and ready to brave odium or even personal danger on their behalf.” Yet Key helped to found the American Colonization Society, in 1816, which worked to send free blacks to a colony of the west coast of Africa, which became Liberia. [When I read this, I found it a little shocking. I didn’t remember ever hearing of such a thing. I looked for more information to help me understand what made him believe this was a good idea.]

I ran across a publication called The American Colonization Society, 1817 to 1840 by Early Lee Fox, on the books.google.com website. On page 17 of the book, I found text of a letter Francis Scott Key wrote to a man named Benjamin Tappan (a church leader) in the year 1838. In his opening remarks, Key writes, “No Northern man began the world with more enthusiasm against slavery than I did.” He says he emancipated seven of his slaves. The six still alive were doing pretty well, but he had prepared most of them for emancipation. He said he feared that other slaves would be unprepared. He says that in some cases it would be inhumane for him NOT to be a slave owner. He gave the example of an elderly slave who hadn’t worked for years. He paid the man’s board and other expenses.

Then Key says he zealously took many cases for slaves who fit laws that allowed them to petition the courts for freedom. He states: “ I cannot remember more than two instances, out of this large number, in which it did not appear that the freedom I so earnestly sought for them was their ruin.”

Key outlined several situations wherein he felt that being a slave holder was a duty: owning a slave too old to work; keeping a slave so uncooperative that he would be a problem to others; owning a slave who might be relocated in another state if he were sold, and thereby separated from a wife and family in a nearby plantation; or purchasing a slave to save him from harsh treatment by another owner. He further stated that he had never heard of anyone who buys and sells slaves for profit and claims to be religious. He felt there was nothing more disgraceful than poor treatment of slaves.

A Questionable Interpretation of Key’s Words

There is one quote from Key, which I saw quoted on several internet article listings, that is disturbing if it is to be taken just the way it sounds. So I tried to dig up the context in which these words were used. I found the context online in an excerpt from a biography/autobiography called The Lost World of Francis Scott Key by Sina Dubovoy, published in 2014. The line often quoted is: “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” The circumstances under which the words were used is that Benjamin Tappan had asked why it would be necessary to remove the emancipated slaves from America. Key’s reply was: “ ‘Their labor, however it might be needed, could not be secured but by a severer system of constraint than that of slavery—that they would constitute a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.’ ” I will quote what the author of the book wrote following that quote from Key. The author says: “What made freemen ‘a distinct and inferior race’ was white society’s denial of equal civil and political rights to them. (He [Key] said nothing about inherent inferiority.) These were the cold, hard facts as he [Key] viewed them. To a free person, this was a severer form of oppression than slavery is to an enslaved person. By contrast, in Liberia, the settlers enjoyed equal civil and political rights (but not the natives). This he [Key] never tired of pointing out. That he [Key] viewed the colonization experiment through rose-colored glasses, of that there is no doubt.” The author goes on to explain that many of the freed slaves who emigrated to Liberia grew to like it there, in spite of disadvantages such as climate and diseases. They built nice houses and established an elite English-speaking colony. But a promotional publication for Liberia published in 1839 failed to mention the famine of 1832 that forced colonists in Liberia to flee to Cape Palmas, where they faced hostile natives. This biography/autobiography from which I have quoted may be of great interest to some history buffs. It has 656 pages.

How would education affect equality?

I will add some thoughts of my own. It seems that the whites of those times couldn’t conceive of an integrated society, giving the blacks “civil and political rights” (which I take to mean social equality and the right to vote and participate in government) here in America. It seems to me that perhaps they could have envisioned that, if only they had provided the same basic education to the children of the slaves as was offered to the white children.

I discovered that there were some attempts to educate black slaves, and at the same time attempts to deny the opportunity. On a website at www.spartacus-educational.com I read that in the 1700s none of the public schools in the South allowed black children to attend. Whites feared that education would threaten the slavery system. They passed laws making it illegal to teach slaves. Some courageous teachers secretly operated schools at night. Circumstances were better in the North. New York City opened the first African Free School in 1787. The purpose was to help black children prepare to join white society as equal citizens through education. In 1824 they began to get public funding. In Canterbuy, Connecticut, a Quaker opened a school for black girls. Some whites tried to burn it down. Vagrancy laws were used to give ten lashes to the pupils. After it was reported to an anti-slavery newspaper, the school was able to continue.

I found more information about education of slaves at www.thirteen.org. Some groups in the South allowed slave education. In South Carolina Anglican ministers formed a school for slaves. Some slaves on plantations were taught by parents, other members of the family, or other slaves. Some were personally taught by their masters or paid tutors. Sometimes informal schools were begun on plantations. This article states that estimates say that in 1860 only 5% of the slave population was able to read. I sometimes wonder how the figures for estimates are established, especially related to subjects so far in the past.

What about that third verse?

Now I will move on to the questionable subject I referred to at the beginning of my article—the lyrics of the third verse of our National Anthem. I was able to find an article that I felt gave a very careful and objective consideration of what was most likely Francis Scott Key’s real meaning when he wrote the third stanza of his poem. It was an article written by Stevenson University of Stevenson, Maryland. The website is called stevenson.edu, and the article is entitled “Racing, Rhetoric, and Research: Francis Scott Key and our National Anthem.”

Here is Key’s third stanza:
“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, shall leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ 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 Stevenson University article considers three possibilities for the meaning of “hireling and slave” in that third verse: (1) Key had a racist outlook, and the thought of black slaves fleeing in terror and experiencing death made Key happy; (2) Key was referring to slaves who joined the British in attacking the U.S.; (3) Key’s words “slave and hireling” were a literary device having nothing to do with literal slaves. They may have referred to the British king’s soldiers.

After the writer considered many factors in regard to the three possibilities, he believed the third possibility to be the most logical. From 1780 to 1816, “slave” and “hireling” were used “to describe free people carrying out the wishes of a more powerful person.” It is comparable to Chinese Communist newspapers referring to U.S. allies in the Vietnam War as “puppets.” In 1813, during the War of 1812, a poet utilized the terms “hirelings” and “slaves” in describing the soldiers of the King of England at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. [King George was known as a tyrant.] The poem with these references was called “The Death of Warren.” [General Joseph Warren was an American physician killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was the one who dispatched William Dawes and Paul Revere to spread the alarm that the British soldiers were coming.]​

Not “Land of the Free” for all until later

Finally, I will bring up the point that at the time this poem by Key was published and turned into a song, those who wanted to abolish slavery scoffed at the words “Land of the Free.” After all, the black Americans were not experiencing freedom at that time. That was an important point. Today, black Americans are free. Yet they still face prejudice and serious injustices that can even lead to death. May we soon be a land where there is liberty and justice for all.

Below is a trailer of the documentary called Proof Through the Night.

Order the movie here from Vision Video.

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