Hirelings and Slaves and Tuneless Members of Congress

Just when I thought I was done writing about the national anthem, an alert reader who was never a contestant in the Miss Teen USA pageant (which is a shame, since given the circumstances, he was probably a shoe-in for the Congeniality award) , tipped me to this story from ABC's Nightline.

Nightline dispatched an intrepid reporter to Capitol Hill to ask members of Congress their views on the singing of the anthem in languages other than English. The results were predictable: “The often-partisan bickering on Capitol Hill was absent on this issue: Every member of the House or Senate we approached insisted that the national anthem should be sung only in English. Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif., said, “It's an insult” to use a foreign tongue.” So far, so dull– the sort of thing that makes Nightline one of the most reliable non-prescription sleeping aids– but then things got interesting. The reporter asked the Congress types if they could sing the anthem. The results, again, were predictable, though this time they were entertaining:

Right away we thought we might have arrived at the home of the brave as Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, sweetly sang the entire song beginning to end with gusto, gesturing broadly over the final stanza to the gleaming dome of the U.S. Capitol building. But alas, she was the last to solo.

One congressman, Rep. Gene Green, R-Texas, sang the anthem along with a group of students from Houston's Herrera Elementary School. But most of the other dozen or so House members we approached suddenly had important business to conduct and fled after offering lame excuses.

Yep, the anthem is so important to Miller and the others, that they can't be bothered with actually knowing it. Explains a lot really.

And while it's admirable that Marcy Kaptur was able to belt out the tune on request, I seriously doubt she “sang the entire song beginning to end”. “The Star Spangled Banner” has four verses, and it's a shame that almost no one knows the last three, because tucked away in the third verse is a very interesting piece of history.

The bloodthirsty third verse begins with Francis Scott Key taunting the British troops– “that band who so vauntingly swore”– who fought the Americans during the War of 1812. He boasts Rambo-style that ” Their blood has wiped out their foul footstep's pollution”, before going on to single out “the hireling and slave”:

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 “hireling” is reference to the British tradition of using mercenaries, but the “slave” is a reference to just that: slaves.

During the War of 1812, the British promised freedom to any slave who would join them. Actually they promised more than just freedom, they promised a new life with free land grants in Canada. Thousands of slaves took the British up on the offer, and even helped Admiral Sir George Cockburn burn Washington D.C. And the British kept their word to the slaves, settling most in Nova Scotia. As for the revolting slaves who fell into the hands of the Americans– that's where Key's “the gloom of the grave” comes in.

It's always fascinated me that the Congress decided in 1931 to adopt as the national anthem a song that includes a reference to killing slaves fighting to be free, but I suppose that members of Congress in 1931 didn't know the song any better than the current crop does.

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