Recently Colin Kaepernick, who is the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the singing of the National Anthem. Kaepernick gave the following reason for his protest:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
“I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. . .If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Clearly, Kaepernick’s protest has struck a cord with the many people who have been protesting police brutality. His protest has also shed light on the history of why Francis Scott Key wrote his Star-Spangled Banner.
Francis Scott Key was a slave-owner who lived in Maryland. He wrote his Star Spangled Banner about the United States defense of Fort McHenry during the war of 1812.
Before going into the motivations for the national anthem, I believe it is useful to look at a bit of history.
The first of many revolutions in the Americas
During the American Revolution, the British promised about 3,000 slaves their freedom because they joined the British army and fought against the revolution. For this reason, most Black people in this country fought for the British against the revolution.
During the negotiations after the British defeat, representatives of the United States demanded the return of the 3,000 Black British soldiers to slavery. At that time the most valuable commodities in the world were slaves, and the United States government desperately wanted ownership of the British soldiers who had a dark skin color.
The British government agreed to this demand and betrayed the promise they made to the Black soldiers. However, the Irish Commander of the British forces, Sir Guy Carleton, countermanded the order to return Black soldiers to slavery. He ordered these soldiers to Nova Scotia and fulfilled the promise the British had made.
After the revolution, the United States government was made up of two factions. They were called the federalists and the anti-federalists. The federalists favored a strong federal government and supported the commercial interests in the northern states. These federalists succeeded in abolishing slavery in several northern states.
The anti-federalists were in favor of a weak federal government and supported slavery. The anti-federalists became the same Democratic Party that President Barack Obama represents. With the election of Thomas Jefferson, the federal government became dominated by these pro-slavery interests.
The war of 1812 and it’s aftermath
During the war of 1812, the British again promised freedom to escaped slaves who joined their army. As a result, thousands of slaves joined with the British. These former slaves fought with arms in hand against a government that was dominated by slave owners.
In the original version of the Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key wrote about how he was horrified that former slaves had escaped and fought against the slave-owning republic. The following words were written by Francis Scott Key in the original version of the Star Spangled Banner. These words are never recited today for obvious reasons.
“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.”
Here Francis Scott Key made it clear that the United States government had no intention of supporting the interests of the slaves. He clearly felt that escaped slaves deserved, “the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” When he wrote about “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” he clearly was not talking about human beings who happened to be slaves. We should be clear that these were not the words of an isolated individual, but reflected the position of the United States government at that time. In fact, the entire economy of the United States was based on slavery.
Frederick Douglass escaped slavery when he was nineteen years old. He became a leader of the abolitionist movement. On July 4, 1852 Douglass spoke on the meaning of the Fourth of July for the millions of slaves who lived in this country. He concluded his speech with the following words:
“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival.”
Thinking about the reality these words represented, we might conclude that nothing had been gained from the American Revolution. The British rule of the thirteen colonies was tyrannical, and the conditions slaves experienced represented, “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy.”
Were there any gains made because of the American Revolution?
My opinion is that in order to see all the ramifications of the first revolution in the Americas, we need to take a closer look at the events of those times.
During the British rule of the thirteen colonies a person’s status in life was determined upon their birth. There were the gentlemen and everyone else. The so-called gentleman had the power, lived off of the labor of the people, and never worked. The majority of the population lived at the mercy of these gentlemen.
The words of the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” were indeed revolutionary. Initially, the affluent people who supported the revolution attempted to dominate the government. However, with Shay’s Rebellion and other initiatives by working people, the Constitution was amended to include the Bill of Rights. The idea that everyday people would have rights with the new government was another clearly revolutionary idea.
Reading these words, one might ask: So how did all of this affect the slaves who never had any rights? Answering this question requires looking at a bit more history.
The slave owners of this country were obsessed with repressing slave rebellions and apprehending escaped slaves. President Thomas Jefferson worked to isolate the revolutionary government of Haiti, where slavery had been abolished. General Robert E. Lee was the commanding officer of the U.S. army that put down John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. That raid had been about organizing and armed defense of slaves who wished to escape bondage.
However, what the slave owners didn’t see was the emerging class interests of northern capitalists, as well as the emerging class of workers and small farmers. Growing numbers of people became convinced that a continuation of the slave system would be a roadblock to the development of this country. These differences became so profound that millions of soldiers would be mobilized in the Union Army to militarily defeat the slaveocracy.
While the slave owners were obsessed with suppressing slave rebellions, the Union Army literally destroyed nearly every building in South Carolina. This was a conscious move to convince the Confederacy that they had no chance of winning the Civil War.
As a direct consequence of the Civil War, the government adopted the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These Amendments abolished slavery, gave all men full citizenship rights, as well as voting rights. When Black people learned of the defeat of the confederacy, there were immensely joyous celebrations.
My opinion is that this development would have been unlikely without the American Revolution freeing this country of British rule. We should recall, that under the rule of the British, the vast majority of the population never had rights that government ministers needed to respect.
We will also notice that after the Civil War reconstruction governments emerged in the former confederate states. These governments attempted to create a real democracy. Many Blacks and Caucasians learned to read for the first time.
However, the same government that defeated the confederacy, effectively gave power to forces that became the Ku Klux Klan. In the year 1877, the Union Army ended their occupation of the South, and the Ku Klux Klan militarily defeated the reconstruction governments.
The Ku Klux Klan then stripped Black people of their citizenship rights with a series of apartheid-like laws known as Jim Crow. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that the civil rights movement erupted and forced the government to defend the rights that had been gained after the Civil War. The rebellions of 1966–1968 also forced the government to change some of their institutionalized discriminatory practices.
So, what does all of this have to do with Colin Kaepernick? My point is, that while this might be difficult to see, gains have been made because of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. Saying this, we might also consider that Frederick Douglass’ words on the Fourth of July reflected a real reality, as do Colin Kaepernick’s words today.
My point is that real progress has been made with respect to working people since the American Revolution. Today working people and farmers are in a stronger position to advance our demands than workers and farmers of the past. We have these advantages because of the many struggles that erupted before us.
The problem has been that when the American Revolution did away with British rule, a government emerged that expanded chattel slavery. When the Union Army defeated the confederacy, the U.S. government would eventually support Jim Crow segregation. When the government outlawed Jim Crow, that same government advanced a course of mass-incarceration.
The problem is not to dismiss those who made real advances in the past. The problem has been that when these advances were put forward, the government reacted with an iron heal of repression.
So, when we think of the slavery and the genocide against the Indians, I do not believe that there are good reasons for celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. When we think of the reality that surrounded the Star Spangled Banner, as well as the reality we experience today, we can only cheer on Colin Kaepernick for his courageous stance.
For those interested in continuing the tradition of struggle that started with the American Revolution, this country has an amazing history that we can draw from.
For those interested in the origin of the Pledge of Allegiance, you can see my review of the Pledge at this link.