Troubling Origins of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the national anthem in protest against U.S. oppression of “black people and people of color,” a concern underscored by the origins of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” writes Sam Husseini.

By Sam Husseini

As several writers have noted — before and after the furor surrounding quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the national anthem is racist. Specifically, the third stanza, which references the British offering freedom to African-American slaves who would join with them in the War of 1812, says:

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. Even less well know, the song originates in slaveowner Francis Scott Key’s “When the Warrior Returns” — which was set to the same tune. As Alex Cockburn, the deceased and much missed co-editor of CounterPunch, noted following President Obama’s much celebrated 2009 address in Cairo:

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“An early version of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ by Francis Scott Key, written in 1805 amid the routing of the Barbary states, offered a view of Islam markedly different from Obama’s uplifting sentiments in Cairo:

In conflict resistless each toil they endur’d,

Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation:

And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d

By the light of the star-bangled flag of our nation.

Where each flaming star gleamed a meteor of war,

And the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.

Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave

And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.

“In 1814, Key rehabbed this doggerel into the Star Spangled Banner. So America’s national anthem began as a gleeful tirade against the Mahommedans. And, of course, every member of the U.S. Marine Corps regularly bellows out the USMC anthem, beginning ‘From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.’ “In short, America’s march to Empire was minted in the crucible of anti-Islamic sentiment. (One admirer of this early chapter in America’s imperial confrontations with Islam is that ardent Crusader, C. Hitchens who cites Joshua London’s Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, on the origins of the Star Spangled Banner.)”images-1

I actually first learned of the racism underlying the national anthem from Alex Cockburn’s 1987 book Corruptions of Empire, which features a splendid cover.

Note to illustration on the front of jacket: In August 1814, a British raiding party led by Admiral Sir George Cockburn launched an attack on Washington. They set fire to the Capitol, then proceeded to the White House and, before setting fire to it, consumed a meal set out by Dolly Madison which had been abandoned by the fugitive President and his family. Cockburn next proceeded to the offices of The National Intelligence to avenge himself on the press which had abused him. He ordered his men to destroy the paper’s printing types, saying ‘Be sure that all the Cs are destroyed so that the rascals cannot any longer abuse my name’.

Cockburn then laid siege to Baltimore, the unsuccessful fusillades prompting the composition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, whose reference to ‘the hireling and slave’ in the British force alludes, as Robin Blackburn points out in The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, to the fact that Cockburn had offered freedom to all slaves who would join him in his attacks of 1813 and 1814. According to a British report these slaves conducted themselves very well and ‘were uniformly volunteers for the Station where they might expect to meet their former masters.’ Some of these black recruits were in the party that burned the White House.

Alex’s brothers Andrew and Patrick have also written about this.

This highlights the darkest heart of the United States, eager to assault indigenous people — be they Africans, or natives of what we call “America,” or Berbers or Arab or whoever. Native Americans who are perceived as having been defeated can now be romanticized to an extent, while Arabs and Muslims who are not eager to roll over for U.S. establishment power are demonized. It also highlights that racism and violent nationalist identity are closely intertwined and attempts at separating the two may well be mere cover for both.

Sam Husseini is founder of


20 comments for “Troubling Origins of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

  1. September 8, 2016 at 14:56

    During the free-for-all of defense and disparagement which is this and any comments section, I’m reflecting not upon stalwart actions of Colin Rand Kaepernick nor lyrics of the national anthem but on another matter not all that removed from the discussion: Why is there no U.S. national holiday celebrating Native American Indians? First Nations people of Canada are so celebrated; but, here in the U.S., indigenous people are effectively invisible inside the Beltway. Since indigenous people in the Americas weren’t treated as marketplace goods for the increase of power-elite treasuries, although their lands were, they were perforce expendable. The victims of this nearly-successful genocide, which was prosecuted by the U.S. federal government on orders from its power-elite masters, deserve–at the very least–both an official national apology and a national holiday. But no, red lives don’t matter to U.S. power elites. Capitalism’s greed and its present-day sacrilegious actions in the Dakotas are obviously beyond any purview of our appointed and elected so-called representatives in government.

    • J'hon Doe II
      September 8, 2016 at 17:09

      I am SO in agreement with U who cannot see
      this Capitalist TRAMPING UNDER FOOT

      as but the destruction of Syria for Zionist
      and the Israeli colonial blockade of Palestine

  2. J'hon Doe II
    September 6, 2016 at 12:04

    A few lines on CORE BELIEFS that justify action.

    “Kaepernick told the University of Nevada student newspaper that religion is “‘a foundation to build your life off of.'”

    So, when he chose to tattoo his upper body, he chose Bible verses. According to Sports Illustrated, the psalms tattooed on Kaepernick’s arms are all about his competitive instinct. The verses include Psalm 27:3, which says, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” On the other arm is Psalm 18:39, which reads, “You armed me with strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me.”

    Kaepernick also explained his tattoos to sports reporter and former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner: “My first tattoo was a scroll on my right arm, Psalm 18:39…It’s just my way of showing everybody that this is what I believe in.”

  3. historicus
    September 6, 2016 at 10:14

    When we recall the British attack on Washington in 1814, may we please remember that the redcoats burned the government’s buildings in retaliation for the American assaults on the capital of Canada, York, (renamed Toronto in 1834) the previous year? In that failed attempt to “liberate” Canada, U.S. forces torched government buildings and forced locals to witness the Union Jack dragged through the mud. American soldiers returned later that summer, to pillage private homes this time and subject the citizenry to varied indignities.

    Cockburne’s men handily repulsed the comic-opera defense of Washington, commanded by Madison himself. It was already apparent that the militia system of the Second Amendment was a failure; state militiamen refused to take orders from federal officers even in the heat of battle. These were the same British units who would be virtually annihilated by Andrew Jackson’s men at New Orleans a few months later, incidentally.
    Let’s also remember that while the nominal cause of the War of 1812 was British tampering with American maritime commerce – the battle cry was “Free trade and sailors’ rights” – the real motivation was land. New southern and western Congressmen, called the “War Hawks,” carried the midterm election of 1810 by campaigning for the use of federal military power to drive Indians off the land which their constituents desired for expansion of their slave-worked plantations. They also sought to conquer Canada and seize Spanish Florida.
    It is most astounding to see that a curious exuberance pervaded the country in the wake of the near-catastrophic war. Almost five thousand American lives had been lost. The economy had nearly collapsed and the union nearly sundered. Yet many tended to appraise the conflict in favorable terms. Some took heart in the nation’s ability to survive a second war with Great Britain. The military fiascos of the ground war were balanced by the splendid performance of the navy, which demonstrated an impressive capacity to go toe-to-toe with the mightiest navy in the world. Others saw the war as further proof of God’s special relation to the American republic and divine reward for the virtue of its hard-working citizens, though more levelheaded souls would see that once again a British failure to develop a coherent strategy to match its almost unbroken series of military victories would save American independence. Most tragically, Native Americans lost their most powerful international ally and from 1815 onward would fight on alone in a doomed bid for survival on their ancestral lands. In the war’s most lasting effect, the hopes of the Revolution and the ideals of the Enlightenment would fade into history as this new generation of Americans embraced the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”, the belief in American white men’s natural right to build a homeland empire “from sea to shining sea” and beyond, and that the U.S. was divinely ordained to bear a special role to regenerate the world and its political institutions in its own image. These notions, so alien to the Founders’ generation, continue to characterize U.S. international and domestic policy even in our own time.

  4. Cal
    September 5, 2016 at 16:09

    I see the Star Spangled Banner bash is making the rounds.
    At half a dozen other sites the black groups are claiming is racist toward blacks.
    Now it’s also racist against Islam?

    I am almost ready to agree to wipe out everything about America…the banner, the flag, the pledge of allegiance, the constitution, the Dec of Independence, every US memorial, every reference to every evil American founder, the proclamation of emancipation, the civil rights bill, if I had a time machine I would even wipe the US military participation in WWI , etc.,etc

    I think it would be very interesting to see what the country would look like had these never been.

  5. Bill Bodden
    September 5, 2016 at 12:56

    The other “patriotic” ritual that should be scrapped until Americans, particularly the majority of our politicians and the people who elect them develop the character to live according to its words, is the Pledge of Allegiance. Reciting the pledge by most adults has been rendered into a national act of hypocrisy. In Congress and other lesser fora politicians commonly proceed to perpetrate some injustice on the people for the benefit of their campaign donors within minutes after reciting “with liberty and justice for all.”

    The only part of the pledge that seems to have some grain of truth is “one nation, under God.” Unfortunately, that god is Mammon whose temple is on Wall Street and whose high priests are the banksters who continually put the nation and the people at risk.

    As for “one nation, … , indivisible” how can anyone believe that when countless people will stab the rest of the citizenry in their backs for some political and material gain. The great journalist and historian Walter Karp, in an essay on the pledge, recognized the divisions existing among the American people during the Reagan era but noted the US Constitution was what made the United States “one nation, …, indivisible.” That was then. This is now after the George W. Bush and Obama administrations waged war on the Constitution so it is adhered to or ignored according to political expediency. The same goes for “The Law.” which should be another unifying force, but as anyone awake and paying attention knows laws are applied in an arbitrary manner and only rarely in cases related to the rich and powerful.

    Mike Whitney has other interesting comments regarding the pledge at CounterPunch: Can We Please Get Rid of the Pledge? –

    To get back to the national anthem I would like to add my appreciation for Colin Kaepernick’s courageous action. The unfortunate aspect of his stance is how few of his fellow players have joined him in support. Presumably, they are like most Americans who don’t want to get involved and who ignore the dictum about all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.

    • Zachary Smith
      September 5, 2016 at 14:11

      The other “patriotic” ritual that should be scrapped until Americans, particularly the majority of our politicians and the people who elect them develop the character to live according to its words, is the Pledge of Allegiance.

      I agree. This fake & forced bit of flag worship truly irks me. And I had that viewpoint even before I learned it started out with the “Bellamy salute”, one which strongly resembles the one the Nazis used.

      As an aside, my blood pressure also goes up every time I see or hear the phrase “Homeland Security”. That twit George dumba Bush was such a moron.

      • Curious
        September 5, 2016 at 18:57

        Well Zackary, “Motherland” and “Fatherland” were already taken, so why wouldn’t ‘Bush the Dumber’ steal from Israel? It makes perfect sense and the phrase has a lot of symmetry regarding his fawning over that small piece of land.

        It also makes my skin crawl as well.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 5, 2016 at 14:34

      When finally someday reality reflects the glorified rhetoric that gets paraded all the time, then that will be the day to stand for the anthem, and swear a pledge to the flag. Bill and Zachary, you both have provided comments which are all too true. I noticed today how the establishment are still fighting the Sioux nation over pipeline routes. Couple this with how our Israeli trained police storm troop our black neighborhoods, is proof we are still living inside the 19th century. How have we progressed, we didn’t, we just said we did. Although American glorified rhetoric proclaims we are the shinning city upon the hill, now would be a good time to include every American to enjoy that bright lid environment they boost about. Reality doesn’t match the rhetoric, and if kneeling for the National Anthem draws attention to that slight then so be it.

      • Bill Bodden
        September 5, 2016 at 15:21

        “Although American glorified rhetoric” … and “Reality doesn’t match the rhetoric…”

        A considerable proportion of American rhetoric has always been replete with myths and lies. Unfortunately, a sizable portion of the American people are incapable of recognizing this mendacity and are gullible enough to believe their mendacious leaders, even in some cases where the lives and limbs of their children were sacrificed in vain. The history of Native Americans provides reams of evidence of a congenital disease of dishonesty present before the birth of this nation that continues to this day.

        • John
          September 5, 2016 at 17:21

          It is the spirit of exceptionalism…….in my opinion a religious virus of the mind….

          • Joe Tedesky
            September 6, 2016 at 02:11

            John, be careful don’t give the manacled minded DC dwellers any ideas especially the religious kind, they will gloriously start giving speeches in High Latin, and ratify an Act requiring us to genuflect in front of their Cardinal/Senator presence as we kiss their ring.

            I hope you know I’m joking, but your right how after a while it’s just a bunch of us doing it for the sake of doing it, and even though we all look devoted and loyal, our minds are on another spot. It’s all based on a fantasy, instead of dealing with the reality. To never look inwardly, or even critique yourself, and learn from your mistakes, only to cover it all up by pronouncing to the whole world your exceptional and also indispensable is pretty arrogant, but it is also utterly stupid.

      • J'hon Doe II
        September 6, 2016 at 12:21

        Dogs Again ? Back to the future?
        Recall the vicious use of dogs in the 60’s… ?

        Dakota Access Pipeline Co. Attacks Native Americans with Dogs & Pepper Spray

        Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Calls for Investigation of Dog Attacks on Native American Protesters

        Did the Dakota Access Pipeline Company Deliberately Destroy Sacred Sioux Burial Sites?

        Canine Expert Decries “Egregious” & “Horrific” Dog Attacks on Native Americans Defending Burial Site

        New Investigation Names Wall Street Banks Behind $3.8 Billion Dakota Access Pipeline

  6. John
    September 5, 2016 at 10:48

    The usual pattern for all to witness……Conflict to chaos and those who pour fuel to the fire….It may be better to fear the governing system coming out of chaos more than the governing system going in…….

  7. John
    September 5, 2016 at 08:51

    The Star-Spangled Banner was not adopted as the US national anthem until March 4, 1931.

  8. Andy Jones
    September 5, 2016 at 07:59

    The original song was to celebrate sex and alcohol. The yanks just put different lyrics to it like Weird Al does today. Kaepernick could probably stand up for a song praising sex and booze. Compare the original to the one they play at football games

  9. Kozmo
    September 5, 2016 at 02:19

    What, no mention of how the original tune for this ditty is an English clubman’s drinking song from the 1700s, “To Anacreon in Heaven”?

  10. Zachary Smith
    September 5, 2016 at 02:18

    At the very beginning of my remarks here, I want to declare that Mr. Colin Kaepernick is a courageous and principled man for taking the stance he has. As I pointed out last week to a pair of young relatives who were sputtering with fury, he has absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by what he is doing.

    Likewise, I must commend Mr. Sam Husseini for writing this essay. Until reading it I hadn’t known there was an 1805 version of the poem later set to song as the anthem.

    Now it’s quibble time. Unless I’ve been very badly misinformed, the US was on the side of the angels regarding the two Barbary Wars. That distant branch of the Ottoman Empire was a nasty bunch of thieves, cut-throats, and slave dealers who desperately needed the cutting down to size they eventually got. The Marines are quite right to be proud of THAT particular venture. Likewise, I cannot fault Key for bragging about the victories. From my reading of the verses, he was trashing Muslims of a particularly nasty sort, not Islam as a religion. Our very own Codpiece Commander, the dry-drunk Bush the Dumber, posed as a great born-again Christian. Despising Bush and his monstrous gang of neocons isn’t the same thing as hating Christianity. Likewise, it’s not fair to hate a generic Jew just because Israel is such a pesthole filled with thieves and murderers. Judaism isn’t the problem, but a handful of swine posing as Jews most certainly is.

    My personal solution would be to officially (!) remove the third stanza from the anthem. Something like a Congressional Resolution. It’ll still be part of the poem, and Key will still be an asshole, but the anthem tradition is too well established to change it entirely, IMO.

    Back in the day when I was a typical sports nut it was my personal habit to stand and sing the fourth Stanza when everybody else was doing the first one. Here is Isaac Asimov’s version of the Fourth with the bolding showing his changes. (ref. his essay All Four Stanzas)

    Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
    Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,
    Blest with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land
    Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

    Then conquer we must, while our cause it is just,
    And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
    And the star-spangled banner forever shall wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

    The first change was on account of the fact that the US has been known to fight extremely unjust wars, and the singer would only be applauding the ‘just’ ones. The second one was simply to make the fourth stanza different from the third.

    Asimov had no problem with the third stanza, and I’m guessing his reasoning was the same reason as my own – neither of us knew Key was talking about the Royal Marines and their composition of former US slaves. I’d always assumed “hireling” meant generic mercenaries, and “slave” meant British conscripts who were fighting against their will. In other words, they were merely insults to British troops in general.

    Finally, a recent post by a hyper-patriotic gentleman on his blog.

    As he says, the quarterback knew full well the storm which was going to descend upon him, and in my own view that makes his actions even more laudable.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 5, 2016 at 13:39

      Thanks Zachary, I just learned something new today…thanks again JT

    • Curious
      September 5, 2016 at 18:47

      As an ex-sports fan, I’ll just say “applause, applause”

      Thank you Zackary.

      ps. have to have those bombs too, of course

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