CAPTION: Title of an online article from the CATO Institute addressing current charges that Key’s use of the word slave in his third stanza of his poem is racist.

Before you start this long blog article, know that it is 1814 words in length. With good editing I probably could have gotten down to 1500 words, but the poem was published in 1814. The battle took place in 1814. Why not keep it at 1814 words?

If you are looking for a black & white solution to a problem involving humans and our society, don’t come to the humanities. As a card carrying historian I can say we in the humanities find comfort in gray– from charcoal to fog. As such, we excel at moderating problems involving humans: messy problems, nuanced problems, and complex problems.

Whereas the sciences are particularly adept at finding solutions to problems involving variables that can be measured, controlled, and manipulated; the humanities seek solutions that seem best to fit the known facts. Whereas the sciences provide solutions that are exact and can be supported by statistical evidence generalized to the much larger population, the humanities simply aim to provide a solution that seems logical and correct. We seek verisimilar, or seemingly real, solutions based on narrative evidence placed within the context of the human experience. There is no right or wrong approach between the two, science and humanities, there are simply problems better suited for one than the other.

A current issue particularly suited to the humanities is: What people were Francis Scott Key referring to in the third stanza of our National Anthem when he says “…No refuge could save the hireling and slave, From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave..” ?

CAPTION: Screen capture of Key’s third stanza of the Defence of Fort M’Henry

In the last three years much has been said about Francis Scott Key’s use of the phrase “hirelings and slaves” in the third verse of the the Star Spangled Banner, or the Defence of Fort M’Henry as written by Key. Some say it is a sure sign of his racism because it glories in the fear and death of slaves brought about by the American victory. Others believe it references his contempt for those enslaved people of Maryland and Virginia who escaped bondage, fled to the British, served in the British Army and Navy, and fought against US forces during the defense of Baltimore. Still others believe it was simply a rhetorical tool referring to the King’s troops. We will never know the answer, but from within the humanities History and Literature may help us out.


CAPTION: Screen capture of 1820 US Census from Georgetown (DC) showing that Francis S. Key owned 5 enslaved people. (

We know through historical research that Key was a slave holder, and that the British waged a cruel campaign against the civilian population of the Chesapeake. As part of that campaign enslaved people were incited to flee to British protection and thereby destroy the local economy. Historians have proven that the British set up a depot for escaped Black men at Tangier Island and recruited them into the British Colonial Marines in order to fight the US. Furthermore, reports by the British commanders in the Chesapeake commented on the effectiveness of escaped slaves as scouts against US defenses.

CAPTION: Three living historians interpret British Colonial Marines from the War of 1812. (Courtesy of PBS)

However, the vast majority of enslaved Blacks did not rise up during the campaign. Many Blacks, both free and enslaved, proved crucial to the defense of the Chesapeake. Historians have documented their service in the US Navy during the war, with Josh Barney’s “Mosquito Fleet” during the Chesapeake Campaign, and at Fort McHenry itself during the battle.

CAPTION: Illustration of US sailor Charles Ball during the War of 1812. A former slave, Ball served in Commodore Joh Barney’s Chesapeake Bay Flotilla and served in the Battle of Bladensburg. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

By transcribing the original papers, Stevenson University history majors proved that free Blacks and enslaved Black men were crucial to the defense of Baltimore in 1814. They were paid to dig trenches (1/2 the rate of pay of whites), and they were recruited to replace Baltimore’s white firemen who were in the militia at North Point.

CAPTION: A letter from a fire company to Baltimore Mayor Johnson just a short while before the British attack in September 1814. He lets the Mayor know that his company is recruiting Black men to fight fires since the white firemen are all in the militia. He suggests each Black fireman will wear a badge protecting him while engaged in firefighting. When not engaged, the firefighter is to take the badge off. Left unsaid is what the Black firefighter is being protected from. (Maryland State Archives) CAPTION: Letter from MG Samuel Smith, Commander of US Forces at Baltimore, recommending that Baltimore’s Committee of Safety and Vigilance, led by Mayor Johnson, compel all free Black men to help build fortifications, or supply a substitute. The men would be paid for their effort, albeit a different sum than white men. (Maryland State Archives) CAPTION: A list of 32 free Black men who worked a day on Baltimore’s defenses. Each was paid 50 cents for the day. White men were paid $1.00 for the day. (Maryland State Archives)


The study of literature provides the humanities student a grounding in a variety of literary tools to include rhetorical devices such as alliteration, allusion, metaphors, similes, and hyperbole. Among these tools is the epithet, defined as “a descriptive phrase expressing a quality characteristic of the person or thing mentioned.” In 18th and 19th Century literature, especially poems, epithets were widely used. We experience the same descriptive phrases today across social media.

If you search for “hireling and slave” your initial results will uncover current articles discussing our problems with Key’s words in the National Anthem. However, if you narrow the search to Key’s time, 1780-1816, you will see that slave and hireling were each used in a pejorative fashion to describe free people carrying out the wishes of a more powerful person. This is similar to China’s Communist newspapers calling our South Vietnamese allies “running dogs” or “puppets” during the Vietnam War.

As proof that all Key did in his third verse was employ a rhetorical device, I submit the following evidence. In 1813, in the midst of the War of 1812, and a full year before Key penned the “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” another poet used the words hirelings and slaves in a poem to describe the King’s soldiers during the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In the poem “The Death of Warren” from the Trenton True American, published on 15 May 1813 in the Lancaster Intelligencer and Journal, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the poet describes:

“,,,,,When tyrant George assailed our shore,

and thousands of his slaves sent o’er,

With power to kill, inflict each ill.

Our towns to burn that we might mourn.

And make us to his sway return.

A sway that was slavish and foreign.”

The poet continues in a later verse:

“Now How(e), who had the chief command

of George’s troops within our land,

Addresses thus his hireling band:

‘To stand us they are not able.

Behold (he cries) the motly host,

And quickly drive them from their post;

And as you live no quarter give,

Mind no prayer, not one spare;

For vengeance we will have that’s rare.

And destroy every Yankee Rebel.’

And, thus, from a literary standpoint we have yet another explanation for Key’s words.

CAPTION: Screen capture of a poem from Entitled “The Death of Warren” it is about the US defense of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution. Like Key, the poet uses the words hirelings and slaves to describe the British soldiers employed by the King. (


We are presented with at least three possible answers regarding why Key used the words slave and hireling in his poem. The first is that Key was a racist and was happy to see enslaved blacks in fear and the grave. The second is that Key was specifically referencing former enslaved Black who now fought against the US forces as part of Britain’s Colonial Marines. The third is that Key’s use of the words slave and hireling were simply a rhetorical device.

The argument that Key was racist may or may not be true. For those who believe Key literally meant every word as written in the poem, their evidence is revealed in his slave ownership and his statements from court cases. However, the evidence supporting that argument is at best circumstantial, and it doesn’t explain the phrase hireling coupled with slave. In my personal opinion, based on our research, Key may very well have been a racist. Evidence reveals that not only was he a slaveholder, but parts of the Key family moved into the Deep South rather than deal with growing dissatisfaction in Maryland with the institution of slavery. Did this personal racism, if in fact he was a racist, color his words in the third stanza? They could have.

The second rationale for his words relates to the facts surrounding enslaved Blacks fleeing to the British and fighting on their side. This, our research reveals, may have had a much stronger foundation in fact. As an officer at the Battle of Bladensburg–the US defeat that led to the burning of Washington, DC–Key would have heard how former enslaved Black men served as scouts to lead the British Army around US defenses in the area. He would have been familiar with Black enslaved families fleeing to British protection and serving the British military. Former slaves, though now paid by the British, those Black men would have the status of both hirelings and slaves. Would he have wanted to see them in fear and in the grave? Undoubtedly. But these were a relatively small number of men: 300 out of 5,000 British troops, or roughly 6% of the force. The British force that landed to attack Baltimore included some of the most experienced British Regulars from the Napoleonic Wars. This was the “thin red line” that had defeated so many armies before. These were the troops the US militia feared the most–the Regulars. Men who often had no skill other than being in the Army, but were good fighters. These British Regulars reportedly inspired the Duke of Wellington, their commander in Europe, to say: ” I don’t know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me.” Far better to trumpet the belief that their defeat at US hands in Baltimore caused them great fear and led them to their grave as Key seems to be saying about the hirelings and slaves in his poem. Once again, while Key may have meant the Black Colonial Marines when describing hireling and slave, it doesn’t ring as true as describing the vaunted, haughty British Navy, Royal Marines, and Army as such.

Finally, Key’s use of hireling and slave as a rhetorical device. Based on the widespread use of hireling and slave as a an epithet in the US press during the lead-up to and waging of the War of 1812, I believe it is entirely credible that Key used hireling and slave in that fashion. His poem was not meant to arouse anything but patriotic fervor through recognition of Baltimore’s defense. The narrative of the US David defeating the British military Goliath was central to his theme, not communicating his beliefs about chattel slavery as practiced in the Chesapeake region. With Bible societies on the rise in the US as well as a rising tide of abolitionism, such a display of racism would have caused issues both in the North as well as Baltimore. The third largest city in the US at the time with the largest population of free Blacks in the US, free Blacks–and enslaved Blacks– who had just helped save the city, Baltimore was in no mood for racist rhetoric the day after its major victory.


At the outset of this piece I suggested that the solutions found by the humanities to many problems are those that just seem real and authentic. The solutions that spin a narrative that best seem to fit the facts and context as known at that time are what we seek in the humanities. Change the context or the known facts and you may decide on a different explanation and solution for the problem. In this rather tedious piece I have presented the evidence as I know it and tried to place it within the context of which I am aware. Based on that, I believe Key simply used the phrase “hireling and slave” as a rhetorical device in his poem Defence of Fort M’Henry in order to describe the British Army and Navy repelled from Baltimore’s door in September 1814. In the true spirit of the humanities, however, if you provide me evidence that changes what I know, I just might change my mind.