The Star-Spangled Banner and the Question of Liberty

by Scott Wagner

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

On this holiest of holy days for the United States, citizens commemorate their independence from the British Empire and the beginning of their experiment in liberty. Though this year’s celebration is likely to be dampened by the worsening coronavirus pandemic, the day is typically a cacophony of ebullient patriotic fervor. The pungent scents of sunscreen and charcoal cut through the humid air, and as the hot summer day gives way to the idyllic summer night, fireworks erupt overhead in a synesthesia of light, sound, and brilliance.

Somewhere amidst that din you’re likely to hear The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States since 1931. Francis Scott Key’s poem about the unsuccessful British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 has become a fixture at sporting events and ceremonies nationwide. Most citizens in the United States recognize the song – though not everyone remembers the lyrics – and the anthem has lent itself to powerful moments in American history, from Whitney Houston’s stirring rendition at the Superbowl during the Gulf War to Colin Kaepernick’s stance—or, rather, kneel—against police brutality and racial injustice.

The anthem recognizable to so many Americans is only the first verse of Key’s poem. In the third verse, he derides the opponent of the United States in the War of 1812: their old enemy, Great Britain.

  • And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
  • That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
  • A home and a country should 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!

Most historians agree that the line “the hireling and slave” refers to the British practice of recruiting enslaved Black Americans into their armed forces during the War of 1812. Some five thousand enslaved persons fled to the British and gained their freedom during the conflict. After the war, many former enslaved persons moved to other British colonies including Nova Scotia and Trinidad as free settlers of the Crown. Some remained on the borderlands of the Southern United States, where they attempted to pursue a radical expression of Black republican liberty. Though Francis Scott Key’s poem lauds the United States as “the land of the free,” that title was a hypocrisy to enslaved persons who took it upon themselves to seek and create their own freedoms. Their stories are a timely reminder that, despite liberty’s central place in the ideology of the American experiment, the United States could not and cannot claim ownership of the idea of something so sweet as freedom.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry, later immortalized in Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Lithograph by John Bower, Maryland Historical Society

“The Cordial Support of the Black Population”

When the United States declared war on Great Britain in July 1812, the better part of Britain’s military might was directed against the titanic power of Napoleonic France. Britain had precious few soldiers or supplies to direct against their upstart former colonies, but enslaved Black Americans offered a potentially decisive source of manpower. Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore had attempted a similar stratagem during the Revolutionary War, and while Dunmore’s Proclamation failed to shift the military balance of power, it did send shockwaves through the American slave system. British slave recruitment also represented an ideological attack on the United States. Britain’s liberation of enslaved Black Americans undercut the notion that the United States represented the truest form of freedom in the Western Hemisphere and reinforced Britain’s growing self-perception as an empire of liberty—a somewhat ironic moniker, given Whitehall’s continued approval of slavery in the lucrative West Indian sugar colonies. The fact that the policy was motivated by military necessity and imperial rivalry more than altruistic virtue mattered little to enslaved persons who saw the British as a means to escape from the wretched conditions of slavery.

British leadership moved slowly at first. In early 1813, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Earl Bathurst allowed his theatre commanders to recruit enslaved persons, but he warned them to be “cautious how you contract engagements of this nature, which it may be difficult for you to fulfill.” The eagerness of both American slaves and British officers outpaced Bathurst’s skepticism. In November, Captain Robert Barrie wrote that he had “upwards of 120 men, women, and Children on board,” including “several very intelligent fellows who are willing to act as local guides.”

With the appointment of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane to the North American Station in April 1814, slave recruitment became a key component of British strategy. Cochrane’s widely published proclamation declared that any person in the United States inclined to join the British would “have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE Settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies.” When planning an invasion of the Chesapeake, Cochrane suggested to Rear Admiral George Cockburn that the landing site should be chosen “more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage.” Enslaved persons throughout the Chesapeake risked brutal punishment to sneak away from their master’s plantation and join the liberating British forces. The British army that routed the Americans at Bladensburg and burned the White House in Washington, DC included a regiment of three hundred Black Colonial Marines. The sight of former enslaved Black Americans clothed in British military regalia torching the symbols of American liberty would have been galling for a slaveowner like Francis Scott Key, yet for the former enslaved persons the capitol was not a symbol of liberty, but a reminder of the tyranny of their enslavement.

On 24 August 1818, British soldiers led by Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral George Cockburn attacked and burned the US Capitol, the White House, and other buildings in Washington, DC. The regiment of Colonial Marines took part in the attack. Artist unknown, Library of Congress

British military officers were, by and large, effusive in their praise of the new Black recruits. Cockburn in particular praised them for “their accustomed Zeal and Bravery.” His views are informative; at the beginning of the war, he derided the Black recruits as being “naturally neither very valorous nor very active,” but serving alongside the former enslaved persons forced Cockburn “to alter the bad opinion I had of the whole of their Race.” Some officers even risked charges of insubordination to defend their Black recruits. The first article of the Treaty of Ghent stipulated that all property taken during the war was to be restored—including enslaved persons. Captain John Clavell found the article “a most Melancholy thing,” and refused to return the Black recruits to a life of slavery. At New Orleans, British General John Lambert decried that slavery was “totally incompatible with the spirit and constitution of his government” and evacuated former enslaved persons along with the rest of his forces.

Enslaved Black Americans had risked painful retribution or death to seek their freedom with the British military and then again risked their lives fighting for the British military against their former masters. The British military kept their word—admittedly a rarity in British imperial history—and evacuated former enslaved persons to colonies in Nova Scotia and Trinidad. The refugees quickly discovered that their new homes were not utopias. In the frigid climes of Nova Scotia, Governor Sir John Sherbrooke denigrated the refugees as “miserable wretches” who were “unwilling to work” and provided them with meagre plots of infertile land. Black refugees in Trinidad fared marginally better, receiving sixteen acres of land across an organized system of settlements. However, Trinidad was still a slaveowning colony; Trinidadian slaveowners demanded the Black refugees remain separate from the rest of the population, for fear that their freedom would be an inspiration to other enslaved persons. To this day, descendants of those refugees comprise a small ethnic group known in the local dialect as the Merikens. Life in the British Empire was hard for the Black refugees, and inequities abounded; but a hard life of liberty was no doubt preferable to a harder life of enslavement.

“Solid Property with the Rights of a British Man”

The enslaved persons who joined the British in Florida found a unique solution to avoid the inequities of the British Empire: avoid the British Empire altogether. Led by three former enslaved persons—Prince, Cyrus, and Garçon—these recruits formed an independent polity along the Apalachicola River at Prospect Bluff, where they pursued a unique form of liberty combining Spanish republicanism, British antislavery, and Black identity.

During the War of 1812, British commanders like Bahamian Governor Charles Cameron saw the frontiers of the Southern United States as a weakly-defended backdoor into the former colonies. To that end, Cochrane dispatched Major Edward Nicholls to the region with a detachment of Marines in the summer of 1814, with orders to “encourage…by every means the Emigration of Negroes from Georgia and the Carolinas.” Nicholls, as historian Nathaniel Millett has demonstrated, was at the time deeply ensconced in the British antislavery movement. The proclamation he issued to enslaved persons promised them “rational liberty [and] solid property with the rights of a British Man.” Nicholls was offering more than mere freedom; he was offering a vision of social and political equality between White and Black British subjects.

Nicholls and his associate, George Woodbine, actively recruited from the local enslaved population, even liberating enslaved persons belonging to Spanish and British owners. Their eagerness, however, did little to stymie General Andrew Jackson’s efforts for the United States in the region. After the disastrous defeat at New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent, the British were forced to withdraw from the region. Cochrane ordered Nicholls to evacuate his Black soldiers for eventual resettlement in Trinidad. 123 of Nicholls’ Black recruits made it to Trinidad; the vast majority, however, remained at the British fort at Prospect Bluff. Nicholls claimed—perhaps falsely—that there was no additional room on the transports for the Black soldiers. Far from betraying his word, Nicholls tried to set up the refugees for success. He left them the fortified position at Prospect Bluff; he left them all the armaments and materiel from the expedition; and he left them freedom papers guaranteeing them “all the rights and privileges of true British subjects.” Nicholls and his British forces then departed, leaving the former enslaved persons free to pursue their own course.

The freedmen at Prospect Bluff set about creating a unique expression of liberty in the Atlantic world. Made up of former enslaved persons from all across the Southern borderlands, the Prospect Bluff community represented a diverse mixture of religions, languages, and cultures. Power was shared between three leaders, and military duties were divided amongst the citizens of the community—a form of civic virtue directly inspired by contemporary republican thought. According to Millett, though, it was “the goal of freedom” that united the citizens of Prospect Bluff: it “transcended numerous ethnic, cultural, and regional differences that might otherwise have proven to be divisive.”

The rival expression of liberty—Black liberty, no less—on their southern border induced panic amongst slaveowners in the United States. Secretary of War William Crawford believed the community was involved in “secret practices to inveigle negroes from the frontiers of Georgia [which would] ultimately endanger the peace of the nation.” Another observer remarked that the Prospect Bluff freedmen represented “the worst of all conditions…a democracy or government of slaves.” As the United States looked to expand its frontiers, Prospect Bluff offered an irresistible first target. In the summer of 1816, Crawford ordered Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Clinch south with a detachment of one hundred American soldiers and five hundred Creek Indians to destroy the fort. The Prospect Bluff freedmen resisted for over a week, firmly entrenched in their position along the Apalachicola River. It was only by a stroke of catastrophic poor fortune that US forces dislodged the former slaves. During a bombardment of the fort, a hot shot from one of the US gunboats struck the fort’s powder magazine. The resulting explosion was heard from miles away and produced “[a] scene horrible beyond description,” according to one American officer. The Prospect Bluff community was incinerated, and the vision of Black liberty they strove to create was burned with it.

In the West Indian Colonies, the British utilized multiple regiments of former enslaved Black persons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Known as the “West Indian Regiments,” the enslaved persons recruited into British military service during the War of 1812 would have been outfitted in a similar fashion. National Army Museum

Citizens of the United States today are wont to take a line from Francis Scott Key’s poem and laud their country as “the land of the free.” Arguably no country has a national identity more closely associated with the ideology of liberty than the United States; it is the motivation for their every action, the grounding of their entire character, the guiding principle of their whole history.

But as you light your grill today for your July 4th cookout, think of the fire that burned that fateful night in Washington, DC, when a group of formerly enslaved persons struck a blow against their oppressive masters with the help of the invading British forces. When you hear the boom and the crash of fireworks overheard, think of the apocalyptic explosion that shattered the dreams of Black liberty at Prospect Bluff. And when you hear the line congratulating the United States as “the land of the free,” remember that the idea of liberty cannot be tied down, or caged, and it certainly cannot be owned by any one nation.

Scott Wagner is the supervising editor of INTERZINE.

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