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Leftists Waste No Time In Attacking Legacy Of Francis Scott Key After Baltimore Bridge Collapse

Activists have already started a baseless smear campaign in demanding Francis Scott Key’s name be dropped from any rebuilt bridge.

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Almost immediately after the Francis Scott Key Bridge fell into the Baltimore Harbor, the vulturous left began circling the wreckage, seeing the tragedy as an opportunity to disparage America’s past.

The bridge’s namesake, famous lawyer-poet Francis Scott Key, has been a target of ridicule for anti-American revisionist historians for several years now. With the destruction of the bridge, the left all-too-gladly resumed its effort to erase Key’s memory from our national consciousness as a part of its endless crusade against notable figures in American history.

“Who was Francis Scott Key, the controversial poet the bridge is named after?” The Washington Post breathlessly asked. After summarizing Key’s life and begrudgingly recounting the inherent heroism of how Key authored “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the Battle of Baltimore amid the War of 1812, the article descends into baseless accusations unmoored from fact.

The Post alleged that “The Star-Spangled Banner” did not become the national anthem until 1931 “because of controversy” surrounding the poem, “partly over Key’s racist views.” The third stanza’s reference to “the hireling and slave,” the author claimed, “was intended to mock or threaten African Americans who escaped slavery to join the British forces, after being promised land in exchange for their service.”

Indeed, some activists have demanded that the rebuilt bridge drop the Francis Scott Key name altogether, claiming that since Key owned slaves, renaming it after him would be another of America’s “spit-in-the-face insults to Black Americans.” Similarly, Georgia Republican Rep. Mike Collins suggested that Baltimore’s current leaders would undoubtedly rename the bridge when it came time, asking his social media followers to throw out their jocular predictions for the new name. But before we leap headlong into erasing Key, we should examine whether there is any merit to the allegations or if it is just another historical hit job. 

The record shows the left’s claims are either not true or seriously misrepresented. The phrase “hireling and slave” had been used in military poems since at least the Revolutionary War to refer to British soldiers, highlighting their servile service to the tyrannical English rule. There is no evidence to suggest Key intended a racial reading of what was, at the time, a familiar phrase. A much more plausible interpretation of “hireling and slave” was that it referred to the mercenary forces hired by England and to the fact that the British navy quite literally would enslave foreign sailors and force them to fight — this was even one of the primary causes leading to the War of 1812.

For nearly two centuries, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was enjoyed by virtually all aspects of American society. Indeed, the black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War (many of whom had been enslaved) routinely sang Key’s song, enjoying the “thrilling notes, soaring above the battles’ gales.” During the debates over which song would become the national anthem in the early 1900s, no one suggested a racial interpretation of the poem, according to several national reports weighing the song’s merits. To assert that “The Star-Spangled Banner” disparaged black slaves is historical revisionism par excellence.

Beyond the national anthem’s text, Key was well known as an active anti-slavery proponent. For over 40 years, he regularly represented enslaved African Americans in court pro bono, successfully winning freedom for hundreds of men, women, and children.

In 1825, Key argued the case of the Antelope before the Supreme Court on behalf of the United States, urging the court to liberate several hundred Africans who had been brought to America on an illegal slave ship. During the trial, he boldly asserted that the men should be freed and even went so far as to deny that slavery had any legal grounds whatsoever, declaring that “by the law of nature all men are free.” Key was so eloquent in his denunciations of the slave trade and support for freedom that observers favorably compared him to famed English abolitionist William Wilberforce.

As Key continued to argue for the legal rights of African Americans, he became notable within Washington, D.C., for his anti-slavery views. In 1835, white laborers incited a riot over race in the capitol. Key, who was the district attorney at the time, became a target of the mob, and his house eventually had to be guarded by armed soldiers because he was “a reputed abolitionist.”

At the end of his life, Key himself explained, “No northern man began the world with more enthusiasm against slavery than I did.” He added, “For forty years and upwards … I have always been endeavoring to aid in promoting [abolition], and do so still.”

When Key died in 1837, friends recalled that he “deplored the existence of slavery as a mighty evil.” Even his proslavery enemies agreed with this assessment, referring to Key as the “The N—-r Lawyer” due to his constant and effective courtroom efforts on behalf of African Americans. One congressman derisively remarked, “It may safely be said, (for I have not only heard it a hundred times in conversation, but have seen it stated in the public prints of the District,) that if there is one man in the District of Columbia more obnoxious to the people than another on the question of Abolition, it is this same District Attorney, Mr. Key.”

Now, none of this is to say that Key’s views on race would satisfy the radical demands of the modern iconoclasts — but then again, nothing could. It is true that Key owned slaves, inheriting them from his father. But it is also true that he freed virtually all of them and personally ensured they received the necessary training and education to succeed in freedom.

It must be remembered that history is never as simple as one might like. The past was exactly like our current time — complicated. The circumstances of the day dictated and limited how far one’s desire to abolish slavery could go.

For example, in one instance, Key traveled to Pennsylvania to emancipate his farm manager and then hired him as a freeman to continue working for him. Inversely, at one point Key “purchased” an African American at the man’s own request to prevent him from being separated from his family. While it would be better to then subsequently free the slave after purchase, oftentimes prohibitive government regulations and the additional cost of emancipation complicated the question. “Shall he refuse to do the lesser charity,” Key asked, “because he has not means to do the greater?”

Ultimately, the historical record shows that Key strove to do the most he could to help insofar as the law allowed him to. For his time, Key was a radical proponent of freedom, regularly putting his professional future and personal safety on the line to advance the cause of liberty. His beautiful poem commemorating the startling victory of a young American nation over the British during the Battle of Baltimore should not be cast away due to the attacks by left-wing ideologues.

In the face of a constant barrage against our history, let us stand proudly, as the national anthem says, by “the star-spangled banner — O long may it wave!”


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