The ongoing refusal from people all over the country to stand during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” is only the latest in a series of rows over Francis Scott Key’s verses that were set to the melody of an 18th-century drinking song from an English gentlemen’s club. It was more than a century after Key wrote the lyrics that Congress finally designated the song as our national anthem, and only then after six attempts and lots of opposition.

The real rival for the status of the national anthem was “America the Beautiful.”

As the popularity of “America the Beautiful” grew, there was a strong movement to establish it as our national anthem. When compared to “Star-Spangled Banner,” it is clearly more musically and lyrically powerful, at the same time easier to sing and orchestrate.

More recently the objections have been raised about one of the later verses of the anthem, and its subtle references to slavery, which some observers consider an indirect defense of the institution.

There is definitely a lack of academic and historical clarity about the meaning of words, penned by Key in 1812. As a Snopes article argues, the verse could very well refer to the British practice of impressment:

In fairness, it has also been argued that Key may have intended the phrase as a reference to the British Navy’s practice of impressment (kidnapping sailors and forcing them to fight in defense of the crown), or as a semi-metaphorical slap at the British invading force as a whole (which included a large number of mercenaries), though the latter line of thinking suggests an even stronger alternative theory — namely, that the word “hirelings” refers literally to mercenaries and “slaves”. It doesn’t appear that Francis Scott Key ever specified what he did mean by the phrase, nor does its context point to a single, definitive interpretation.

In addition to Key never clarifying what he meant by the verse, there is further ambiguity due to the fact that the song’s adoption as the national anthem by a 1931 act didn’t specify a particular arrangement., in part because the song as sung in the 20th century had already departed from what Key had known. During World War I, attempts were made to codify the arrangement, resulting in both a military “Service Version” and a “Standardized Version” endorsed by the Department of Education.

Adding to confusion about the “official lyrics” of the song, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., in 1861 added a “fifth verse” in support of the Union and against slavery: This was not an “official” verse of the national anthem, but was printed in songbooks during the Civil War.

As for the Service Version, standardized under Woodrow Wilson in 1917, there are three stanzas from Key’s original version, but the stanza with the lyrics regarding the “hireling and slave” is flatly missing. Thus, by the time “The Star Spangled Banner” was culturally adopted by the American people in the twentieth century as the national anthem, only recognized by a 1931 Act under Herbert Hoover, not only were the three additional stanzas largely forgotten, but official versions used by the military and sanctioned by the U.S. government did not contain the lyrics about the “hireling and slave.”

Even though it’s not clear what Key meant in his reference to slaves, and the fact that the actual verse isn’t a part of the three versus used as part of the Service Version of the song that does little to rebuke the grounds for the growing protest across the country. However, it has brought attention to the history of the song we call our National anthem.

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