Kaepernick's Protest And The History Behind The National Anthem

Bryant Holt    LinkedIn  |  Twitter

Bryant Holt 

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By now I assume that everyone in America has seen Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, or at least has seen someone on social media criticizing or praising the former starting quarterback. Regardless of your thoughts on the QB's protest, what if I told you that the little-known story behind the anthem he's protesting was also media worthy?

Over 200 years ago, likely to this exact day, Francis Scott Key would have been putting the finishing touches on what would eventually become our nation's national anthem. Key was inspired to write the national anthem after watching the British bombardment of Baltimore. Before we go any further, let's go over the details leading up to his inspiration.

  • The year Key wrote the first draft of the national anthem was 1814 and the US and Great Britain were entrenched in the War of 1812.
  • The US had burned York (modern Toronto) and Great Britain responded by capturing Washington, D.C. and burning down the White House.
  • Losing the nation's capital to Great Britain was both a strategic loss and a humiliating defeat. There isn't much worse than having to abandon your leader's office and the capital of your nation.
  • The US, still a relatively new nation at that time, was on the brink of losing the War of 1812 to Great Britain, who boasted the greatest navy in the world and was successfully blockading the United States from trade.
  • Worse than a blockade, Great Britain was impressing, or capturing and enslaving American sailors and forcing them to fight for the British aboard naval ships. This started before America ever entered the war.

The British had gone through some major advancements in naval warfare and by 1814 they were using massive bombing ships that could fire upon Fort McHenry without any fear of the U.S. being able to reach them with their own guns. Most historians also agree that the bombardment of Baltimore was the point that turned the war around for the United States.


So why was Francis Scott Key present during the bombardment of Baltimore? Here are two major facts that most people tend to get wrong about Key and his inspiration for the National Anthem.

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key

1. Key was a British Prisoner: Most people mistakenly believe that Key was a prisoner to the British army, but this just isn't true. Key was actually on an American boat at the time of the bombardment.

2. Key wrote the National Anthem on a letter or some other scrap of paper he happened to have on his person during his imprisonment: As mentioned above, Key would have been on an American boat during the bombing and surely would have had access to a desk, pen, and paper. Also, in 1814 there weren't any ball point pens floating around, so it was unlikely Key would have been able to write on scratch paper in a jail cell. He would have needed a pen and ink.

Maybe you had heard these mistaken facts in the past? Or maybe you don't know anything about Key and the National Anthem. Here's a more accurate depiction.


Francis Scott Key wasn't a British prisoner during the bombardment of Baltimore. In fact, he was on a mission as an American diplomat trying to barter for the release of another prisoner. With him on this mission? John S. Skinner, the U.S. Agent for Prisoners of War. They had been sent by the U.S. government to negotiate the release of Francis Scott Key's friend, an elderly doctor by the name of Dr. William Beanes. He was a non-combatant accused of aiding the U.S. and potentially spying against the British. Key came along because he had letters from British soldiers who spoke very highly of Dr. William Beanes, even saying that he helped wounded British soldiers right alongside American soldiers as the two armies faced off in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, Key and Skinner were successful in negotiating the release of Dr. Beanes.

So why was Francis Scott Key present for the bombardment of Baltimore? 

At that time, the negotiation was likely a long and drawn out process with some formalities involved. It meant that Key and Skinner would have likely spent a considerable amount of time on a British ship speaking with one of the British admirals. This negotiation would have taken place on September 13, 1814, the day before the planned British bombardment. Because of this, Key and Skinner would have likely seen the British preparing for the battle or would have overheard key items discussed on the ship. The British couldn't simply let the two of them sail back into the harbor and give away their battle plans. So, as part of the negotiations, Key and Skinner were forced to tether their ship to a British one until the battle was over. The bombardment lasted about 25 hours, so Key was likely tied to a British vessel for over a day. After the battle was over, Key would have looked through his spyglass and would have spotted the auxiliary American flag still flying above the fort. After all of the events that Key would have just gone through, I'm sure he would have had elevated feelings. He then put pen to paper and turned his feelings into the Star-Spangled Banner! Honestly, after listening to "Bombs bursting in air" for 25 hours, he was probably just happy for them to stop making so much noise and let him go home. 


Francis Scott Key sailed out to meet his enemies. There were plenty of risks involved, but he went anyways. Remember, the British and Americans were fighting a deadly war against each other on American soil. The White House had just been burned and the British were preparing to try and bomb Baltimore to the ground. By sailing out to meet a British vessel, Francis Scott Key was taking a pretty big risk.

Even sailing under a white flag, the ship could have been attacked well before reaching the vessel that housed the British admiral they were seeking out. Furthermore, Key could have been caught up in the cross-fire between the Americans and British. He also could have easily been arrested by the British and accused of a number of war crimes, and perhaps most daunting, was the threat of British impressment. 


Your American history books may need a little bit of dusting off, so in case you aren't familiar with the War of 1812, most Americans at the time would have said that British impressment was the biggest factor behind the United States declaring war.

What is impressment?

No, Americans weren't tired of the British trying to "impress" them with their fancy tea, crumpets, and sporty red coats. Impressment was the act of "kidnapping" human beings and forcing them to serve on British ships as sailors. Basically, the British navy, being the most powerful in the world, needed a lot of manpower to operate. It was hard to find and pay enough sailors. Instead of putting out help-wanted ads, British vessels would simply stop other ships out on the sea, come aboard, and then force the sailors to work on their own ships. The British had been known for doing this for decades, but all of a sudden, they were targeting more American ships, and the United States and its citizens were tired of being kidnapped by the British, so they declared war. Had Key crossed the wrong admiral of the British Army, he could have easily been forced into becoming a sailor for the British navy, forced to help attack his own country and citizens. Fortunately, Key successfully freed his friend and didn't face any of the aforementioned consequences. 


Without getting into any politics, one thing about history that is always worth asking is, "What can we look at from the past that is relatable to the present?" Well, in this case, there are a few permeating themes. 

1. Your Fellow Human Being

Humanity is a prevalent theme in the history of Francis Scott Key and it shows itself in a few places. Firstly, let's talk about ways that humanity didn't shine through in the history of the national anthem. The fact that Britain was impressing soldiers was problem number one. They had no regard for these human beings and were forcing them into nothing short of slavery. The U.S. stepped up and confronted the British, knowing this was a problem it had to combat on behalf of its citizens. But it wasn't an easy battle, and it wasn't a battle that could be won overnight. It took a number of U.S. lives, lost in the War of 1812, in order to stop Britain from its systematic impressment of U.S. sailors. 

Even with all of the crimes against humanity taking place during the War of 1812, there were still glimmers of hope for man. Francis Scott Key risked life and limb to negotiate the freedom of his elderly friend. As the British and American forces reached the height of the War of 1812, a British admiral was still willing to take the time to hear Key's plea for his friend's freedom. These weren't two diehard enemies, they were simply men. They met as nothing more than men and they came to a proper arrangement, even in the midst of a deadly war. In fact, they reached an agreement just as the battle that would turn the war began. 

2. How Facts Get Lost

Why are the majority of people misinformed about the national anthem? While I can't say for sure, my guess is that the original story of Key safely sailing out to a British vessel and not writing the national anthem from a British jail cell probably didn't seem heroic enough. People didn't want to hear about that "version" of the story. At its root, the national anthem's enchants people to feel pride for the United States. That's why its played before sporting events, its representative of American heroes. It was probably much more enticing to create a story about the writer of this anthem heroically serving his country. The idea of key being an American diplomat writing the Star-Spangled Banner from the comfort of his own ship is disenchanting. Talking about today, we can find a similar theme in news and media. Different media sources have different agendas and are looking to frame news according to their biases or simply to make it more enticing to their audience. History is no different. History has long been recorded with an agenda behind it.

3. Why is the Flag such an Important Symbol

Regardless of the details surrounding Francis Scott Key's inspiration for the national anthem, the importance of the flag still remains. History may have lost some of the anthem's details along the way, but it didn't lose any of its character. The flag represents America, and deeper than that, the flag represents the fact that Americans get to build their own story. They get to work hard to change their future. The "American Dream" suggests that your past shouldn't hold you back from doing what you want to do in the future, but at the same time, the past should be used as a lesson not as a weapon. Imagine if World War II had come along and the United States had said, "You know what, only 100 years ago, Britain burned down our White House. On top of that, only 40 years before that, they killed thousands of Americans during the American Revolution! Why should we help them fight a war that's an entire ocean away?!" If the United States had tried to use the past as a weapon, I bet we'd be looking at a vastly different world. Instead, they looked toward the future.

Learn from the past, but live in the present and look toward the future.


Bryant HoltComment