The objective genius writers and editors at Salon.com – supported by a lecturer in the Department of African-American studies at the University of Maryland who really should know better – are busy parroting the latest far-left Only Black Lives Matter non-historians who have recently discovered pro-slavery references in what is now being claimed to be a racist National Anthem. And they’d be right, too, except that’s not what Francis Scott Key was writing about. Not at all. Salon might be forgiven for not knowing this, but Professor Jason Nichols really should (and possibly does) know better.
The verse in question reads:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
What Francis Scott Key was not referring to was a group of American black chattel slaves fighting for the British. What he was referring to were the 30,000-plus mercenary soldiers from the German principality of Hesse – which is why they were called Hessians – as well as the German principality of Kassel, who unwillingly became cannon-fodder for British King George III (himself a German by heritage). They served against their will in the British expeditionary army for much of the Revolutionary War, fighting American patriots a generation before the War of 1812. These men, conscripted by their prince and shipped off to America (for a hefty fee), had no choice in the matter of being sent to fight Washington’s army.
Our revolutionaries referred to them contemptuously as slaves, because they had no choice in the matter of service, and hirelings because their services could be sold to the highest bidder. Hessian soldiers had largely been press-ganged into service, and deserters were routinely and summarily executed. Many Hessians who survived desertion, or who lasted out until the end of the Revolution, chose to stay in America. Here, they became farmers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, craftsmen – and Americans.
A generation later, when the British once again tried to reintegrate their former colonies into their empire, it was a common belief among American patriots of 1812 that this latest levy of British soldiers were also bought and paid for, involuntarily serving mercenaries – hence, as the song said, men who were hireling and slave.
A lack of any basic understanding of America’s founding history, 1775-1815, could lead someone who had legitimate reasons to hate slavery to conflate these Germans, press-ganged involuntary (i.e., slaves) and soldiers for hire (hirelings), with African-American chattel slaves who some claim served with the British in 1812. However, the British Army in America was a professional army, who, at the same time they were fighting the United States, were also putting the end to Napoleon’s dreams of empire. These professional warriors had no use for soldiers who were untrained, inexperienced escaped agricultural workers, except as manual laborers. Some escaped slaves, however, served as Royal Navy apprentice sailors – the Royal Navy still used press-gangs, and it was always prepared to provide enforced-by-the-cat-o’-nine-tails on-the-job training for willing (or unwilling) apprentice seamen.
What Francis Scott Key wrote about so contemptuously in his heroic poem, which was only later put to music, was not black sailors who may have come from America, or from the West Indies, or indeed from other current or former slave-holding countries. Instead, Key reflected the common American conceit that this latter-day generation’s British soldiers in 1812 – many of whom were indeed from the European Continent, as well as from a variety of other non-British nationalities – were in fact another levy of press-ganged mercenaries, not at all different from the contemptible Hessian “hireling and slave” of the Revolutionary War era.
We shouldn’t be amazed that activists – who make no pretentions about being historical scholars – would glom onto a turn of phrase like “hireling and slave” and just assume that it refers to African-American chattel slaves, despite the fact that those slaves were not hirelings. When presumably educated writers at Salon parrot this notion, it’s problematic. When a lecturer at the University of Maryland also parrots such nonsense, on Tucker Carlson Tonight (11/8/17), those who love history need to hunker down for a long, ignorant siege.
One more thing: I’d like to offer some background on Jason Nichols, but his bio page on the University of Maryland Department of African-American Studies website is blank.
Ned Barnett studied American history and communications in college and has been an on-camera historian on nine History Channel programs. He has also written a series of historically accurate novels about air combat during the first year of the Pacific War, available on Amazon. He owns Barnett Marketing Communications in Nevada (barnettmarcom.com).