Francis Scott Key and Taking the Knee

Colin Kaepernick kneeling with San Francisco 49ers team-mates during the national anthem

Colin Kaepernick kneeling with San Francisco 49ers team-mates during the national anthem


What is represented by kneeling?

Subservience?  Obedience?  Humility?  Religiosity?  Divisiveness?

It all depends on the witness, of course, and their angle of observation.

What is the meaning of a clenched fist salute?

Pride?  Solidarity?  Defiance?  Triumphalism?  Black anger?

In America, as ever, meaning is only inferred and attached to gestures and symbols after checking the ethnicity and skin colour of the person using them.

“Respect the flag” and “Respect the national anthem” are phrases used ad nauseum by a certain American sub-culture, a sub-culture which has loaded their own meaning onto a piece of cloth and a tortured melody.

“Respect the flag” and “Respect the national anthem” actually mean “See what I see, feel what I feel, believe what I believe”.

People who wrap themselves in the red, white, and blue do not want to allow others to ascribe their own meanings to the symbols around them, because such free-thinking might leave the back door ajar to the storm raging outside the cosy confines of the home kitchen.

This national anthem now so deeply-imbued with patriotic meaning only became the “national anthem” in the formal sense in 1931.

Most American schoolchildren know that the words to the song now called The Star-Spangled Banner were written by a certain Francis Scott Key, after he witnessed the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry near Baltimore, Maryland in 1814, following the British overnight bombardment of the fort during the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key.  Patriot.  End of lesson.

But wait.  “Angles of observation”, and all that.

What do many “white” Christian nationalist flag-wavers claim to loathe the most?  Liberal East Coast elites?  High-falutin’ lawyer types?

When it comes to Francis Scott Key, they can start ticking those boxes.

The music to this “sacred” anthem was actually lifted from a drinking song once popular in fancy English gentlemen’s clubs.

And Francis Scott Key would have been plenty familiar with “fancy” things, as he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth into a well-to-do East Coast planter family.  Mr. Key enjoyed his excellent view of Fort McHenry not from inside the fort alongside the soldiers, but from the deck of a British warship where he had been enjoying the finest of wines while negotiating the exchange of some prisoners, including a physician friend.  In fairness, Key had already done a brief stint with a local militia, but common soldiering wasn’t really his thing.

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer.  And a slaveholder.  And much like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two elitist hypocrites from the generation preceding him, Mr. Key often expressed his dislike of the cruelties perpetrated within the institution of slavery.

But Key didn’t actually disapprove of slavery, he merely disapproved of slaveholders who were less benevolent than himself.  Mr. Key often represented (at no cost) abused slaves petitioning for their freedom.  But his benevolent “great white father” hand-wringing did not stop his law practice from helping so-called “good” slaveholders to reclaim their “property”.  Mr. Key used the niceties of American law to help bring runaway slaves to “justice” – that is to say, back into their legally sanctioned condition of lifelong servitude.

A law firm’s books must be balanced, of course.  Fine wine isn’t cheap.

While he was outwardly a devoutly religious man, Francis Scott Key fought strenuously against the abolitionist sentiment taking root within his religious circles.

Mr. Key would have been able to accept the end of slavery, BUT ONLY IF ALL FREED SLAVES WERE ABLE TO BE EXPEDITED OUT OF AMERICA AND “BACK” TO AFRICA.

By the end of his life, Francis Scott Key‘s vociferous opposition to abolition was so pronounced that he was actually perceived as a dangerous sympathiser with the southern cause.  And while we cannot pick our relatives, it is interesting to note that Mr. Key’s sister Anne married a certain Roger Brooke Taney in 1806 – the man who would go on to be the Chief Justice who penned the infamous “Dred Scott” decision of 1857 which helped to hasten the start of the Civil War.

Here are his words:

“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”

In other words, supporters of slavery, while claiming to be Constitutional “originalists”, felt that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of contemporary attitudes and views.

This also shows that social conservatives can, in fact, be weirdly “progressive” in their interpretation of the Constitution – when it suits them.

Put even more clearly, the US Supreme Court ruled that since the majority of voting Americans had decided over time that African-Americans were “not quite human”, it was therefore constitutionally legal to withhold any “human rights”.

I have no idea whether the foregoing has informed the men and women “taking the knee” during the national anthem in recent years.  Probably not.




But one thing is certain.  Symbols are powerful, and symbols are loaded with dreams, presumptions, and yes, hatreds.

Why should Colin Kaepernick and others like him be expected to “respect the flag”, or to “respect the anthem”?  Why?  When did this flag and this anthem really begin to represent ALL Americans?

1865?  1964?  Yesterday?  Ever?

The American flag and national anthem are symbols often most beloved by those who do not respect Mr. Kaepernick, his community, or his community’s right to social justice, free speech and legitimate protest.

The biggest flag-wavers of all believe THEY are entitled to storm and vandalise the nation’s capitol on the basis of fake grievances, knowing their “champion” is prepared to pardon their violence.

Meanwhile, a silent minute or two on bended knee to highlight real social injustice causes spittle-flecked rage.

But hey.

Betsy Ross sewed a flag.

And Francis Scott Key was a patriot.

End of lesson.


#TakingTheKnee  #FrancisScottKey  #BlackLivesMatter

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