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The historical past wars – the battle over how we educate our nation’s previous – are raging.
America is confronting the legacies of slavery as by no means earlier than. This nationwide reconsideration has been prompted by police killings of unarmed Black males and The New York Instances’ “1619 Undertaking,” which reexamines the historical past of slavery within the U.S.
Outcries from conservatives over authorized scholarship often called crucial race principle, the premise that racism is systemic in U.S establishments, have additionally added gas to the nationwide debate.
And that’s revealing a number of the deepest contradictions in our historical past.
As a U.S. historian, I feel few folks embody these contradictions just like the writer of the nation’s nationwide anthem, Francis Scott Key.
Key’s difficult legacy
Like his idol Thomas Jefferson, Key – the person who wrote concerning the “land of the free” – was a slaveholder who opposed slavery in precept. He even considered himself as an anti-slavery reformer.
However he additionally couldn’t fathom the concept of abolition. And the arc of his profession as a Washington-area legal professional displays simply how ingrained slavery was in early American life.
Born in Maryland in 1779, Key was too younger to recollect the American Revolution. However he got here of age in its aftermath, a time when concepts of liberty and equality had been virtually sacrosanct within the minds of most Individuals. He additionally got here of age at a time when varied Northern states abolished slavery and handed their very own emancipation legal guidelines.
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In consequence, Key was by no means utterly comfy with slavery.
As a younger, D.C.-based lawyer, he argued in opposition to the worldwide slave commerce and defended enslaved folks in court docket, together with these suing for freedom.
But Key wasn’t an abolitionist.
As a substitute, he channeled his anti-slavery views by the American Colonization Society. Based in 1816, the group, run largely by Southerners, supported the migration of freed folks to Africa. Key was an authentic member, and he would later turn into one of many group’s staunchest defenders.
Enemy of anti-slavery motion
As Key developed into a robust supporter of colonization, the American Colonization Society fell below assault. Free folks of colour denounced the group as serving the curiosity of slaveholders. And most Black leaders scoffed on the thought of leaving the U.S.
Furthermore, opposition to the American Colonization Society within the 1820s and ‘30s gave rise to a brand new and extra radical type of “immediatist” abolitionism. This was the abolitionism of activists like William Lloyd Garrison – writer of “The Liberator,” America’s main anti-slavery newspaper – and Fredrick Douglass, the escaped slave and famend activist and orator who would turn into essentially the most well-known abolitionist within the nation. They wished abolition to occur shortly.
It was additionally the abolitionism of the American Antislavery Society, shaped in 1831. Their aim was the quick finish to slavery, not the tepid and undeniably racist gradualism of the American Colonization Society.
Key didn’t discover a dwelling on this new motion. He by no means left the American Colonization Society.
When hit with the winds of change, he moved in the other way. He turned extra conservative, and he finally started attacking abolitionists as rabble-rousers intent on sowing the seeds of revolt.
By the 1830s Key had turn into an open enemy of the anti-slavery motion and of anti-slavery publishers particularly. Abolitionists responded by making him a villain, typically mocking the “Star-Spangled Banner” by including the phrases “within the dwelling of the free and the land of the oppressed.”
A ultimate gesture
The 1836 trial of Reuben Crandall was Key’s ultimate public efficiency.
In a case that made nationwide headlines, Key, then district legal professional for Washington, charged native botanist Rueben Crandall with attempting to foment revolt amongst space slaves. The proof was skimpy: Police had discovered an assortment of anti-slavery pamphlets in Crandall’s workplace with directions to distribute.
However, Key took this as his probability to make an instance of abolitionism as soon as and for all.
Within the courtroom, Key defended the correct of individuals to personal slaves and constructed his case round the concept that anti-slavery activism fomented revolt amongst enslaved folks and was thus a matter of public security.
Then he let his true colours present. Whereas attempting to fend off allegations from Crandall’s protection that he himself had known as slavery a “nice ethical and political evil,” he mentioned:
“The ‘nice ethical and political evil’ of which I communicate, is meant to be slavery – however is it not plainly the entire coloured race? But when I did say this of slavery, as I’m fairly prepared to say it, right here and on all match events, do I not additionally in the identical breath communicate of emancipation as a far better evil?”
In his closing assertion, Key continued this line of assault by arguing that to not prosecute abolitionists can be handy the nation over to those that want to amalgamate the races and supply equal citizenship to folks of colour.
It was an open enchantment to white supremacy masking the truth that Key didn’t actually have a case. He might by no means show that Crandall supposed to foment revolt.
Furthermore, a number of of the pamphlets apprehended in Crandall’s condominium attacked the American Colonization Society immediately, which made it appear to the jury as if Key, a recognized supporter of the group, was out to settle scores reasonably than to hunt justice.
In the end, Crandall was discovered not responsible, although it wouldn’t do him a lot good. He contracted tuberculosis in jail and died shortly after being launched.
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Along with his courtroom defeat, Key virtually sealed his legacy as one of many anti-slavery motion’s nice villains.
And he by no means repented. Regardless of opposing slavery, his prejudices prevailed, leaving him the infamy of being some of the infamous anti-abolitionists in American historical past.
Almost 200 years later, the U.S. is left with the duty of attempting to inform this historical past – of attempting to clarify how the writer of the nationwide anthem might maintain slaves and defend his and others’ proper to take action.
Bennett Parten doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or organisation that will profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their educational appointment.