Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Story Behind the Star-Spangled Banner (Except Not Really)

With snow piling up in Colorado it looks like I have some extra time to devote to blogging this weekend. To start things off, I wanted to address a video that has become quite popular over the past few months. In fact, three different people have sent it to me via email this past week. The video is of a man named Dudley Rutherford. Rutherford is the Pastor of the Shepherd of the Hills Church in California. In the video, Rutherford gives a stirring and patriotic account of what he calls the story behind the National Anthem. The video has gained so much attention that even Glenn Beck, pseudo historian extraordiaire, is planning on having Mr. Rutherford on to discuss the "real" history of our nation's anthem. Take a look:

Now, before I point out where he went terribly wrong with his history let me first state for the record that I admire Mr. Rutherford's love of country. One of the things I appreciate most about the Christian right is their reverence for this nation and their appreciation for those who went before us. In my opinion, this is something that the secularists on the left (and yes, I realize that not every secularist fits this mold) either detests or can't seem to understand. With that said, I do want to address Mr. Rutherford's woefully inaccurate account in the video above. I do so with the intent to simply correct the history. In no way am I suggesting that Mr. Rutherford is a diabolical liar bent on twisting history for his own personal gain.

1.) About 39 seconds in, Rutherford stated that "the colonies were engaged in vicious conflict with the mother country, Britain." Rutherford continuously refers to "the colonies" throughout the video, which reveals very poor chronology on his part. The American Revolution lasted from 1775 to 1783, and the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, which means that "the colonies" had become a thing of the past. By the time Francis Scott Key met with the British at the Battle of Baltimore the United States had been a sovereign nation for over 30 years. They were not "colonies". Rutherford messes up his chronology by assuming that the Battle of Baltimore took place during the American Revolution, and he is incorrect.

2.) Key did not sail out to the British to free a bunch of prisoners. In fact, he sailed out in order to free only ONE prisoner, Dr. William Beanes. As for Rutherford's claim that Key tried to liberate a bunch of men who were being kept in chains in a cargo hold, this is completely not true. In reality, Key was considered a "guest" on board a British command frigate, where he dined with other British "gentleman." From the Library of Congress website:
When the British invaded Washington in 1814, Ross and Cockburn with their staff officers made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., at the residence of a planter, Dr. William Beanes, whom they subsequently seized as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his friend's capture, Key resolved to release him, and was aided by President Madison, who ordered that a vessel that had been used as a cartel should be placed at his service, and that John S. Skinner, agent for the exchange of prisoners, should accompany him. Gen. Ross finally consented to Dr. Beanes's release, but said that the party must be detained during the attack on Baltimore.

Key and Skinner were transferred to the frigate "Surprise," commanded by the admiral's son, Sir Thomas Cockburn, and soon afterward returned under guard of British sailors to their own vessel, whence they witnessed the engagement.
Again, no account of hundreds of men, in chains, in a dark cargo hold being comforted by Francis Scott Key.

3.) Rutherford continuously refers to the fort as "Fort Henry." It was actually called Fort McHenry.

4.) Rutherford is right when he states that Key, Beanes, and John Skinner (who accompanied Key) were not allowed to return to shore, due to the impending attack by the British. This point, however, is about the only point Rutherford gets right. He then completely derails and really screws up the true history. Rutherford claims that Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who was in command of the British naval forces, informed Key that he was going to reduce Fort McHenry to rubble. This isn't true. The British had no intention of destroying the fort but instead wanted to capture it.

5.) Rutherford states that Admiral Cochrane informed Francis Scott Key that "the entire British war fleet...with hundreds of ships" were going to attack the "Fort Henry." This is completely untrue. The British only had 19 ships at Baltimore, nothing more. In addition, only 8 or 9 of those ships actually fired on the fort, since the other ships didn't have the guns that could reach the shore. Also, it is important to note that Cochrane had sent a landing party of British soldiers to attempt to gain intelligence. Cochrane then ordered his ships to pull back and only attack the redoubts of the fort. He clearly didn't want to destroy the fort or inadvertently kill his own men who he had sent ashore.

6.) There were no women or children in the fort. Another bogus claim. I think Rutherford states this because there was one woman killed in the bombardment. She was trying to bring her husband and other men dinner when a bomb took her out.

7.) Rutherford is 100% wrong when he states than men from the fort held the flag up "until they died" and that "the patriot's bodies" were piled around the flag pole. Not true. Only 3-5 soldiers were killed in the fort, nothing more.

*** On a side note, I am curious to know if the Washington quote that Rutherford brings up is true. He claims that Key was inspired by Washington's following words:
"The thing that separates the American Christian from every other person on earth is the fact that he would rather die on his feet, than live on his knees!"
I have looked around and cannot find anything to substantiate or repudiate that Washington did/did not say this. Anyone out there have the answer?

In conclusion, my intention is not to make fun of Mr. Rutherford or to start calling him a pathological liar. Instead, I simply believe that patriotism based on mythical history really isn't patriotism, and sadly, too many people gobble this stuff up as gospel. After all, it came from a pastor!

***Update: In the post I mistakenly stated that Mr. Rutherford was going to be on Glenn Beck's show. That is not true. Mr. Rutherford informed me that he has never been in contact with Mr. Beck and has no plans to be on his program. My apologies for the error.


Mark D. said...

I Googled the quote and what I found makes me more than a bit skeptical. The quote is attributed to Washington, but I haven't seen any specific reference to a speech or letter by him, or of somebody identifiable who claimed to have heard Washington say that. And it is showing up on websites that, let's just say, aren't known for their scholarly objectivity.

I'm going to do a little more digging, though. I'm busting out the Liberty Fund edition of Washington's speeches & letters!

Mark D. said...

One more thing: this quote is just too sweet, so to speak. If I were a Christian evangelist or apologist, I would be nervous to use it unless I knew exactly where it came from. It just seems too perfect a quote for its purpose. That would make me nervous...

Mark D. said...

And you're right, it isn't patriotism. And it is worse than mythology, assuming that the quote is bogus. It is a distortion of the historical record. Parson Weems got away with that sort of thing, but nobody nowadays should.

Brad Hart said...

I thought the same thing, Mark. I have looked everywhere and I still can't figure out where this alleged quote came from. It's not on the Washington digital archives. I even saw a link that credited this quote to Benjamin Franklin, which gives me another reason to doubt its authenticity, but hey, you never know, maybe Washington did say this.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Fort "Henry"? Geez.

The quote comes from that great American Christian, the late The Notorious B.I.G.

Here's a link to this inspiring lyric, far too inspiring to print here.

Brad Hart said...


Yeah, that's about as credible as I thought this quote would get.

Mark D. said...

Yes, it is possible that Washington said this, in much the same way that it is possible, in the moments before he died, that Washington embraced the holy faith of the Roman Catholic Church. But both possibilities are unsubstantiated by anything that I am familiar with in the historical record. Now, would I like it if Washington had said that quote? Yeah! That would rock. In much the same way that I would like it very much if Washington had converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. But liking it doesn't make it so. And whenever one is making extraordinary claims, one has to back those up with extraordinary evidence. Or at least some evidence. So far, the quote is lacking in that department.

But I haven't finished reading through my Liberty Fund edition of Washington's Letters & Speeches to see if there is any reference to the quote there.

Ray Soller said...

A Google search comes up with Emiliano Zapata as the author of the quote. According to the Wikiquote website, "Emiliano Zapata Salazar (8 August 1879 – 10 April 1919) was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz that broke out in 1910." The orginal quote, Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas (It's better to die upon your feet than to live upon your knees!), can be found "in Liberation Theologies in North America and Europe‎ (1979) by Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky, p. 281; this is sometimes misattributed to the more modern revolutionary, Che Guevara, and to Dolores Ibárruri ('La Pasionaria'), especially in Spain, where she popularized it in her famous speeches during the Spanish Civil War, to José Martí, and to Aeschylus who is credited with a similar declaration in Prometheus Bound: 'For it would be better to die once and for all than to suffer pain for all one's life.'"

danthefiddleman said...

Thanks for posting your clarifications of Pastor Rutherford's video. You mention that you had contact with him. Did he tell you the source(s) of his story?

Since about two weeks ago when a DAR friend sent me a link to Rutherford's video (along with a brief but glowing review), I've watched it propagate, finding its way to folks who I'd thought would see through it immediately. "The colonies" should be a dead giveaway. But, because of the slick production and the patriotism, they accept it without question.

Phil Johnson said...

I'd like to know why the words to the Star Spangled Banner are quoted incorrectly.

"For" the land of the free"?

Lindsey Shuman said...

It is because this guy is a moron, Pinky. I hate it when religious figures mettle with history, as if they are quasi-historians themselves. He needs to stay with religion and leave the history to other more capable hands.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I hate it when religious figures mettle with history

It's "meddle." Although correcting the spelling of drunk or ignorant commenters is admittedly sophistic.

Lindsey Shuman said...

You of all people should not be lecturing on the merits of good grammar, Tom. Kris Rodda just cleaned your clock in the post below (you know which one).

Tom Van Dyke said...

You're right. Pettiness is contagious and I should not have corrected your grammar. I withdraw the remark and apologize.

P. C. Carlander said...

Regarding GW's attributed quote about "American Christians", historians at the Mount Vernon Presidential Library publicly state on their website:

"There is no known quote from Washington in any of his writings or papers that reflected this sentiment."

His diaries however did document a different picture of his religious perspectives. They paint him as a Deist with a reverent disdain of all organized religion (pun intended). Anyhow, how could he have rallied so many to fight for his cause after insulting all non-Christians on the continent?