Parshat Miketz – What so proudly we hailed

The 15-star, 15-stripe 'Star-Spangled Banner' that inspired the poem. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
The 15-star, 15-stripe 'Star-Spangled Banner' that inspired the poem. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer in Maryland and Washington D.C. for almost 40 years. Among his most famous trials was that of Justus Erick Bollman and Samuel Swartwout, who had been charged for treason as part of an alleged conspiracy led by US Vice President Aaron Burr (most recently made famous for being the arch-villain in the Hamilton musical). In 1807 Burr was charged for his role in a failed British attempt to get Louisiana Territory and Western states to secede from the Union and form its own country. President Thomas Jefferson, who had disagreed with his vice president on almost everything, made it his personal mission to secure Burr’s conviction.

Key made his name with a speech he made on behalf of Bollman and Swartwout before the US Supreme Court arguing that President Jefferson had abused the power of his office.

Is the executive of the United States gifted with the extraordinary powers of divination? Is his message to be reported to this court as an indisputable document as matter of facts? I hold up my hands against such a use of executive means. The president of the United States has no such right whatsoever… The Constitution expressly declares that you are to arrest no man unless there be probably cause on oath or affirmation.

On December 31, 1807, a Senate hearing was held against Ohio Senator John Smith on charges that he had supported Burr, and neglected his duties as a senator. The prosecution was led by future president, John Quincy Adams, and Key defended the senator. The final vote, 19-10, was one short of the two thirds needed to expel the congressman.

Portrait of Francis Scott Key. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Key also prosecuted Richard Lawrence, an English-American house painter who was the first person to attempt to assassinate a US president. On January 30, 1835, Lawrence’s pistols misfired as he tried to shoot President Andrew Jackson. Lawrence was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity but spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals.

Of course, Key is most famous, not for his legal career, but for a poem he wrote on September 14, 1814. The 35-year-old Key published “Defence of Fort M’Henry” anonymously in the Baltimore Patriot, six days later, on September 20, but today it is much better known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” (though it took over 100 years before it became the official national anthem of the USA, on March 3, 1931).

Many people know the story of how in 1814, during the confusingly-named War of 1812, Key was sent, along with John Stuart Skinner, to the British flagship HMS Tonnant , anchored in the Baltimore harbor, to negotiate the release of William Beanes, an elderly and popular physician. Although they were successful in their mission, Key and Skinner were detained for over a week because the two men had heard details of the British plan to attack Baltimore. Aboard a British gunship, they witnessed how the US forces withstood the attack, and saw the flag, with its stars and stripes, flying above Fort Covington.

Even non-Americans are familiar with some of the lyrics to the first verse, but the other three verses of the poem (and anthem) are far less-well known. The third verse contains these words:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Writing about slaves puts the “land of the free” into context. There is some controversy about exactly what Key meant by that first line. Some say he was referring to slaves who had been freed by the British and were now facing their former master in battle. Others say that it refers to the British themselves, the enemy characterized as “hirelings and slaves” (presumably to King George III). Yet others claim that the anthem is actually a celebration of slavery.

Key’s actual view on slavery is not simple for us to understand. He came from a family of Maryland plantation owners, and therefore owned slaves himself. From 1833 to 1840, Key served as the District Attorney for the City of Washington. By this time, Washington was a city of some 30,000 residents, including 12,000 black people, of whom more than half were legally free.

The decades leading up to the Civil War were a time of upheaval and people from all sides of the political debate gathered in the capital.

For many, Washington represented black aspiration. African Americans owned livery stables, restaurants, and barber shops. Anti-slave activists secretly published and sold abolitionist newspapers, pamphlets, and books.

Yet, there was a growing number of white men becoming rich by trading in human lives. The firm of Franklin and Armfield was the single largest slave trading syndicate in the nation. And under President Andrew Jackson the southern, slave-owning elite had a solid majority in Congress.

As Attorney General, Key sought to defend the Constitution (as he understood it) and prosecuted several abolitionists in high-profile cases.

The most famous was the trial of abolitionist Reuben Crandall for “seditious libel and inciting slaves and free blacks to revolt.” It was the first sedition trial in US history, and according to Key it was “one of the most important cases ever tried here.” In his speech to the all-white jury, Key argued that abolitionism was against the Constitution.

“They declare that every law which sanctions slavery is null and void…” he declaimed. “That we have no more rights over our slaves than they have over us. Does not this bring the constitution and the laws under which we live into contempt? Is it not a plain invitation to resist them?”

It took the jury only three hours to acquit Crandall, in news that made headlines throughout the nation.

Yet Key himself freed his slaves in 1830. He assisted African Americans in bringing cases to the circuit court. He was sometimes publicly critical of the cruelty of slavery.

Back in 1816, the American Colonization Society was formed by the Reverend Robert Finley to assist freed slaves in returning to Africa. We would perhaps view the motivation behind the charitable organization as both honorable and racist.

Finley thought that black people would never fully integrate into American life as true equals and felt that if they returned to Africa, they could fulfill their true potential. Yet, he also saw the presence of black people as a threat to the quality of life for white people in America. Finley won immediate support for his plan from Key, who went on to serve as one of the group’s leaders. The organization was not supported by most abolitionists or freed slaves, but went on to establish the African colony of Liberia and send approximately 12,000 black men and women to live there.

We prefer our villains and heroes to be simple. Either goodies or baddies. Key was neither. He was complex, a caring man who opposed cruelty to slaves, but a public prosecutor who tried abolitionists.

Eulogizing Key after his death in January, 1843, Washington’s chief judge William Cranch praised Key as one of the bar’s “oldest and most respected members, and one of its brightest ornaments” who was always animated “by an overbearing sense of duty.”

First page of the Anacreontic Song. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

So, back to the Star-Spangled Banner.

It was published with the author’s name in The Analectic Magazine (v.4), in December of 1814 (although as the editors note, it had already been published in several newspapers before then).

By this point, the poem already had a tune. It was to be sung to the melody of “Anacreon in Heaven,” which was clearly a well-known song because the Analectic magazine did not feel the need to explain it.

The song was an English drinking song – a fact not lost on Robert Ripley (of Believe It or Not fame) who in 1929, during prohibition, complained that the United States had no official national anthem. He felt it was inappropriate for a dry country that had broken free from British rule a century and a half earlier. In response, over five million people wrote to Congress demanding a national anthem, and on March 3, 1931, the Star-Spangled Banner was officially recognized as such.

The notoriously difficult tune “To Anacreon in Heaven” was composed by John Stafford Smith and was the official song of the Anacereonic Society.

Portrait of the Greek poet Anacreon of Teos. Marble, Roman Imperial Period (2nd or 3rd century)

The society was a London gentlemen’s club dedicated to the ancient Greek lyric poet Anacreon, who in his songs worshiped the Muses, wine and love. Despite its risqué name, the society was made up mainly of professionals including barristers and doctors, who were also amateur musicians.

The Anacreonic Society was formed in about the year 1766 and met every month. At its peak it had no more than 80 members. Every session (usually held in a pub) began at 7:30 with a lengthy concert. The performers were then made honorary members of the society. The high point of the group came in January 1791 when Haydn attended a meeting.

Portrait of Lady Georgiana Cavendish by Thomas Gainsborough. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

However, the Society came to a sudden and unfortunate end in 1792 after the Duchess of Devonshire attended a meeting. Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire was the great-great-great-great aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales, and such an interesting character that she probably deserves her own blog at some time.

Anyhow, when she attended the Anacreonic Society meeting, the men suddenly realized that “some of the comic songs [were not] exactly calculated for the entertainment of ladies” and one after another they resigned their membership. Soon afterwards a general meeting was called, and the society was dissolved.

I find the Anacreonic Society an interesting contrast to Key. The author of the national anthem spent his life focused on a sense of duty, considering the impact of each of his actions (though it is unlikely he could have foreseen how important his poem would become). He chose his path based on the issues as he saw them, and if that was complex and almost contradictory, well that was fine with him. As long as he did what he felt was right.

The members of the Anacreonic Society, on the other hand, never stopped to consider whether their songs were appropriate. It was what they did. As a group they were swept up in the culture they had created. It was only when faced with the crisis of the Duchess of Devonshire’s visit that they suddenly realized they had been wrong all along. In a moment they stopped to question their behavior and immediately abandoned the Society.

I see the same contrast in the behavior of the protagonists in this week’s Torah portion, Miketz.

Joseph was hated by his brothers, but he did not cave to their pressure and instead stuck to his values. He was sold into slavery, yet in Potiphar’s house he remained firm in his convictions to rise to the top, even if he was in a foreign environment which promoted different values. When he was thrown into jail he was again driven by his “overbearing sense of duty” to become a leader within the prison system.

This week’s portion opens with Joseph being rushed from jail straight to Pharaoh’s court. But his values and sense of duty led him to speak to the ruler in the same way he spoke to the prisoners he had just left. He was not awed by the power of the throne but spoke as his conscience told him, knowing that he was doing the right thing and not caring about public expectations.

French, Nevers; Dish showing Joseph’s brothers entreating him. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

That’s the positive spin of the character of Joseph. But he was also a proud favorite son, who flaunted his stripy cloak and haughtily told his brothers and father of his dreams of domination. Because he always lived in the moment, he did not worry about what the future would bring, nor did he dwell on the past. In all his years in Egypt, whether as slave, prisoner, or viceroy, he never once thought to send a letter to his mourning father back in Canaan.

To me, his brothers were more like the members of the Anacreonic Society. They were quite happy doing what they were doing and fitting the facts to their narrative. They were happy with the version of events they had decided upon – Joseph was an upstart threat to the family hierarchy who had to be removed. For over a decade they never once questioned themselves or went to search for Joseph. When they finally did go down to Egypt, according to the midrash, they searched for Joseph in the most insalubrious places. Whatever had happened to him, in their minds he certainly would never amount to anything worthwhile.

For this reason, even when standing before Joseph and seeing him with only the thinnest of disguises, they were unable to recognize him. The viceroy invited the brothers to dine with him; he seemed to know everything about them and their family; he asked after their younger brother Benjamin and knew that Simeon was the dangerous one to put in jail. He was very clearly not part of the Egyptian old-school hierarchy. Yet the power of the narrative that the brothers had told themselves for all those years was so powerful that they could not see who they were looking at.

It was only at the beginning of next week’s Torah portion, when Joseph revealed himself, that the brothers were forced against their wills to change the story and see the truth. Just as the Duchess of Devonshire destroyed the Anacreonic Society overnight, the tale the band of brothers had been telling themselves for all those years was ripped apart by their confrontation with the truth.

The Torah’s account of Joseph and the brothers reminds us that sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are so powerful we cannot recognize the truth even when we stare it in the face. And conversely, sticking to higher values regardless of the pain they may cause others, can sometimes blur the line between good and evil in the quest for the ideal.


With thanks to No Such Thing As A Fish, who mentioned many of these facts in their episode “No Such Thing As Tug of War for Clowns.”

Beginning December 22nd, I’m beginning a new nine-part series at WebYeshiva on Rabbis of the 19th Century. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes by registering on the website. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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