Hirelings and Slaves

From the national anthem:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
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.


Because we jettisoned any nuanced understanding of the English language or history,  the only meaning of the word slavery is race based chattel slavery, although ‘hireling and slave’ had been paired for centuries in poetry and prose to refer to anybody who served a cause for mercenary reasons.  Parallel pairing of synonyms is also a standard of poetry.

Examples of historic usage of the terms paired together when referring to mercenaries who serve a cause for purely monetary reasons:
1796,”Essays and Poems read in Theatres at Oxford:  “…they thus became the ready agents of the highest paymaster ; content to substitute for the disinterested enthusiasm of the patriot and the hero , the rapacity of the hireling and the devotion of the slave…”

1787, Robert Southey’s poem Elinor: ” sink the slave Of Vice and Infamy ! the hireling prey Of brutal appetite !”

1793, Hannah More: No , not an hireling slave Shall hail Great HEZEKIAH in the grave : Where’s he , who falsely claim’d the name of Great ? Whose eye was terror , and whose frown was fate ? Who aw’d an hundred nations from the throne…”

1794, Pig’s Meat… In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a State-hireling for treason to his Country…. A Slave of State , hired by a stipend

An accurate new spelling dictionary, and expositor of the English language … The sixth edition, much improved, 1798, uses hireling and slave to define the word mercenary.

Politics for the People, Daniel Eaton, 1794-” Excite a sense of shame in the breasts of those numerous hireling slaves , who are always ready at the command of their masters to destroy their fellow citizens . Rouse all the powers of human nature to oppose this subversion of social laws….”

J. Ridgway, late 1700s, in a pamphlet or book called Criticism of the Rolliad writes scathingly of a dinner composed of members of the aristocracy opposed to liberty, describing the gathering as a “”a dull and miserly association of ducal toad-eaters and dependants, …slaves, government runners, pimps, and hirelings of all descriptions.””

1779, G. Cawthorn,The Historical, Biographical, Literary, and Scientific Magazine, vol 1: “not till the enemies of his country , the slaves of power , and the hirelings of injustice , were compelled to abandon their schemes , and acknowledge America as terrible in arms as she had been humble in remonstrance .

Thomas Underwood in the late 1700s wrote a poem on Liberty.  There’s a line calling for ‘curses on the mem’ry of every hireling slave.’  In fact, he calls down curses several times on political mercenaries, those political hacks who oppose freedom for what they can get out of it.  He refers to them as hireling slaves, elves, lurkers in the dark, bravoes of the night (a bravo at the time was a brigand, a mugger, a thug), and my favourite, not just elves, but “venal, mercenary elves.” and more.  He asks of the hireling slaves who write in opposition to liberty, ‘shall such slaves, detested be the thought, who work for pay, and therefore sold and bought, usurp dominion? Must we then obey, submit our thoughts to their despotic slavery?: He’s not talking about chattel, race-based slavery here.” (1768)

1767, The Political Register… refers to the practice of buying votes and seats of officers in a standing army resulting in hirelings and slaves.  “… they now in fact purchase great part of the votes which support their opposition…  corrupt means as the ministry retain and procure seats for their hirelings….. The opposition well know that these slaves care not what master they serve for they are paid for it…”

A New and Impartial History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Signing of the Preliminaries of Peace in the Year 1762, Volume 7 John II Barrow, refers to a debate in the time of William III over the merits of a standing army (termed mercenaries and hirelings, as they serve for pay and a job and not for love of country) vs an all volunteer force.   In the same paragraph he refers to the army as hirelings he says that those mercenaries were the only slaves in the kingdom.

The Poet: A Poem by Percival Stockdale.  He was staunchly and publicly opposed to the slave trade, but he uses the terms slaves and hirelings in a different fashion here in a deliciously brutal take-down of what he views as current mercenary and Philistine trends in poetry resulting in the disappearance of poetry as art:

No longer now the nine Aonian maids

Find hospitable haunts in royal shades

Poets are left to penury a prey

The slaves of trade, the hirelings of the day

Some pert prim Cadell or some rougher Turk

Prescribes the theme the measure of the work

Checks the free thought, lops off the ardent word…”

It seems far more likely to me that the verse in the National Anthem refers disparagingly to mercenary soldiers and subjects of the Crown than to Chattel Slavery.

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  1. Frances
    Posted December 28, 2020 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’

  2. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Yes, that seems right on the mark, esp. when you see that earlier in the stanza they are referred to as a

    “band that so vauntingly swore,
    That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
    A home and a Country should leave us no more”.

    When did the chattel slaves swear that as a group? That would be a nonsensical interpretation, it seems to me.

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