Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 8, 2014

How Alexander Cockburn’s ancestor torched Washington and freed 6,000 slaves

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

Harpers Magazine, September 2014
Washington is Burning
Two centuries of racial tribulation in the nation’s capital

By Andrew Cockburn

On a sunny Saturday in June, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s composition, officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931 following news that leftist members of the Erie, Pennsylvania, city council were opening meetings with a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.” As the melody rang out over the grass and along Constitution Ave- nue, it echoed off neighboring memorials and galleries, including the partly built National Museum of African American History and Culture a block and a half down the street.

Although preceded by a lengthy program of musical performances, the anthem it- self got short shrift. As usual, only the familiar opening verse was sung, because of various ideological stumbling blocks in subsequent verses—most especially the third, with its fervent hope that

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

For myself, the words always evoke a glow of family pride, because Key’s malign desire that fleeing slaves should find no refuge was directly inspired by the actions of my distinguished relative Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy. Two hundred years ago this August, he fought his way to the White House at the head of an army partly composed of slaves he had freed, armed, and trained and torched the place, along with the Capitol and much of official Washington. In the course of a two-year campaign, he rescued as many as 6,000 slaves, and despite Key’s hopeful verse, not to mention angry demands from the U.S. government, he sailed them away to freedom.

Obviously, the admiral qualifies as one of the great emancipators, and I am proud to claim a connection. In a recent conversation with Dr. lonnie Bunch, who is over- seeing the creation of the African-American museum as its director, I suggested that he include George Cockburn in a Hall of the Righteous, cheek by jowl with Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison. He was nice enough to hear me out, although he made it clear that his intention is not to produce a black version of the nearby Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its Wall of Rescuers, but something far broader in scope. The real challenge, Bunch told me, is to avoid a “rosy view of the past. Romanticized memory is not history.”

(Read full article in the print edition of Harpers. I have been subscribing since 1981 or so and have looked forward to each copy.)


  1. Well, you know, that’s great, but I wonder whether the act involved freeing slaves who would fight for Britain more than freeing slaves as such. More notable, I think, was another Cockburn ancestor, James Ramsay, leading abolitionist, who wrote ‘An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies’.

    Comment by VM — October 9, 2014 @ 12:49 am

  2. Now there’s a Contrarian blood line!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 9, 2014 @ 1:50 am

  3. Can you please tell me where I can read the Harper”s? I tried the link (looked like Amazon) but, my spy blockers won’t let me use a redirect loop and I don’t know how to temp. torn it off…thanks

    Comment by kdelphi — October 9, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

  4. Found it! (part of it you dont have to pay for, anyway lol) Very interesting stuff http://harpers.org/archive/2014/09/washington-is-burning/

    Comment by kdelphi — October 9, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

  5. Only the first few paragraphs are available to non-subscribers.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 9, 2014 @ 9:09 pm

  6. Yes, I saw that….cannot afford that, but, hey, nice story anyway

    Comment by kdelphi — October 9, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

  7. What happened to the freed slaves afterwards is the key question. It said in one Google entry that the slaves were promised that they would be settled “in British dominions”. Hopefully, that didn’t mean the West Indies where the overwhelming likelihood would have been that they would have been re-enslaved.
    In the American War of Independence slaves who were freed by the British to fight on their side were (many of them) resettled in Nova Scotia, then in Sierra Leone, but I don’t know the fate of these slaves freed under George Cockburn — after the burning of Washington. (I didn’t subscribe to the Harper’s full article either, which perhaps tells us what happened. ….). If anyone knows, or has a link to more information, please say! Thanks.

    Comment by VM — October 9, 2014 @ 9:47 pm

  8. ((officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931 following news that leftist members of the Erie, Pennsylvania, city council were opening meetings with a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.”))

    Searched high and low and can’t find any mention of this online anywhere. Source?

    Comment by bishop — October 10, 2014 @ 6:55 pm

  9. What a coincidence. I came up with my wife for an academic conference in Albany on the Amtrak that had one of those magazines like you see on planes. It had an article on the Star-Spangled Banner that mentioned it became the official anthem in 1931. That’s all it said but I will look further.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 11, 2014 @ 12:32 am

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