Far from Las Vegas, fitting venues for GOP speeches

Francis Scott Key

fitting venue for GOP speeches

Andrew W. Mellon

For me, still New to Las Vegas, part of the fun watching the convention-less Republican National Convention that wrapped up last night was not only the speakers, but where they spoke.

I am referring in particular to two of the venues, the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., and Fort McHenry in Baltimore. In this time of economic distress and racial strife, they both have compelling back stories that are especially fitting—although perhaps not in ways calculated to win over uncommitted voters that Donald Trump needs to overcome his current deficit in the polls.

Let’s start with the Mellon Auditorium, where Franklin Graham and Ben Carson, among others, gave their pitches last night. It is named for the luminary of the Pittsburgh banking family who was Secretary of the Treasury for an astonishing 11 years, from 1921 to 1932, under the Republican presidencies of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. He played a key role in the spectacularly bad policies of the Federal Government to first cause the Great Depression and then botch the recovery–not unlike what we’re going through right now.

Among other things, Mellon urged Hoover to refrain from intervening, saying that economic recessions were simply a normal part of the business cycle. In his memoirs, Hoover wrote that Mellon told him to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. Purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. … Enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.”

Mellon became the second most hated person in America behind Hoover. In 1932, the House of Representatives finally started—wait for it—impeachment proceedings against Mellon, charging that he had violated numerous conflict-of-interest laws, including ownership of government bonds while he oversaw their issuance. The impeachment effort ended only after Hoover quickly appointed Mellon as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.

Mellon died five years later at age 82. He is the model for the cartoon figure of a tycoon with a white mustache and top hat in the board game Monopoly.

Then there’s Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, where Mike Pence spoke. It’s the site of a War of 1812 battle in 1814 that inspired lawyer Francis Scott Key to write the words for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key and the National Anthem he wrote are the main reasons Fort McHenry normally gets any attention today.

Yet Key himself was a slaveowner who opposed abolition and who as a government prosecutor once tried to jail a writer who truthfully wrote that the nation’s capital was a stinking, lousy place for Blacks to live. And believe it or not, a passage of the National Anthem explicitly envisions and welcomes the killing of fleeing slaves.

Don’t believe me? The offending lyrics are in its third stanza, which you probably have never heard. (In case you wonder, there actually are four stanzas, each ending with “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”) Here in its entirety is the third stanza Key wrote after being so inspired by Fort McHenry:

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 washed out their foul footsteps’ 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!
The reference in the fifth line to refuge of the slave refers to the fact that British ships in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812 were willing to take away runaway slaves, something that Key opposed during his public life. Indeed, the slaves who fled to the Brits represented the largest mass freeing of indentured-for-life Blacks until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation a half-century later during the Civil War in 1863. The “hireling” Key referred to meant mercenary, a paid soldier from other European countries.
Key witnessed the Battle of Fort McHenry from a British warship, where he was part of a U.S. delegation negotiating a prisoner exchange. That means he probably saw some of the ex-slaves facing “the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” It’s also possible that some of the ex-slaves saw him and wondered if they might be handed back. (They weren’t.)

Key had a long public career, much of it tied up in racial issues. He was critical of slavery’s obvious cruelties, but not so much of the institution itself. Key was a founder and leader of the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to ship freed blacks to Africa. He was eventually bounced from its board when the organization pivoted to a pro-abolition position.

Nearly two decades after writing his famous poem, Key was the district attorney for Washington, D.C. In that position he indicted the editor and printer of an anti-slavery publication in 1833 for criminal libel for writing, “There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people” in the nation’s capital, where slavery and segregation were both legal. Key’s charges said the article “was intended to injure, oppress, aggrieve, and vilify the good name, fame, credit & reputation” of the authorities.

Now that’s the kind of language that might resonate with Donald J. Trump, Mike Pence and their repeated complaints about “fake news.”

After the indictment, the editor skipped town. The printer, however, stayed and was acquitted on grounds the published words were all true. Some folks today in places like Minneapolis, Louisville and now Kenosha likely would agree.

Key’s views on slavery, it seems, were solidly rooted in Christianity. In 1816 he was a founder of the New York City-based American Bible Society, serving as a vice president until his death. Best known today for printing Bibles, the ABS was founded on an abolitionist philosophy, but Key worked from the inside to minimize its influence in that respect.

Finally, I should note that it was Key’s brother-in-law, U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who wrote the majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott case. That’s the case that held slaves had no legal right to sue for their freedom and the Fifth Amendment prohibited states that had abolished slavery from freeing slaves who reached their jurisdictions from states allowing slavery.

The Dred Scott case more or less triggered the Civil War, which in some respects we are still fighting today.

Speakers impart their messages. So do their settings.

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