U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will speak to the Republican National Convention Wednesday night from Maryland’s Fort McHenry, site of the 1814 battle that inspired what is now the U.S. national anthem.
The National Park Service announced Monday that the site would be closed Tuesday and Wednesday for a “first amendment event.”
The choice is in character for Pence, who quoted Abraham Lincoln in a video released Tuesday, and who has previously leaned on themes of American patriotism and the legacy of the nation’s early days.
In 1814, the U.S. and Great Britain were still embroiled in the War of 1812. At 6 a.m. on September 13 of that year, 5,000 British soldiers and a fleet of 19 ships launched an attack on Fort McHenry, which protected the Baltimore harbor. Under heavy rain, the British military shelled the fort for 25 hours.
Lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key was stuck on a ship watching the bombardment while he helped negotiate the release of a U.S. civilian captured in an earlier battle.
On the morning of September 14, Key saw the fort’s garrison flag waving, having replaced the smaller storm flag flown during the attack. On the back of a letter, Key scrawled down the first stanza of a poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which eventually became known as The Star-Spangled Banner.
The flag he wrote about was a massive cotton and wool creation 9 meters (30 feet) high by 13 meters (42 feet) long. Major George Armistead, the commanding officer, had said ahead of the battle that he wanted "to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance," according to the National Park Service.
Key’s song gained popularity as a patriotic ditty, especially during and after the American Civil War in the 1860s. It wasn’t until March 3, 1931, that Congress made The Star-Spangled Banner the U.S. national anthem in a resolution signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.
The lyrics hide a complicated history with race. While a line in the first stanza of Key’s poem professes admiration for the “land of the free,” a line in the third stanza alludes to “pollution” left by the “foul footsteps” of slaves who fought for the British.
Himself a slaveholder from a Maryland plantation family, Key argued cases against the abolitionist movement during his eight-year stint as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He co-founded the American Colonization Society to send free Black people “back” to Africa, a movement that eventually resulted in the founding of Liberia.
Played and sung at nearly every major U.S. sporting event, many professional athletes have refused to stand for the anthem, as is customary, in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. The anthem protests have been a common target for Republican critics.
Pence himself, one of the Republican National Convention’s Wednesday headliners, is expected to give a robust defense of President Donald Trump with Fort McHenry in the background. His wife, Karen Pence, and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway will also speak Wednesday.
Preparations for Pence’s speech hit a snag Tuesday when a forklift damaged a brick walkway at the site. The damage sparked criticism that the National Park Service had pushed through the special use event permit too quickly.
This is what they were afraid of: The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks has been warning the NPS cutting corners at Ft McHenry for RNC event could lead to damage...and concerns mounting now that it has. Photos of damaged brick walkway inside the fort. pic.twitter.com/QEZqiMtLnE— Kate Amara (@kateamaraWBAL) August 25, 2020
The Maryland Republican Party, as the permit holder, is liable for damages and the associated costs.
It was unclear how many people were set to attend the speech, but the city of Baltimore limits outdoor gatherings to 25 people due to the coronavirus pandemic. Protests, both in car caravans and on foot, are expected.