“Baltimore: the Monumental City—May the days of her safety be as prosperous and happy, as the days of her dangers have been trying and triumphant.” President John Quincy Adams 1827
I, like so many other Americans, was disheartened by those images of the recent civil unrest and violence in the city of Baltimore. The glow of fires against a night sky evoked memories of the riot plagued streets of our urban communities during the 1960s. Now as then, I questioned the logic and motives of those who participated in the wanton and reckless destruction of private property.
Today, my mindset on such matters is much more introspective, and no longer prone to the range of emotions that often accompany the thought processes of someone trying to make sense of human behavior through the eyes of an adolescent. At this point in my life, I’ve come to the simple conclusion that whenever groups of human beings are in disagreement there is the distinct possibility that amongst them are individuals that would prefer to make their point with a gun, a rock, or some incendiary device. And within the chaotic cover of the crowd, or the perceived protection accorded them by a position or institution, these individuals achieve the anonymity needed to commit their crimes of convenience.
This predisposition towards aggression and criminality is not by any means more prevalent in one group than another. It is not a matter of race, ethnicity, religious creed, or financial status–it is sadly just about the nature of a small percent of humankind. But that relatively small percent tends to establish a foothold in almost every situation. And throughout human history they are the ones that set the stage for the confrontations and conflagrations that too often become the defining story.
On the evening of September 13, 1814, Francis Scott Key, while under temporary confinement on a truce ship anchored in the Patapsco River, watched the relentless bombardment by British Naval forces on Baltimore’s defenses at Fort McHenry. Throughout that long night, Key had to wonder if the city would eventually suffer the same fate that he had witnessed in Washington weeks earlier. Many of the same British troops that had looted, vandalized, and put the torch to our nation’s capital, partly in retribution for similar American atrocities against English settlements in Canada, were now on the threshold of taking this prize on the Chesapeake. But on the morning of the 14th, Key’s spirits would be bolstered by the realization that the heroic defenders of Baltimore had saved the city.
Ultimately, those wishes for prosperity and happiness uttered by John Quincy Adams in 1827 would be visited upon the city. Baltimore would become one of the nation’s leading industrial centers, a major rail transportation hub, and the second largest seaport in the Mid-Atlantic states. But along the way those days of danger would be many, and they would not necessarily always give way to triumph.
In August of 1835, rioting mobs took to the streets of Baltimore in response to the deceptive business practices that led to the collapse of the Bank of Maryland. Bystanders cheered as the disgruntled throngs fueled their public bonfires with the personal possessions taken from the ransacked homes of the city’s wealthier citizens.
On April 19, 1861, just a few days after Southern artillery had accomplished a casualty-free, gentlemanly surrender of
Fort Sumter, sympathizers to the “Confederate Cause” living in Baltimore attacked Northern militia units as they
marched through the city en route to a train bound for Washington D. C. The resulting melee and riot left 4 soldiers and 12 civilians dead. Some historians contend that this bloody encounter put both the Union and the Confederacy in a position where neither would be dissuaded from engaging in a full-scale war.
On July 20, 1877, Maryland Governor John Lee Carroll ordered the state’s National Guard to quell the spreading unrest among the striking workers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad who had blocked rail service at Cumberland. As troops left their armories in Baltimore and headed toward the Camden station they were physically harassed by citizens who supported the strike. The guardsmen responded by opening fire on the attacking mob. It would take the further intervention of federal troops and marines over the next two days to restore order. By then 10 people were dead, scores of soldiers and civilians were wounded, several pieces of rolling stock were destroyed, and portions of the rail yard and station were burned.
After the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4,1968, the city was subjected to that same wave of emotional outrage and bloodshed that was sweeping through the streets of so many of America’s poorer neighborhoods. Even today, sections of Baltimore remain blighted and scarred by that weeklong period of rioting.
While I am not quite ready to pen a new national anthem over recent events in Charm City, for it appears now that both the police and Baltimore’s criminal element might be taking advantage of the situation, I am cautiously optimistic about the overall local response to the initial mayhem that occurred as a result of the death of Freddie Gray. In our nation’s past, all too often those voices that could have brought about calm remained quiet as the bullies and belligerents on either side of the issues ruled the day.
If we are to have a constructive conversation concerning America’s ongoing racial and economic divide, we must first silence the discord of those that would have us burn down the house in order to make a case for better furniture.
Click on the image below to read about one of our favorite public houses that has proudly weathered the tumult and turmoil of Baltimore’s stormy past.
Posted by: Chris Poh for American Public House Review