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Authors: William C. Hammond

The Power and the Glory

BOOK: The Power and the Glory
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Table of Contents
In loving memory of my parents,
and of my parents-in-law,
Act well your part; there all honor lies.
HE APRIL 22, 1793, proclamation notifying the world that the United States would remain neutral in the gathering storm between Great Britain and France was, at its core, a meaningless decree. President George Washington had to deliver it nonetheless. The government over which he presided had few systems in place and a laughable presence on the world stage. What is more, it had no credit abroad and scant enforcement capabilities. A small band of ill-trained, ill-equipped soldiers served, in effect, as a glorified police force, and a few lightly armed cutters of the U.S. Treasury did their best to guard the coast against smugglers, pirates, and other maritime miscreants. So puny was America's military presence that Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was prompted to comment in disgust: “A nation, despicable in its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.”
At sea, European maritime nations preyed on America's carrying trade under the pretext of blocking shipments of wartime contraband to enemy ports. On land, the recalcitrant British retained possession of valuable fur trading posts in the Northwest that under the Treaty of Paris belonged to the United States. Along the western frontier, British and Spanish agents stirred up the Creeks and Cherokees to hinder inland migration from the seaboard states and to harass American shipping on the Mississippi. America was a country rich in resources with a promising future and a mercantile fleet to rival any in the Old World. But like a stricken beast bobbing on a perilous sea, its wounded corpus
was beset time and again by the savage forays of human sharks feeding in a frenzy of ripe pickings.
Internally, the situation was not much better. From its birth, the United States had been a divided nation. In the North, the Federalists held sway under the auspices of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other proponents of commercial enterprise. Advocating a strong central government with the power to tax its citizens, they called for a standing army and, more important, a strong navy to convoy the lifeblood of the infant republic to Europe and the West Indies. Such commerce involved great risks and skyrocketing insurance rates, but it was also, potentially, the source of enormous profits because the belligerent powers desperately wanted to buy what America had to sell. Decidedly pro-British in their outlook and dress, the Federalists disdained their political opponents, who regarded powdered wigs, silk neck stocks, and other trappings of wealth as symbols of elitism, patronage, and decadence.
The Republicans were concentrated in the South and were led by such heroes of the Revolution as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. They trumpeted the frontier spirit on which their country was founded, advocating not the banks and bonds and privileges of the elite, but the principles of limited federal powers; the inherent rights of Man as espoused by Rousseau, Locke, and their own Bill of Rights; and, as economic policy, minimal levels of taxation and national debt. Most detestable to Federalists, the Republicans were decidedly pro-French in their outlook and dress. They continued to idolize the principles of the French Revolution long after King Louis XVI had lost his head to the guillotine and the Great Terror had dragged countless others to their death. Those aristocrats who managed to escape the bloody blade—including such ardent patriots as the marquis de Lafayette—did so by fleeing their homeland for a foreign sanctuary, there to fade into the mists of history.
Such was the pro-French sentiment of the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, that they allowed French privateers to use their seaport as a base from which to attack British shipping along the Atlantic sea-lanes. Even after a tax uprising in western Pennsylvania known as the Whiskey Rebellion had spread fears of a Jacobin nightmare appropriating the American dream, Virginians and Carolinians and Georgians continued to wear the tricolor cockade in their hats and to toast the success of Robespierre in Paris—though perhaps with less enthusiasm than in former days.
President Washington was not a man easily intimidated. He stood firm when Citizen Edmund-Charles Genet, the French ambassador in Philadelphia, threatened to appeal directly to the American people to repeal the Neutrality Act if the U.S. government did not suspend its pro-British policies. In 1794 he sent Genet packing and commissioned Chief Justice John Jay as special envoy to the Court of Saint James to repair relations with the former Mother Country and to reopen vital trade routes between America and the British sugar islands of the West Indies—trade that had been crippled by an embargo imposed by Parliament several years earlier and vigorously enforced by the Royal Navy. Jay succeeded in his mission, to the satisfaction of the Federalists if not the Republicans, but the signing of the Treaty of London had immediate consequences. Once its pro-British terms were aired in Paris, the Committee of Public Safety, which now constituted the government of the Republic of France, abrogated the Treaty of 1778, expelled U.S. ambassador Charles T. Pinckney, and declared what amounted to a
guerre de course
—a worldwide commercial war—against its former ally. In the West Indies, French warships based in Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue seized American vessels and impounded their cargoes of southern cotton and tobacco. Too often the Frenchmen slew the innocent crew and heaved their bodies overboard, thereby blurring the lines between privateers operating under official letters of marque and outright piracy. Throughout the South, toasts to revolutionary France became less frequent and less fervent in tone. And French privateers were no longer welcomed in Charleston.
All was not doom and gloom, however. By September 1796 a few threads of encouragement had managed to weave their way into the complex fabric of international diplomacy. The Mediterranean Sea had by now become a relatively safe haven for American enterprise, with fewer American merchantmen falling into the clutches of Barbary corsairs. True, the Barbary States of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli continued to hold American sailors in their dank prisons, as they had for more than a decade, but the seeds of American mediation in North Africa were finally beginning to bear fruit. Interrupted by the French Revolution and stalled by the untimely death of John Paul Jones, America's chief envoy to the Barbary States, negotiations with the dey of Algiers were under way and fast approaching a satisfactory conclusion. For the price of one million U.S. dollars, an amount approximating 13 percent of the nation's annual expenditures in 1795, plus the promise of a newly
built warship in the future, Algiers and its Arab neighbors promised to release the hostage American seamen.
In response to the rape of the nation's carrying trade in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and sick to death of America being the plaything of Europe, Congress in 1794 voted 50 to 39 to build six frigates under the auspices of a new cabinet-level Navy Department, itself a subset of the newly created War Department. President Washington chose the names of the warships while his successor, John Adams, a strong proponent and organizer of the Continental navy during the war with England, took a more active role, to the point of personally selecting certain of the ships' commissioned officers.
These six men-of-war bore little resemblance to the ships of the Continental navy, or to the warships of the European powers. Designed by Joshua Humphreys, a Quaker shipwright from Philadelphia, they were longer, heavier, and narrower than other men-of-war in their class—hybrids, really, between a traditional 36-gun frigate and a third rate of 74 guns, the standard line-of-battle ship deployed by the Royal Navy.
The officers who commanded the U.S. Navy's new frigates would soon discover that they possessed a secret weapon that had nothing to do with ordnance. It was, rather, the wood used for key pieces of the ship's frame. Called
Quercus virens
by botanists, this wood came from a live oak with olive-green leaves that grew along a narrow swath of the Coastal Plain extending from Virginia to Georgia and across northern Florida. It could be found only in the American South, and its texture was far stronger than New Hampshire white oak, stronger even than English oak, which for centuries had been the mainstay of British hegemony at sea. Enemy shot directed at the hull of one of these newly built frigates bounced off as though it had struck not wood but iron.
Mary Beth,
off Matanzas, Cuba June 1797
HE MASTER of the schooner
Mary Beth
, out of New York, was suspicious the instant he noticed the full press of sail sweeping toward him from the north coast of Cuba. That the two-masted brig was flying Spanish colors mattered not at all. Cuba was Spain's principal colony in the West Indies, and the only beef Spain had with the United States these days involved shipping rights on the Mississippi River. Nonetheless, Tobias Taylor knew that for the past year Spain had again been an ally of France, the residue of what two decades earlier had been a powerful military alliance between the two Bourbon kings. And France, he also knew, was no longer a friend of the United States. That brig, Taylor was convinced, was flying the red and gold of Spain as a
ruse de guerre
The likelihood of encountering such a vessel was why he had shaped a course to Jamaica around the western tip of Cuba. Pirates and privateers were known to prowl the Windward Passage, a fifty-mile stretch of water separating the eastern shore of Cuba from the western shore of Saint-Domingue. These cutthroats and marauders operated with the tacit approval—if not the outright support—of the colonial governor of the French West Indies. And the colonial governor of the French West Indies took his orders from the National Directory in Paris.
The brig was closing too quickly for Taylor to consider flight. Besides, where in these waters would he go? He glanced up at the ensign fluttering
abaft the schooner's mainmast. She was flying the Stars and Stripes, and why not? She could hardly be mistaken for anything other than an American merchantman. The unique design of a Baltimore-built schooner was familiar to anyone engaged in international commerce.
Taylor scoured the horizons with a long glass, hoping against hope to find a Royal Navy vessel out on patrol from the British base at Fort Montego. But the sea was empty save for the brig, now closing fast and less than two miles away.
“Mr. Pate!” he shouted to his mate. “Heave to and run out the guns!”
Billy Pate hesitated before giving the order.
Mary Beth
was a merchant vessel, and like many American merchant vessels she was armed: three guns on her starboard side, another three to larboard. But these were 3-pounders, popguns compared with the long 9s the brig likely carried, six per side. Fighting off a small pirate barque was one thing; challenging what amounted to a brig of war was another. Not only was
Mary Beth
seriously outclassed in weight of broadside, but her crew of fourteen, master and mate included, would be no match for the much larger crew on the brig should they grapple and board the schooner.
BOOK: The Power and the Glory
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