The sailors’ re­volt that in­flu­enced an elec­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Philip Kop­per

Acon­sen­sus holds that last year’s pol­i­tics were messy; some say the messi­est ever, but A. Roger Ekirch tells us oth­er­wise. In 1800 the run-up to the na­tion’s “first full-blown pres­i­den­tial cam­paign” was messier, and ar­guably more im­por­tant in its long-term con­se­quences, though only time can tell.

The essence of cur­rent af­fairs means that we can­not know the end of the story in ad­vance. Which of to­day’s al­pha top­ics will res­onate a decade hence? Re­mem­ber what’s-his-name’s pres­i­den­tial run in 1992? Or the “twobit burglary” that made “Water­gate” a house­hold word? How about to­day’s “Rus­sia thing”? News is what goes on while we’re mak­ing other plans; His­tory is what gets writ­ten later when the facts are in and the acts have all played out.

It takes a spe­cial gift in writ­ing about the past to of­fer read­ers the sense of events un­fold­ing through the deeds, de­ci­sions, poli­cies and prej­u­dices of dead white guys, as Mr. Ekirch has done. While we know that John Adams was our sec­ond pres­i­dent, Thomas Jef­fer­son our third and we li­on­ize both as “Found­ing Fa­thers,” Mr. Ekirch re­minds us that they were en­e­mies con­test­ing im­por­tant is­sues in 1800.

One piv­otal topic in that elec­toral duel grew out of an ob­scure sailors’ re­volt. Mr. Ekirch re­lates the HMS Hermione mutiny — blood­i­est in the Royal Navy’s his­tory — in blood­cur­dling de­tail and with the snap of to­mor­row’s front page. Telling it as a mus­tard seed story, he shows how this un­der­stand­able up­ris­ing on a for­eign ship af­fected Amer­ica for two cen­turies.

Capt. Hugh Pigot was an aris­to­crat and sadist who rose in rank thanks to fam­ily con­nec­tions and the wars with France. Com­mand­ing a frigate with a crew of 170, he or­dered 85 flog­gings in 12 months, lay­ing on 1,400 lashes. (Capt. Bligh in HMS Bounty or­dered a to­tal of 30 lashes on his in­fa­mous voy­age to Tahiti.) Trans­ferred to Hermione in 1797, Pigot brought along his cruel habits and honed them.

When his frigate col­lided with an Amer­i­can mer­chant ship, he had its Yan­kee mas­ter whipped — an of­fense that made head­lines through­out the repub­lic that sup­ported nu­mer­ous news­pa­pers. The event fu­eled an­other con­tro­versy, the seiz­ing of Amer­i­can sailors to serve in Bri­tish war­ships (vir­tual marine kid­nap­ping). Then the Hermione mutiny, which took Pigot’s life and sev­eral oth­ers, be­came the run­ning story as Bri­tain hunted down the mu­ti­neers, in­clud­ing one in a south­ern jail who claimed to be a Con­necti­cut na­tive. This was a fuse that ex­ploded John Adams’ pres­i­dency.

The Bri­tish coun­sel re­quested ex­tra­di­tion and Adams com­plied, while try­ing to jug­gle do­mes­tic, mar­itime and in­ter­na­tional is­sues. The up­shot was as static as a noose: The sailor was ex­tra­dited to Ja­maica, court-mar­tialed on a Bri­tish ship by Bri­tish of­fi­cers, found guilty, and hanged from a yardarm straight­away. It caused an up­roar: that an Amer­i­can sailor was robbed of his newly guar­an­teed con­sti­tu­tional rights — to trial by his peers, for starters — let alone his life.

Mr. Ekirch nav­i­gates deep wa­ter in enu­mer­at­ing events, de­tail­ing ar­gu­ments and trac­ing se­que­lae. He calls the “bit­terly po­lar­ized” elec­tion “a bat­tle for the coun­try’s soul, whether the peo­ple would con­tinue to ac­cept the guid­ance of a pa­ter­nal­is­tic rul­ing class de­ter­mined to es­tab­lish the supremacy of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or place their trust in­stead in rep­re­sen­ta­tives striv­ing to pro­tect and ad­vance lib­er­ties won in the Rev­o­lu­tion — ‘friends of the peo­ple’ [Jef­fer­so­ni­ans] rather than ‘fa­thers of the peo­ple’ [Adams’ Fed­er­al­ists].”

Fact-based and ar­gu­men­ta­tive, a real his­tory like this may dis­arm modern “pa­tri­ots” who lard their pro­nounce­ments with pi­ous ref­er­ences to our “Found­ing Fa­thers.” Which fa­ther does one mean when push­ing, say, gen­der-spe­cific pot­ties in North Carolina? Jef­fer­son, whose chat­tel slaves of ei­ther gen­der had no rights at all? Or Adams, who an­swered his wife’s ad­mo­ni­tion, “re­mem­ber the ladies” in de­sign­ing our gov­ern­ment, with the jibe “I can­not but laugh”?

“Amer­i­can Sanc­tu­ary” is tren­chant in its drawn par­al­lels to our day. Hermione pre-empted “Amer­ica’s his­toric de­ci­sion whether to grant po­lit­i­cal asy­lum to refugees … the mag­netic prom­ise of Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence, fa­mously voiced by Tom Paine, to pro­vide ‘an asy­lum for mankind.’ ” That sanc­tu­ary’s in­tegrity sur­vived un­til Ron­ald Rea­gan’s pres­i­dency, as Mr. Ekirch writes that a 1985 treaty “gut­ted the right of Amer­i­can asy­lum for po­lit­i­cal fugi­tives from the United King­dom … . The stroke of a pen put an abrupt end to a pol­icy” born in 1799.

“Amer­i­can Sanc­tu­ary” is also no­table as a book per se, an ex­em­plary vol­ume in its de­sign and printing.

Its front cover caught my eye on a book­store ta­ble. Then, rif­fling through, I was in­vited to read by the hand­some lay­out and grace­ful text set in a clas­sic type­face, Gara­mond, and by the ec­cen­tric font of chap­ter head­ings. Each end­pa­per dis­plays an in­for­ma­tive an­tique map, while oc­ca­sional il­lus­tra­tions — por­traits of peo­ple and scenes de­scribed in the nar­ra­tive — of­fer di­vert­ing re­lief from un­bro­ken text. Con­grat­u­la­tions to de­signer M. Kris­ten Bearse and thanks to Pan­theon’s editors for elect­ing to go the ex­tra mile to make a book’s look en­hance its con­tent. Philip Kop­per, publisher of Pos­ter­ity Press Inc. in Bethesda Md., is the au­thor of “Amer­ica’s Na­tional Gallery of Art.”

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