Authors: Howard Fast
Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel
And Other Stories of a Young Nation
For Rachel Ann Fast
Â Â Â Â
II.Â Â Rachel
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IV.Â Â Neighbor Sam
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V.Â Â Conyngham
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VI.Â Â The Brood
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IX.Â Â Sun in the West
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X.Â Â The Bookman
The author wishes to thank the editors of
The Saturday Evening Post, The American Magazine, Esquire, Coronet, Elks Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Woman's Home Companion, and Woman's Day
for permission to reprint those stories which originally appeared in their pages.
PATRICK HENRY AND THE FRIGATE'S KEEL
spirit of liberty must have wandered in Europe for a good many years before it came to America, but it came to America a long time ago, so long ago that my grandmother couldn't say who brought it here originally. And my grandmother had this story from someone else's grandmother, and she from another, and none of them could remember who brought the spirit of liberty to America.
But they all knew about Sam Adams and Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and each of them when he had the spirit of liberty did great things. So Sam Adams started a fuss, and Benjamin Franklin nursed it, and George Washington got to be called the father of our country, all because at one time or another they had the spirit of liberty within them. As my grandmother said, without the spirit of liberty they might havebeen just like you and me; but my grandmother couldn't say exactly what the spirit of liberty was, although she told me a lot about it.
Well, it seems that George Washington met Patrick Henry the day before Henry was to make a speech, and they shook hands and had a few words together, although Washington didn't think too much of him at the timeâPatrick Henry being just a young upstart who was trying to be an orator. But the next day Patrick Henry rose and made a great speech, which ended, “âgive me liberty or give me death.” As my grandmother said, you could see right there that the spirit of liberty went into him and he was destined to do great things.
Well, after that, on and off, there were doings in America that made the world sit up and take notice. Of course, they didn't know about the spirit of liberty getting in and out of so many people in the thirteen colonies; they thought it was just a kind of disease broken out, and they rooted for England to win, but England didn't have a chance against the spirit of liberty. Patrick Henry got about the country, talking and shaking hands with a great many people, and he spread the spirit of liberty pretty thoroughly. But Patrick Henry had something about him that made the spirit of liberty come back to him again and again. That was all well and good while he was alive, because he got around. You might say that there never was a time before or since when the spirit of liberty was spread so thoroughly. It did things, and all of a sudden there was a new nation with a lot of strange ideas about men being free.
Well, time passed; the Revolution was over and the new nation sort of settled down. And Patrick Henry began to get worried. By this time, he knew that the spirit of liberty was in him, and he began to think seriously about passing it on to somebody else. He began to think that soon he might die, and the spirit of liberty might die with him. It was enough to bring a man down with worry.
He could see that the spirit of liberty had been with him too long. Things weren't getting better; they were getting worse. The thirteen colonies were biting and snarling at each other like cats and dogs, and they were like to split apart and go up like dust. He got to traveling desperately up and down the land, but it didn't do any good.
He became old before his time with the great burden he had carried, which no longer did him any good and couldn't do anyone else much good. Then he decided to make a trip to Boston, which had always been a rare, fine place for someone to take up the spirit of liberty. He got to Boston, but Boston had changed. Patriots no longer walked about with fire shooting out from under their brows. There was no longer talk of righting wrong and freeing men from the bonds of slavery. It was enough to make a man who loved liberty hang his head with shame, and it drove Patrick Henry to despair.
The good Boston men talked of ships and commerce and profits, and the price of cotton in the South and the price of corn in the North, and tariffs and trade restrictionsâsuch talk until Patrick's head buzzed. And wherever he went in the fair town of Boston, in coffee house or tavern, it was the same. And it was no use for him to shake hands with men, because the spirit of liberty stayed with him. He got to see that there was really no one left in Boston who was interested in the spirit of liberty. It hardly seemed possible.
He looked up Paul Revere, and Paul Revere talked eagerly of new methods of smelting copper. Sam Adams was away being governor. John Hancock was dead, and Patrick Henry wished that he too had not lived to see such a thing as this.
All the length and breadth of Boston it was just as though the Revolution had never been fought.
Well, a tired and saddened old man, Patrick Henry walked down to the waterfront where the shipyards were. There, all was activity; men spoke of brigs and barques and far Cathay, but never a word about liberty.
He wanted to rest. He came to a place where they were building a ship; only the keel had been laid, great timbers of teak, soaked with pitch, rich with a warm smell that did the old man's heart good. He sighed and sat down on the keel. Some of the ship workers glanced at him, but they didn't ask him to go, he was such a fine-looking old gentleman.
Now while he was sitting there, it happened to him. A great and heavy load was lifted from his heart, and he didn't have to think twice to know what had happened to him. The spirit of liberty had gone out of him. The great burden was gone. He could have laughed aloud for joy, and he glanced about eagerly to see who had become the proud owner of the heritage. Then his heart sank. There was no one near him. The ship workers had gone on working, just as if nothing had happened.
For a moment, all hope disappeared. He decided that the spirit of liberty had left him and dissipated itself. It was gone for good.
That for a moment, and then he heard the sound. At first, he couldn't tell where the sound came from, and then he realized that it was in the wooden timbers of the keel he sat on. It was the sound of many things: it was the sound of wind strumming the ropes of a ship; it was the sound of men shouting triumphantly; it was the sound of guns roaring; it was the sound of the storm driving everything before it; and through it all, thin and clear, there was the voice of liberty.
He stood up, and he went to one of the shipyard carpenters. “What ship will that be?” he asked the carpenter, and he pointed to the keel.
“Ain't no ship,” the carpenter snorted, with contempt at a landsman's ignorance. “They reckon her to be a frigate. They reckon to build a frigate for a navy and stand up to England, but I call it a waste of taxpayers' money. One vessel ain't a navy and one vessel ain't goin' to stand up to England. Why don't they leave England alone and mind their own business? Times is good now and business booming.”
Patrick Henry smiled curiously, went back to the keel, and listened. But there was no sound now; night began to fall, and the bare timbers seemed to mock at what he had heard before, if indeed he had heard it.
As my grandmother said, he didn't know, and he died without knowing whether the spirit of liberty had left him and gone into the timbers of a frigate. He left Boston, and it was two years later that he died.
As my grandmother said, it seemed that the spirit of liberty was just about gone for good.
You can well imagine that things in the country went from bad to worse. Those who had known and been possessed by the spirit of liberty at one time became old and died. While they lived, they sighed and tried to make their peace with conditions. But it was hard. A new generation of smart alecks had grown up; they talked about the Revolution as a lot of nonsense that shouldn't have happened; they spoke of the old men as old fogies who couldn't keep up with the times. They made a mess of things all around.
Time passed, and the nations of the world, who at first had had a lot of respect for the young republic, sat back and laughed. They could see where we were just a flash in the pan, and they waited for England to take back what she had lost.
Maybe England sensed that the spirit of liberty was just about gone and forgotten, because she didn't waste any time. She realized that here was her chance to wipe out all this nonsense of America, and in order to do that, she needed a war. America wasn't anxious for war, but England began to prod her, and she kept on prodding her. Perhaps if things had been as they were in the old days, America would have bluffed back and settled it all without war.
Anyway, war came. As my grandmother said, people never realized that the spirit of liberty was gone until the war started. Then they woke up and looked around for the spirit of liberty. They ran to Paul Revere's shop, but it was closed down, with a “For Rent” sign out. They looked up the Liberty Boys and found that the society had been dissolved. They tried Independence Hall in Philadelphia and found it wasn't any better than a museum.
That was the way things stood, and England didn't waste any time. She had decided on a naval war of hard, smashing blows, and she had the largest, most powerful navy in the world to back up her demands. For years, she had been lording it over the seas with that navy, impressing American seamen to work her ships, doing just about as she pleased. Now she struck, and the first thing Americans knew, their capital city was taken and in flames. Well, after that, most people considered that it was all over, and those who had any hope asked feebly why there was no navy, and whether one couldn't be built. A few persons kept looking around for the spirit of liberty.
Now all this time, the spirit of liberty had not been in the country at all. Instead, it had been locked up in the timbers of a little frigate that was just about all the navy the United States had. She wasn't anything unusual, this frigate, just a vessel of fifteen hundred tons, and built much the same as most frigates in the French and British navies. She carried fifty-two guns and sailed nicely. Her name was
Up to this time, she had been mostly away from America, sailing here and there, and stirring up a nest of trouble wherever she went. As my grandmother said, this was because of the spirit of liberty, which had been in America so long that European people had kind of forgotten what it was like. But now, wherever the
touched, she left some of that spirit, until all Europe was buzzing like a hornet's nest. Of course, they didn't know what was doing it; they didn't know about Patrick Henry sitting down to rest in the Boston shipyard. They took all this as a natural thing and thought it was their own cleverness that made them whisper around that men should be free.