Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation (2 page)

BOOK: Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation
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Now the captain of the
Constitution
was a man by the name of Isaac Hull. He was nobody's fool, and he couldn't help seeing all the trouble the
Constitution
caused. At first, he wasn't quite sure of things; but once when he was down in the hold inspecting the keel timbers, he heard a sound like the noise of men singing. It came from the keel, and when he put his ear close to the wood, he heard the song of liberty. He was a hard-headed Yankee, but he had lived through the old times, and when he was a boy he had seen the tongues of flame leap from patriots' eyes. So notwithstanding that he was a hard-headed Yankee, he listened and while he listened he found things out. He listened until he had the whole story, right from the time Patrick Henry had seated himself to rest. Isaac bent over and laid his hands on the wood, and he kept them there until he found himself throbbing with the spirit of liberty. Then he went up on deck and cried out to the helmsman, “Steer for the port of Boston!”

Then he stood by the prow, and the vessel turned like a thing alive and bounded for Boston town.

Well, you never heard a town mutter and nag the way Boston town did when the
Constitution
sailed into port. You would never have thought that this was the place where they had manufactured great things, like the American Revolution. They sat in the coffee houses and complained, “He should have known better than to run the blockade … Now he's in, he'll never get out … Old Isaac's a thickhead, no mistake … He ruined the little navy we have … They're like to keep him bottled up here the rest of the war …”

Old Isaac smiled and nodded, and invited a few of the leading men in town to come aboard his vessel. He led them down into the hold and told them to listen. They listened, and memories of the old days returned. They heard the singing of an old tune called “Yankee Doodle.” They heard the soft voices of men sitting through the winter at Valley Forge. Some of them remembered. Then they heard the song of a chase, telling them how on the way to Boston, the
Constitution
had scampered away from an entire English squadron, as if there were no wind except for her own sails.

Among these leading men of Boston, there was one old man whose name was Paul Revere, a keen Yankee businessman with a nose for new industries, like smelting copper. Well, he listened with scornful eyes, the way a hard-headed Yankee's eyes should be, and he heard a sound different from the other sounds; it was like the drumming of a horse's hoofs, the cry of the horse's rider shouting, “Awake! Awake! The British are coming!”

Well, those leading men went back to Boston, and with them they took a breath of the spirit of liberty, and you never saw anything like the change that came over the Boston townsfolk. They toasted Isaac left and right, and they toasted the
Constitution
, and they flocked on board, and then they flocked back to town laughing at the British navy.

As my grandmother said, Isaac saw that he had spent enough time setting Boston town back on its feet, and that it was time for him to go out and lick the British navy good and proper. So he set his sails and rode out of Boston harbor with his glass at his eye.

Now meantime, the British were having a good laugh at the American navy. They pointed out that the
Constitution
was hardly more than a bundle of pine boards with some striped bunting over it, and hardly worth engaging with anything more than a catboat. They were in a rare mood for humor.

So was old Isaac, for that matter, and he kept his glass glued to his eye until he sighted the
Guerrière
, an English frigate of some thirty-eight guns. He invited her to battle, and she swung to meet him. Isaac waited until the two vessels were within pistol shot of each other, and then he opened with all guns. Fifteen minutes later, the
Guerrière
was foundering. Her mizzen-mast was shot away, her hull was splintered and her rigging was torn to pieces. Now the
Constitution
fouled her, plucked off her bowsprit and shot away her mainmast.

She surrendered, and, looking at his own ship, which was hardly damaged, Isaac muttered something about its being a beginning. The
Guerrière
was too damaged to save.

Isaac sailed to New York, then, for he thought that there was a place where the breath of the spirit of liberty was sore needed. There, until Isaac anchored his vessel, it was the same as it had been in Boston, muttering and grumbling and no faith in anything. But when Isaac had been there a day or two, what with men of the city coming on and off the frigate, the tune was changed.

After that, Isaac sailed back to Boston, but the news of his victory had preceded him. They gave him a banquet and they toasted him, and none was better in the toasting than Paul Revere himself.

Well, the way my grandmother tells it, Isaac could see that the spirit of liberty was coming back into the land, and since he had already got enough to last him, it was time another stepped onto the poop deck of the
Constitution
. So he gallantly surrendered command of her to Captain William Bainbridge.

By now, there was no lack of patriots, because the spirit of liberty was being spread up and down the land. Right off, you could see the change, the way people pricked up with hope. However, certain men knew the story of Patrick Henry sitting down to rest, and these men were worried that perhaps the
Constitution
might sink one of these days and take the spirit of liberty along with it.

They went to Bainbridge and they warned him solemnly, and then they went below with him, into the hold of the
Constitution
, where he laid both his hands on the wood of the keel. Then he knew things that he hadn't known before.

It may be that my grandmother was wrong about the
Java
; but she said that this English frigate was the finest vessel England had ever launched upon the seas. All of shining steel were her cannon, laid over with gold to show England's majesty and pride; all of rich mahogany was her woodwork, and her stern was inlaid with gold and ivory. They built boats differently in those days, and you can see where such a vessel would sneer at the
Constitution
, which was only pine boards and some teak.

When Bainbridge came in sight of the
Java
, the proud English officers aboard her laughed and wondered whether it paid to struggle with such a poor enemy. But Bainbridge bore down on them, and soon not even laughter could be heard above the thunder of guns. And at first things didn't go too well with us, for the steering gear of the
Constitution
was shot away.

Then the spirit of liberty came out of the keel and filled the sails, and the
Constitution
rode without a rudder, pouring her shot into the
Java
.

That battle lasted a long time. With the defeat of the
Guerrière
, England had only been humbled on the seas, but the loss of this second frigate would be a fearful blow. As my grandmother says, the English sailors felt the spirit of liberty and lost heart. The battle lasted about two and a half hours, and when it was over, the
Java
hauled down her colors.

Well, Bainbridge returned to Boston, and there wasn't enough that they could do for him. The country had shaken off its despair, and almost every person you met had some small part of the spirit of liberty that old Isaac Hull had loosed from the
Constitution
. You wouldn't believe that a thing could be spread so thoroughly and so quickly. In the taverns, in the coffee houses, everywhere, they spoke of nothing else. As for the
Constitution
—well, people went around saying that we didn't need a navy so long as we had the
Constitution
.

You may be sure the British didn't take all this too well. Here, for hundreds of years they had been talking about the staunch wooden walls of England; here, for longer than any man could remember they had been sole masters of the seas, and here they were no longer masters of the seas, but made to look very foolish by a single crew of Yankees. It wasn't as if a navy had defeated them, because you couldn't rightly call the
Constitution
, just one frigate, a navy. The English looked around and said to themselves, “Time to do something, else we'll be the laughingstock of the whole world. These Yankees are such confounded upstarts that first they take a country away from us, and now they're running our navy off the seas with a bundle of pine boards.” That was just about what they said to themselves, and they were pretty hot.

As my grandmother says, they began to look around and see just what was what. They sent their men into America, and told them to find out just how the
Constitution
was built, and also to find out about this Yankee stubbornness that made them up and lick a person who had them down. They sent them mostly to Boston, not only because the
Constitution
was anchored there, but because in those times everyone knew that Boston was a prime place for manufacturing gunpowder, revolutions, uprisings and minor struggles for the rights of man. Well, the Englishmen came to Boston, snooped around, spoke to one person and another, visited places like Paul Revere's shop, Breed's Hill, where the Battle of Bunker Hill had been fought, and the old belfry tower. But with all their visiting, they couldn't find out anything except that the
Constitution
was built mostly of pine.

Now the Englishman is kind of stubborn himself, and a lot of people say that's where the Yankee stubbornness came from originally and that once a good many Yankees were English—although my grandmother doesn't think so. Anyway, these Englishmen kept on until they got to visit the
Constitution
, and by passing themselves off as Virginia men, they got down into the hold where they heard the voice of the spirit of liberty. Some say that listening to this voice, they remembered a man whose name was Wat Tyler, and something else called the Magna Carta. That may be so.

When these Englishmen came back to England, King George called them up and said, “Now, what is it those Yankees have that makes them so confounded annoying?”

“Why, Mr. King,” they answered, “it seems that down in the hold of that frigate they call the
Constitution
, they have the spirit of liberty.”

“What spirit of liberty?” King George wanted to know, thinking that most of this was stuff and nonsense.

“Why, the same spirit of liberty we had at one time, Mr. King, only it seems kind of used to America and talking up their ways.”

Well, the king hemmed and hawed and finally dismissed them, and maybe he had them punished a bit for taking in so much Yankee nonsense. Only, as my grandmother says, he got to thinking afterward that perhaps there was something to their talk. He didn't want the spirit of liberty back, but he thought it would be a good thing if it were put away at the bottom of the ocean where it couldn't raise any rumpus. So he let it be known around, here and there, that it would be a good thing if the
Constitution
were destroyed.

When the good people of Boston town heard that, they laughed, and all up and down America there was more of the same kind of laughter. By this time, they were so filled with the spirit of liberty that they just didn't have any doubts. They knew that England was merely talking big, and they knew that all the English navy couldn't chase the
Constitution
from the seas. It got to be that you would bump into a patriot in America every few steps you took, and they were the real old-fashioned kind of patriots, with fire flashing from their eyes; and if you sat down in any coffee house, offhand, you could sit all night and listen to talk about the rights of man. Things were picking up.

Now the people of Boston got ready to send the
Constitution
off again, and this time it was under the command of Captain Charles Stewart. You might think that Will Bainbridge and old Isaac would have been unwilling to give up command of the ship that way, but in those old days men were different. The spirit of liberty got into them, and they thought more about their country and freedom than they did about themselves. So Will and Isaac, who had had enough of the spirit of liberty, were glad to let Charley Stewart take his turn at it.

Well, the sails filled, and the
Constitution
scudded away with the ropes singing “Yankee Doodle.” People said that the
Constitution
raced over the waves like a bird, and at the prow, scanning the horizon for a British vessel, was Charley Stewart.

You may be sure that it wasn't too many days before a British boat was captured. And then another. And then she sailed back to Boston harbor, the British glad enough to be rid of her. My grandmother says that old King George became so nervous that all you had to do was to mention the
Constitution
and he turned white as a ghost. It even got to a point where a good many Americans began to feel sorry for the British, the way their whole proud navy was being run off the seas by just one old pine-board frigate.

Well, it went on that way, with the
Constitution
capturing boat after boat until the war was over. The British sort of curled up and granted that it wasn't any use fighting with stubborn, senseless Yankees. They made their peace with us, and the
Constitution
sailed into Boston harbor, and the people cheered their heads off at her. They cheered for a long time, and then they got some rope and tied the frigate up to a dock.

As my grandmother says, people have a way of forgetting. You wouldn't believe how quickly they forgot about the spirit of liberty and about Patrick Henry sitting down to rest on the keel timbers of the
Constitution
. Instead, they were picking apart Patrick Henry's speeches, to show you that he didn't really mean what he said.

Time passed, and things weren't so bad as long as some of the spirit of liberty remained in some of the people. These people kept things going. But about that time, the country began to spread, and it was a wonder to see the way people flocked west and kept flocking west. Folks got spread out, and along with that the spirit of liberty became thinner and thinner.

BOOK: Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation
13.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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