This book, Six Frigates
, just gets better.
In my initial notes I praised the Nelson stuff - simply because I know something about him and thought it was done well. And of course every schoolchild is well-versed in the Quasi-War
nowadays. But the book does a really impressive job of educating the reader on how post-Revolutionary Americans worked and thought, and walks you through the disillusionment and awakening of its leaders to the need for international engagement and the need for the ability to project force far from our shores. Isolationism, in this telling, died long before 1812 - around the time French privateers - reporting to a revolutionary government - were pulling into Chesapeake Bay to take Prizes.
Here are some highlights:
- There was a significant debate on whether to have armed forces at all (Adams and Jefferson both hated standing armies, and navies are expensive
). Some saw a darker agenda at work - William Maclay of Pennsylvania viewed the decision to build frigates as pretext to impose taxes, hire "a host of revenue officers", and then "farewell freedom in America."
- The original position was straight-up neutrality. Why should free men favor one tyrant over another? But as events progressed Hamilton's warning from the Federalist Papers
began to look prophetic: "a nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral".
- The discovery that - with Europe convulsed by war - you could make a LOT of money moving stuff around in ships... "A 250-ton merchantman - a ship with the capacity of about six modern ocean containers - would cost $15,000 to $20,000 to build, fit out, and provision. One successful voyage in the war years would clear that much in profit for the owners. When a six month voyage would pay for an asset with a useful life of twenty years, the economic incentives driving men to trade on the sea were irresistible."
- The discovery that our beloved France, after helping America win its freedom, had just a few years later drifted into revolution (great!), class violence (oh no!), regicide (well we weren't suggesting that
, exactly), to systematically attacking America's coastline.
- The realization that American ships around the world would be seized by pirates, and their crews sold into slavery
. The Pirates of Algiers claimed to hate all Christians, but accepted protection money. Yes America, you have to pay too, welcome to the real world. Unless you want to do something about it
The whole narrative really clarified something for me. American political thought grew out of a self-centered world view. We were free on our land, and fought against those who tried to impose tyranny upon us. But in so doing, we picked up a sword no nation had ever picked up before (which is why this speech
works on Americans and hardly anyone else). And when we tried to put it down again we discovered we couldn't. And since then every war fought by the United States of American has been framed as a struggle between free men against tyrants.
Now, the British had been doing this for hundreds of years already, but always in the service of an imperialist commercial enterprise. It was, of course, transparently propagandistic - England was a monarchy and had a class system rivaled only by India's.
So, while America defined itself in opposition to British tyranny, the class system, and colonial/imperial priorities, it picked up some of the narrative threads of the British Empire. When Jack Aubrey calls Napoleon "The Tyrant", we know whose side we're on. Funny thing, I just realized - Lord Cochrane, like us, found it hard to put the sword down again
This shared world view - in which we take up arms in defense of the freedom of others - could well be straight up delusion. It is hard to distinguish the modern America-centered global trading network from that of the British Empire. Was it all just a dream? Must the invisible hand take us from The Patriot
to The Phantom Menace
so swiftly and so surely?
Or is there some way to be free, to take arms against tyrants, and not become monsters ourselves?
As our President said on an unrelated matter: "let me get back to you on that."