- - Wednesday, April 12, 2017



By A. Roger Ekirch

Pantheon Books, $30, 293 pages

A consensus 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 “two-bit 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, Maryland, is the author of “America’s National Gallery of Art.”

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