Written mostly while the United States was engaged in World War II, these patriotic stories imagine the best of the American spirit during its formative years. From “The Day of Victory,” about a victorious George Washington meeting with his generals one last time to swap stories before they all return to civilian life, to “The Bookman,” about a tragic day during the Revolutionary War as experienced by a young boy, each story depicts common citizens standing against tyranny, and settlers searching for a better life. Passionate and beautifully written, Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel is one of Howard Fast’s best story collections, and a moving tribute to the aspirations of a new nation. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel
And Other Stories of a Young Nation
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1945 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
PATRICK HENRY AND THE FRIGATE'S KEEL
This 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 have been 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 time—Patrick 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, "—give 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 restrictions—such 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 Constitution.
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 Constitution 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.
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.
Excerpted from Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1945 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- I. Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel
- II. Rachel
- III. The Pirate and the General
- IV. Neighbor Sam
- V. Conyngham
- VI. The Brood
- VII. The Day of Victory
- VIII. Amos Todd’s Vinegar
- IX. Sun in the West
- X. The Bookman
- XI. The Price of Liberty
- XII. Not Too Hard
- A Biography of Howard Fast