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Liberty on the Waterfront

American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution

By Paul A. Gilje

Publication Year: 2011

Through careful research and colorful accounts, historian Paul A. Gilje discovers what liberty meant to an important group of common men in American society, those who lived and worked on the waterfront and aboard ships. In the process he reveals that the idealized vision of liberty associated with the Founding Fathers had a much more immediate and complex meaning than previously thought.

In Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution, life aboard warships, merchantmen, and whalers, as well as the interactions of mariners and others on shore, is recreated in absorbing detail. Describing the important contributions of sailors to the resistance movement against Great Britain and their experiences during the Revolutionary War, Gilje demonstrates that, while sailors recognized the ideals of the Revolution, their idea of liberty was far more individual in nature—often expressed through hard drinking and womanizing or joining a ship of their choice.

Gilje continues the story into the post-Revolutionary world highlighted by the Quasi War with France, the confrontation with the Barbary Pirates, and the War of 1812.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Dedication Page

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiv

Few words are more central to understanding the American past than “liberty.” But few words have been more contested and ambiguous. Nonetheless, the Founding Fathers believed that the purpose of government was to ensure each man his liberty through protection...

Part I: Ashore and Afloat

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pp. 1-94

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1. The Sweets of Liberty

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pp. 3-32

Horace Lane first went to sea when he was ten years old. By the time he was sixteen he had been pressed into the British Navy, escaped, traveled to the West Indies several times, and witnessed savage racial warfare on the island of Hispaniola. Although he experienced...

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2. The Maid I Left Behind Me

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pp. 33-65

William Widger lay imprisoned by the enemies of his country. This sailor in the American Revolution had tried his luck as a privateer aboard the brig Phoenix. His luck ran short, and the British captured him and sent him to Old Mill Prison in England...

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3. A Sailor Ever Loves to Be in Motion

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pp. 66-94

John Ross Browne should never have gone to sea. He was, after all, a twenty-one-year-old gentleman with some education who had served as a reporter in Washington, D.C. In the summer of 1842 he wanted to see the world, sought to make his fortune...

Part II: Revolution

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pp. 95-191

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4. The Sons of Neptune

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pp. 97-129

John Blatchford told a fantastic story. He had signed aboard the Continental ship Hancock as a fifteen-year-old cabin boy in June 1777. He returned to his home on Cape Ann as a grown man sometime after the Treaty of Paris of 1783. In between...

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5. Brave Republicans of the Ocean

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pp. 130-162

James Durand almost mutinied. He believed that there was a contradiction between a “government which boasts of liberty” and the autocracy of the quarterdeck. He complained bitterly of the midshipmen, no more than mere boys, who ordered grown men around...

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6. Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights

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pp. 163-191

Samuel Leech knew the horror of naval warfare. When he was fourteen years old he served as a powder boy attached to the fifth gun of the main deck of the HMS Macedonian. On October 25, 1812, his sleek frigate was pounded by the American...

Part III: Legacy

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7. Proper Objects of Christian Compassion

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pp. 195-227

The Reverend Henry Chase cared about sailors. He began his missionary work on New York’s waterfront in 1820, serving the newly opened Mariner’s Church on Roosevelt Street. He also labored up and down the rough-hewn streets of the Fourth and Seventh Wards...

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8. The Ark of the Liberties of the World

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pp. 228-258

Herman Melville was a sailor. His reasons for seeking work at sea were complex: part necessity, part tradition, and part wanderlust. Born the scion of two distinguished families, he grew up in affluence. After he reached adolescence the family’s fortunes took a turn...

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pp. 259-264

Perhaps Herman Melville best captured the spirit of the ambiguity and contradictions of Jack Tar in the portrayal of the heroes in two of his shorter novels: Israel Potter and Billy Budd. The one was a patriot of the American Revolution; the other, although English...


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pp. 265-268


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pp. 269-323


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pp. 325-339

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pp. 341-344

Over the years that I have worked on this project I have been repeatedly asked how I could write on a maritime subject while living in a land locked state. The answer is simple: with a lot of help from my friends—institutions, libraries, and people...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202021
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812219937

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies