The Random Chance of History

On the last episode of P+C, we talked about a case from 1797 which actually never made it to the Supreme Court, and how that case led to the doctrine that the President is solely responsible for the conduct Foreign Affairs. We live with that “Sole Organ” doctrine today, as even recent Presidents have cited John Marshall’s speech in Congress defending President Adams’ actions in the matter as justification for basically ever foreign incursion that an Administration can dream up. I am not convinced that the Framers meant for this to happen, but the fact is that they were still in charge when the doctrine was set.

All that is amazing to me, and hopefully, that came across in the episode.

After the show, I ordered a book (used) from Amazon, “American Sanctuary,” by Professor Roger Ekirch, which deals with this story and how it not only led to the doctrine but really to the development of a national identity for Americans. All I can say is, “Holy crap!”

Look, nothing happens in a vacuum, I get that. But it’s amazing how many people are just trying to do their jobs the best way they know how where they are, who end up changing history. The Captain of the Hermione should never have been in that post in the first place. That he was there, was simply a matter of a British Admiral who took a liking to the Twenty-four-year-old Frigate Captain and put him in in a place that he thought would be harmless, while protecting him from facing a potential Courts Martial by the British Admiralty, more than 4000 miles away in London. In fact, Captain Pigot was supposed to take his ship home to England, pretty much everybody knowing that he needed a break.


A few months before, he had managed to have a collision with an American merchant ship that he was escorting (this was normal under a treaty). Losing his mind over things, he had the American merchant skipper dragged aboard his Frigate, the HMS Success, and had him whipped and flogged.

Yes, you read that correctly. A Royal Navy Captain essentially had an American Merchant Captain beaten over a collision which – to this day – nobody really knows what caused. In front of his own crew and the American crew.

Naturally, the United States was pretty upset about it and complained loudly and bitterly. But at the end of the day, President Washington really wasn’t willing to go to war with Britain over one Frigate Captains anger issues. On the plus side, the British Minister to the United States, Robert Liston, got wind of what was happening, and let the King and the Admiralty know about it, which started the ball rolling on an investigation. A new Admiral was dispatched to the West Indies to take over.

As I said, the new Admiral took a liking to the extremely young Captain Pigot. His own investigation found that Pigot was good at capturing prize ships, resulting in a good deal of income to the Admiral, who took the job in Port Royal because he knew that he could get rich. Pigot was putting money in his pocket, and that, as much as typical British elite snobbishness (to whom Pigot was related), led him to find that Pigot was completely innocent and blameless in the matter.

In the meanwhile, the HMS Success was badly in need of a refit and was scheduled to return to England for repairs. Pigot himself admitted that he needed a vacation, and the assumption was that he would take the Success back home for a few years or rest and refit.

That’s when history got in the way. The Admiral was concerned. Even though he had cleared Pigot in the matter, the turbulence being caused by the Liston, the Minister to the United States, was still creating waves back home. It was entirely possible that if Pigot returned home, he could still face a Courts Martial. The Admiral had no idea what the leaning of the Admiralty was, nor the political pressures being brought on the Crown and the Admiralty. In truth, he needn’t have worried at all. The Admiralty accepted his finding and the United States, while angry and making noise, was also being clear that it wasn’t worth a war.

Not knowing any of that, the Admiral needed a solution to protect his favorite Captain. So… he simply switched two Captains out. He put Pigot on the famed HMS Hermione, and her Captain took over the HMS Success to return home. It looked – on paper – like a win-win-win. Pigot would continue – with the best ship in the fleet – to put money in his pocket; he was safe from the Admiralty and the highly regarded and successful Captain of the Hermione got a special reward, to go home for an extended leave.

And that is how the HMS Hermione ended up with a man as Captain who was too small for the moment. The rest, as they say… is history! 


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