16
Feb
09

On This Day, February 16: Lt Stephen Decatur

February 16, 1804

The most daring act of the age

During the First Barbary War, U.S. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur leads a military mission that famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson calls the “most daring act of the age.”

In June 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ordered U.S. Navy vessels to the Mediterranean Sea in protest of continuing raids against U.S. ships by pirates from the Barbary states–Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripolitania. American sailors were often abducted along with the captured booty and ransomed back to the United States at an exorbitant price. After two years of minor confrontations, sustained action began in June 1803 when a small U.S. expeditionary force attacked Tripoli harbor in present-day Libya.

In October 1803, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli and was captured by Tripolitan gunboats. The Americans feared that the well-constructed warship would be both a formidable addition to the Tripolitan navy and an innovative model for building future Tripolitan frigates. Hoping to prevent the Barbary pirates from gaining this military advantage, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured American vessel on February 16, 1804.

After disguising himself and his men as Maltese sailors, Decatur’s force of 74 men, which included nine U.S. Marines, sailed into Tripoli harbor on a small two-mast ship. The Americans approached the USS Philadelphia without drawing fire from the Tripoli shore guns, boarded the ship, and attacked its Tripolitan crew, capturing or killing all but two. After setting fire to the frigate, Decatur and his men escaped without the loss of a single American. The Philadelphia subsequently exploded when its gunpowder reserve was lit by the spreading fire.

Six months later, Decatur returned to Tripoli Harbor as part of a larger American offensive and emerged as a hero again during the so-called “Battle of the Gunboats,” a naval battle that saw hand-to-hand combat between the Americans and the Tripolitans.

“The most daring act of the age.” 2009. The History Channel website. 16 Feb 2009, 10:33 http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=tdihArticleCategory&id=4768.

 

On This Day

1741 – Benjamin Franklin published America’s second magazine, “The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle”.

1857 – The National Deaf Mute College was incorporated in Washington, DC. It was the first school in the world for advanced education of the deaf. The school was later renamed Gallaudet College.

1862 – During the U.S. Civil War, about 14,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Donelson, TN.

1914 – The first airplane flight between Los Angeles and San Francisco took place.

1945 – During World War II, U.S. troops landed on the island of Corregidor in the Philippines.

1959 – Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba after the overthrow of President Fulgencio Batista.

1960 – The U.S.S. Triton began the first circumnavigation of the globe under water. The trip ended on May 10.

1970 – Joe Frazier began his reign as the undefeated heavyweight world champion when he knocked out Jimmy Ellis in five rounds. He lost the title on January 22, 1973, when he lost for the first time in his professional career to George Foreman.

1987 – John Demjanjuk went on trial in Jerusalem. He was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible”, a guard at the Treblinka concentration camp. He was convicted, but the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the ruling.

1999 – Testimony began in the Jasper, TX, trial of John William King. He was charged with murder in the gruesome dragging death of James Byrd Jr. King was later convicted and sentenced to death.

February 16, 1878

Silver dollars made legal

Strongly supported by western mining interests and farmers, the Bland-Allison Act-which provided for a return to the minting of silver coins–becomes the law of the land.

The strife and controversy surrounding the coinage of silver is difficult for most modern Americans to understand, but in the late 19th century it was a topic of keen political and economic interest. Today, the value of American money is essentially secured by faith in the stability of the government, but during the 19th century, money was generally backed by actual deposits of silver and gold, the so-called “bimetallic standard.” The U.S. also minted both gold and silver coins.

In 1873, Congress decided to follow the lead of many European nations and cease buying silver and minting silver coins, because silver was relatively scarce and to simplify the monetary system. Exacerbated by a variety of other factors, this led to a financial panic. When the government stopped buying silver, prices naturally dropped, and many owners of primarily western silver mines were hurt. Likewise, farmers and others who carried substantial debt loads attacked the so-called “Crime of ’73.” They believed, somewhat simplistically, that it caused a tighter supply of money, which in turn made it more difficult for them to pay off their debts.

A nationwide drive to return to the bimetallic standard gripped the nation, and many Americans came to place a near mystical faith in the ability of silver to solve their economic difficulties. The leader of the fight to remonetize silver was the Missouri Congressman Richard Bland. Having worked in mining and having witnessed the struggles of small farmers, Bland became a fervent believer in the silver cause, earning him the nickname “Silver Dick.”

With the backing of powerful western mining interests, Bland secured passage of the Bland-Allison Act, which became law on this day in 1878. Although the act did not provide for a return to the old policy of unlimited silver coinage, it did require the U.S. Treasury to resume purchasing silver and minting silver dollars as legal tender. Americans could once again use silver coins as legal tender, and this helped some struggling western mining operations. However, the act had little economic impact, and it failed to satisfy the more radical desires and dreams of the silver backers. The battle over the use of silver and gold continued to occupy Americans well into the 20th century.

“Silver dollars made legal.” 2009. The History Channel website. 16 Feb 2009, 10:26 http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=Article&id=4431.

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