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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Stephen Decatur, A Nation's Hero

Born in 1779 to a prominent Philadelphia family, Stephen Decatur was reared in the traditions of the sea. His father had been a successful privateer during the American Revolution and assumed command of a naval vessel when the official American navy was established in 1798. At the same time, young Stephen Decatur embarked as a midshipman aboard the new frigate United States. It took him only a year to be commissioned as a lieutenant.

Decatur's first real act of heroism came during the Barbary Wars of 1801-1804. For decades the North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli had seized ships, crews, and passengers all over the Mediterranean Sea and held them for ransom. European nations avoided such incidents by paying an annual sum of protection money, or tribute. Both Presidents Washington and Adams had followed that custom, but President Jefferson balked at the idea. Tripoli declared war on the United States in May 1801, and Jefferson sent a naval squadron to the Mediterranean. The war dragged on with few victories for either side. Then in 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur performed a bold act. Under cover of darkness, he and 10 sailors slipped into Tripoli Harbor and set fire to the captured U.S. frigate Philadelphia guaranteeing that the ship could not be used by the Tripolitans against the Americans. His feat earned him a promotion to captain, and also the praise of Lord Nelson, England's greatest naval hero, who proclaimed it "the most bold and daring act of the age." The deed has been memorialized by the phrase in the Marine's Hymn: "to the shores of Tripoli."

During the War of 1812, Decatur and his men captured the British ship Macedonian, and brought her back as a prize to the safe shores of the United States. In 1815 Decatur commanded a squadron to Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli where he secured agreements forever ending U.S. payment of tribute to the Barbary States. After both triumphs, Decatur's exploits were widely described in newspapers. Greatly admired for his courage and cleverness, Decatur was honored with public dinners in New York and Norfolk, and presented with gifts of silver from Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Until the mid-19th century, captors of enemy vessels were entitled to receive a portion of the proceeds earned from the sale of the cargoes of captured ships. Decatur accumulated quite a generous sum through his exploits. With this prize money in hand, and with his appointment as a Commodore who would serve on the Navy Board of Commissioners, Decatur and his wife Susan came to Washington in 1816. Many people were eager to entertain the Decaturs, holding celebration dinners in the hero's honor. The reciprocal parties and dinners the Decaturs gave after they built their mansion on President's Park initiated the tradition of Decatur House as a focal point for Washington society.

The Commodore's reputation was that of a man with an engaging personality and good conversation. His wife charmed their guests with her intellectual achievements and her talent in playing the harp. Both were excellent hosts, and a party at Decatur House was always considered a notable event.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What actions made Stephen Decatur a national hero?

2. How did he become wealthy?

3. Why did Decatur settle in Washington and build his stately home there?


Reading 1 was adapted from Royana Bailey Redon, "Commodore Stephen Decatur," in Decatur House, edited by Helen Duprey Bullock (Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1967) pp. 39-46.

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