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Bill Thayer

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The Melancholy Excursion

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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The Barber's Shop
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p134  The Galley Politicians

"Their only labour is to kill the time —

And labour dire it is, and weary woe;

They sit, they lounge, turn o'er some idle rhyme,

Or saunter round with loitering step and slow."

By some knowledgeable and efficient authors, who are but little acquainted with the class of mortals whose feelings they endeavour to pourtray, sailors have the repute of being rude, eccentric, unpolished characters — possessing none of those fine qualities which grace and adorn the children of Adam who pursue their vocations on the shore. They consider poor Jack has no thought whatever beyond his glass of grog or his pigtail — but alas! they are egregiously in error; for believe me, you will find a heart as sensible to the dictates of true probity and honour, and as rife with those fine feelings of disinterested friendship, and unalloyed philanthropy, beating beneath the bronzed weather-worn tar, as you will beneath the gaudy trappings of granduer'sº haughty son. 'Tis true they are somewhat reckless in pursuing their orgies when on shore; but their close and restricted situation on shipboard for months and months together, ought, I should imagine, be some palliation for the fierce vigour with which they enter into their wild carouses.

The crew of a Yankee man-of‑war, presents as curious an amalgamation of Adam's descendants as can be well imagined — amongst them, you may perceive mechanics of every sort — from the unsophisticated tippling son of Crispin, to the loquacious wit‑cracking setter of types — from the sinewy iron-framed son of Vulcan, to the cadaverous pale-faced maker of muffins and crumpets — from the prodigal, broken-down blower of glass, to the rough-spun slayer of sheep and oxen. The articled clerk, tired of wielding his "gray goose-quill" — the fashionable black‑leg, completely "done‑up" — the quibbling pettifogger, whose chicanery had become odious to the public — the hero of the sock and buskin, whose benefits had  p135 produced but "a beggarly account of empty boxes" — the ignorant quack, whose multitudinous hyperbole in the columns of the daily papers, could not procure him a single patient of respectability — as well as the little gad‑fly of fashion, pursued by hungry and remorseless creditors — fly to the confines of a man-of‑war in their several difficulties; and here, in the friendly society of the rough, unpolished sons of Neptune, and amidst the unceasing turmoil of nautical life, forget in some measure the disquietudes and perplexities that assailed them on shore. Wonder not, then, that politics engross some part of their attention — that the affairs of the nation become an interesting topic, or that the debates of Congress are severely scanned and critically analyzed by the quidnuncs of our ship, at meal-times, or when enjoying the luxury of the well-filled pipe.

At this distant corner of the globe, communications from friends or acquaintances in the happy land of Columbia, are like angel's visits, "few and far between;" and poor Jack if he can but get a glance at a small batch of newspapers, twice within the twelvemonth, blesses his stars for his literary treat. On the tenth of September, a couple of large bags well filled with letters and packages of journals, arrived at Callao, (where we were then lying,) and were quickly distributed to their several owners. In a little time, in every part of the ship you could perceive our frigate's newsmongers on the alert, reading aloud Heralds, Suns, Expresses, and Brother Jonathans, to attentive crowds, who were swallowing with true relish their precious contents. The Boundary question, and the prospects of an approaching war with England, as well as the claims of the venerable Hero of Tippecanoe for the Presidency, were talked of loudly in every circle. Now on board a frigate, the precincts of the galley on the gun‑deck (the only part of the ship wherein they are allowed to smoke,) is the regular news-room; and here during meal hours, the events of the passing day, the nation's rise and fall, shin-plasters and the banks, and the political state of our beloved country, are as eagerly and enthusiastically argued, as if tens of thousands of dollars depended upon the issue of the debate. This spot  p136 was crowded more than ever upon the day I have above adverted to, and as it was the first news they had had of the serious appearance the boundary question had taken, they gave forth their opinions upon the subject loudly and emphatically. "So the lads in Maine are determined to stand Johnny Bull's encroachments no longer upon their property," broke forth a serious looking old tar, after reading a leading article from one of the journals just received on the subject of affairs in that state, written with true Yankee spirit; "them ere down-easters are not to be fooled with I tell you, and as for old Governor Fairfield, he's as hot as Chili pepper on anything that touches the privileges of his state; they're at loggerheads afore this, I'd bet my breakfast-grog." — "I don't believe a single word of it," cried old Bowser, the forecastleman; "believe me, 'tis all flummery, I've heard the same old story afore I shipped this time; do you think for the sake of a few acres of land they're going to have another war with England, with whom you may say we're now on the same footing as brothers? for my part I never wish to see it." — "Why, you're not showing the white feather already I hope, Bowser?" remarked Flukes, the maintop wag; "damme, if they do come to the brush, we'll give as good as they'll send, I promise you." "You're mighty fine at pitching a galley yarn, I hav'nt the least doubt, Mr. Flukes," replied Bowser; "and as for being scared at a mouthful of smoke or gunpowder, I've took too many doses of that stuff on this same old craft's gun‑deck last war, to be frightened at its spoiling my complexion this time of my life."

"Aye! aye! 'Old Ironsides' was on hand them times, mates; she done her share of the work in that last scuffle; and if things come to the push again, I'll risk my life, young as the crew are, she'll never tarnish the name she so gloriously gained in the last war; my eyes! do you think we'd let 'em take the Old Constitution from us; oh what a glittering bauble 'twould be in England's cap should such an event take place; no! no! shipmates, we've got a captain now, I can tell by the flash of his eye, that would clap a lighted match to the magazine and send us all to eternity together, rather than the 'nation's favourite' should become a trophy for the aristocrats of Britain  p137 to point exultingly their fingers at; and I say I glory in the 'down-easters' for upholding their rights; — you say 'tis but a trifle of land; but if proud, luxurious, selfish England once finds she can put her insatiate clutches upon that moiety whilst brother Jonathan looks on an idle spectator, she will not be satisfied; but still encroach inch by inch, and by-and‑by may endeavour to dance into the middle of Maine, expecting the soft green Yankees to pay the fiddler." The above pithy remarks were launched forth by an old quartermaster, who had the repute amongst the ship's company of being a bit of a scholar; and of course anything emanating from his lips was listened to with mute and serious attention. "But do you think, Binnacle, there's any prospect of a war?" enquired one of the smokers addressing the sea‑orator. "Indeed I don't think you'll smell gunpowder in anger this cruise matie, believe me, for all the newspapers make such a fuss about it; the efficient individuals who have the management of those affairs will examine every particle of the question scrutinously and seriously ere they sanction the declaration of war; for the sword once drawn from the scabbard where it has slept undisturbed, and where every one of sound policy ought to wish it to remain, may be crimsoned with the life-blood of some of Columbia's bravest and dearest warriors, ere it is again replaced in its peaceful sheath."

"Well, old soap‑suds, what is your opinion of matters and things in general?" broke forth Pat Bradley, addressing himself to our ship's sable barber, who, ensconced behind the galley funnel, was eagerly conning over the contents of a Weekly Herald, taking ever and anon a slight whiff of a "Spanish wrapper," which he held between two fingers of his dexter hand, with all the air of a Broadway man of ton; "what think you of this rumpus they talk so much about? — you had better look sharp old boy, or you may lose that woolly cocoa‑nut of yours before you reach Yankeetown; those twenty-four and thirty‑two pound shot are not very pleasant things to be whistling about a fellow's countenance, I tell you." "I don't think such a thing will ever occur," responded the man of the razor, "for in my opinion Britain and Columbia are so concatenated by the  p138 ties of ancient consanguinity, that I don't think 'tis consentaneous to the rule of nature to have recourse to a sanguinary conflict; for although they are endeavouring, I may say, to extravasate us from the land which it is our bounden duty to keep inviolate and unapproachable, yet I think when some of our members of Congress equiponderate the affair with due attention, it will be brought to an amicable adjustment; that's my opinion on it." "Well done, Snowball!" dried our old friend Garnet — "If that ain't going the whole figure on dick I wonder at it; 'tis a pity you didn't study divinity in your young days, instead of learning how to scrape the bristles off the human countenance; my eyes! what a moving discourse you could pitch forth to a congregation." "Aye! you say true, Bill,' cried Flukes; such jaw‑breakers as he's let out just now would have a very moving effect certainly; for if he preached in that style, precious few would remain to hear the ·last of his sermon."

"What about the election?" enquired old Bowser of our fashionable barber; "I see you've got all the news there to yourself; do you think old Tippecanoe will rouse Van Buren out? — from what I've heard, I think he'll be President in spite of everything." "And the fittest one in my humble opinion," responded the old quartermaster; "I don't see how they could do less for General Harrison than place him in the Presidential chair, after wasting the pith and sap of his sturdy limbs in his strenuous exertions to drive the rash‑led minions of England's glittering diadem from our invaded shores; after blanching the ruddy glow of his manly cheek in pursuing the ruthless blood-thirsty Indians, whose scalping-knives were reeking with the life-blood of the tender mother and her innocent offspring; after undergoing all those privations and hardships which fall to the lot of a brave and daring soldier, whose only aim is his country's prosperity, and though now furrowed o'er with honourable age, every throb of his heart still for that country's weal; why should not the American people then, calling to their recollection his former achievements, place him Chief Magistrate over the nation? the rights of which he so fearlessly endeavoured to uphold. I say William Henry Harrison for President."

 p139  "I second the motion, Binnacle," responded old Bowser; "I hav'nt the least doubt but what he'll do something for the blue jackets when he becomes President." "Faith then, maties, I think 'tis about time they did do a little for them, in all conscience," remarked Pat Bradley; "they've talked about it long enough in Van Buren's time; and if I thought General Harrison would be that way inclined, he should by all means have my vote." "I hope he ain't a cold-water man," cried Garnet, "or he may be for clapping a stopper on our whiskey." "You'll find," remarked the old quartermaster, "that Harrison can take the nation's helm, and steer as good a trick as any of his predecessors." "The nation's helm — what do you mean? never thought we had a ship in the Navy of Uncle Sam by that name before," cried old Shakings, the captain of the hold; "but I suppose she's one of them new ones as was launched since we left." "You mistake me, Shakings," replied the political man of bunting; "let me tell you, placing a President at the head of the nation, is like putting a man at Old Ironsides' wheel when running in for a dangerous anchorage, with a lubberly helmsman; it is first hard a‑starboard, then hard a‑port, and perhaps before you know it you are plump in the mud or slap on the rocks; the President of the United States has to humour the nation, as a good steersman would a ship in a time like this; he has to luff and keep her off, as occasion may require; he has to keep his eye continually ahead to avoid all shoals and breakers; and when he finds she won't lay her course, or that she has stood long enough on one tack, he must without more ado brace up the yards or heave her in‑stays, and try every means in his power to steer clear of the difficulties that may surround him; and I think, maties, old General Harrison is the man that can steer our glorious Republic clear of the political mercenaries and cringing hirelings, who, like rocks and quicksands, encompass our nation on every side, without yawing one quarter of a point from the true course."

Thus did our tars expatiate with fervent zeal in their own trite and unsophisticated manner, upon the present state of affairs in our beloved country, until the sharp clang of two bells, together with the reverberating voices of the boatswain and his mates, quickly dispersed the several knots of galley politicians.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21