A historian revisits a little-remembered incident, the murderous 1797 mutiny aboard HMS Hermione, and traces its startling ramifications.
Against the backdrop of revolutions worldwide, the Royal Navy vowed to hunt down the perpetrators of an “unprecedented barbarity.” Apprehended in Charleston, South Carolina, Jonathan Robbins, a ringleader in Hermione’s bloody business, was surrendered to the Royal Navy at the urging of Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, with the agreement of President John Adams and the grudging acquiescence of a federal judge. Subsequently hanged, Robbins became among the more unlikely martyrs in American history. A wedge issue avant la lettre, the extradition and execution of Robbins heightened the differences between the Republicans and Federalists in the 1800 presidential election, helped expose divisions within the Federalist Party itself, and perhaps accounted for Thomas Jefferson’s razor-thin margin of victory. Was Robbins, as supporters claimed, a Connecticut native, conscripted aboard a marauding British frigate captained by a despot? Robbins struck a blow for liberty, Republicans insisted, and then was denied due process and a jury trial. Or was he, as Federalists argued, really Irish, a British subject whose monstrous crimes required his surrender under the terms of the pertinent, if highly controversial, Jay Treaty of 1795? Ekirch (History/Virginia Tech; Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped, 2010, etc.) covers the mutiny in all its drunken, gory excess, tracks the worldwide hunt and capture of some of the perpetrators, and then offers a masterful dissection of the political consequences of the Robbins affair. The author is especially good on how the debate played out in the pages of the era’s highly partisan press. Careful to remind us that other issues figured prominently and contributed mightily to the vitriolic 1800 campaign, Ekirch nevertheless persuasively argues that “the ghost of Robbins” likely tipped the balance in Pennsylvania and New York.
The Robbins controversy featured arguments about alien rights, asylum, national identity, and the meaning and scope of American citizenship, all of which persist and all of which Ekirch handles with remarkable dexterity.