The story of an American hero in our backyard
By Seth Grossman, Political Columnist
This Labor Day Monday, thousands of visitors heading home from Ocean City will drive right by a 300-year-old house on a hill in Somers Point. At that same time, I and dozens of area residents will be in front of that house hearing the remarkable story of the national hero who grew up there.
Richard Somers was born in 1778, the year George Washington chased the British out of Philadelphia during the American Revolution.
Like most Americans back then, he finished school at age 16, with better knowledge of reading, writing, math, and science than most college graduates today. And like most teenagers back then, Somers then mastered a useful trade. Somers learned how to sail, and by age 19, he was in charge of sailing ships that moved goods between New York and Philadelphia.
America was a nation of unlimited opportunity back then. There were few laws that required licenses or permits and almost no taxes. Most young people were free to go into almost any business and earn and save enough to own their own farms, homes or businesses by age 30.
French pirates attacked American ships in 1798. The French government refused to stop them unless we paid bribes, or “tribute.” Americans were furious and shouted, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!”
And so Congress spent millions of dollars on warships for a new Navy. Somers, then 20, was one of the first to join.
In 1801, the Barbary States of North Africa declared war on America when we refused to pay them what they wanted to leave our people alone. President Thomas Jefferson sent our new fleet 5,000 miles away to fight them. Somers commanded one of those warships at age 23. He was typical of most American ship commanders who were also in their 20s.
At first, the Europeans ridiculed us for sending inexperienced “boys” to battle fanatic, veteran sea-fighters who had defied the most powerful navies of Europe for centuries. But those American boys amazed the world and quickly defeated or destroyed every enemy ship they faced. One remaining fleet fled to the safety of the harbor at Tripoli.
How did they do it? Some say the Americans were physically taller and stronger than the pirates because they grew up eating better and doing more physical labor. Others think it was because all Americans, not just the elites, were educated. Others think the Americans who grew up with freedom were better at recognized and promoting people based on talent, rather than birth. It was probably all of the above.
Somers tried to destroy that last enemy fleet by sailing a small ship packed with 15 tons of explosives into Tripoli harbor. But the ship exploded prematurely, killing Somers and his entire crew.
Although Somers failed in destroying the enemy fleet, he inspired the rest of the Navy to continue the war until the last kingdom of Tripoli agreed to stop attacking Americans.
A final detail is that this forgotten war in North Africa was America’s first war to end slavery.
Most Americans are painfully aware that for almost 200 years, millions of Africans were brought to America as slaves. But few are aware that during that same period of time, the Barbary Kingdoms of North Africa captured more than a million Europeans and some 12 million Africans and sold them as slaves throughout the Muslim world.
The war brought most of the Barbary slave trade to an end, and raised awareness of the need to end slavery in America as well.
Before leaving the Jersey Shore for the summer, hear this remarkable but forgotten story yourself. Come to the Somers Mansion in Somers Point at 1:30 p.m. Monday, and bring your family. Admission is free. For details, go towww.libertyandprosperity.org.
Seth Grossman is executive director of Liberty and Prosperity. Readers can emailhim at