Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why We Remember Richard Somers

Commemoration set for 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17 at Somers Point City Hall

This Saturday, Sept. 17 at 11 a.m.,, the Somers Point Historical Society and the city government of Somers Point will jointly sponsor a program to remember Richard Somers.

He was born in 1778 in Somers Point when it was part of Egg Harbor Township. Somers and 12 others were killed 26 years later, on Sept. 4, 1804, when their ship, the Intrepid, exploded in Tripoli harbor, while trying to destroy the ships of Arabs who were killing, robbing, and enslaving Americans. This was because we were the only non-Muslim nation with ships in the area that refused to pay them tribute (protection money).

We invite you and your family to attend this event at City Hall, New Jersey Avenue and Shore Road in Somers Point. There is no admission charge. However, also invites you all to a fund-raising lunch immediately afterward at nearby Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar for $25 per person, $30 per couple.

The story of Richard Somers is interesting and relevant to Americans today for many reasons. At one time every American learned about him in elementary school. But today, very few know much about him – even in Somers Point.

Somers was typical of that first generation of Americans who grew up right after the Revolution. He, like almost all American children then, mastered basic reading, writing, and arithmetic by age 12, even though there were no taxpayer-funded public schools.

Back then, Americans in every community volunteered enough time and money to give every child a basic education. They also formed volunteer associations for libraries, fire, and police protection. As a result, Americans paid almost nothing in taxes and kept almost everything they earned.

Like most young Americans then, Somers also learned the skills he needed to earn a living by the time he was a teenager. As a child, Richard Somers learned to sail small boats up and down the river between Somers Point and Mays Landing. As a teenager going to high school in Philadelphia, he worked summers as the captain of ocean-going sailing ships carrying goods between New York and Philadelphia.
In those days, only property owners were qualified to vote in most states. But since only property owners paid taxes, even those without property thought this was fair. Why should people who paid no taxes elect officials with the power to decide how much the people who did pay taxes should pay?

Besides, almost everybody in New Jersey owned property back then except young people starting out. Unlike in Europe, Americans did not need special licenses or permits from the government to clear fields for farms or build homes, factories or workshops. With unlimited opportunity and almost no taxes, most Americans became prosperous property owners by their mid-20s. Women usually married then, and were partners with their husbands.

But in 1798, 20-year-old Richard Somers chose a far different life. French pirates were attacking and robbing American ships near the Caribbean. When the French government demanded payoffs to stop the attacks, Americans shouted, “Millions for defense! Not one cent for tribute!” Congress responded, spending millions of dollars to build warships and a new Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., to teach Americans how to use them. Richard Somers and his school roommate Stephen Decatur were among the first to enroll in Naval Academy.

As midshipmen (students), they served on the new American ships that crushed the French pirates within a few months. Then they both made their careers as navy officers.

Three years later, warships from several Arab kingdoms in North Africa captured American ships, seized their cargoes, and sold their crews and passengers into slavery or held them for ransom. In 1801, Congress gave President Thomas Jefferson permission to send our new navy across the Atlantic to fight them. We Americans would not be like the Europeans who paid off the pirates to leave their people alone.

Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur were each 23 years old when they were put in command of their own warships. But they and the other young Americans out-sailed and out-fought the fanatical, experienced, and well-equipped Arab sea fighters until every Arab kingdom in North Africa except Tripoli (now Libya) made peace with America.

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