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Monday, January 7, 2013

An American Ship in Distress (1841) by Thomas Birch

American Ship in Distress (1841)
Thomas Birch (1179-1851) was considered one of the first American painters to focus on maritime paintings. He completed a number of great works on the War of 1812 and the shipping industry in general. An American Ship in Distress (1841), was a large work depicting a ship that is in a hazard state after a major storm. The mast, sails and the rigging of the ship were destroyed. You can see a lifeboat being dropped into the water and the approach of two ships to help the crew. At this time the American Navy was almost non-existent and could not lend assistance.

Thomas Birch immigrated to American in 1794 with his father William Birch. William made his living as painter and engraver. Both moved to Philadelphia where the family settled. Thomas's works often focused on the cultural advancement and the national economic strength of shipping in the New World. His works were copied by many admirers in the U.S. and Europe. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a particular fondness for his work.

During this time Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794 for $888,888 to build the first six frigates of the U.S. Navy. These ships were designed to engage other frigates but be faster than ships of the line which had higher levels of firepower. The Revolutionary War left the country in high debt, and lacking money for ship repairs, the nation sold its last ship in 1785.

Continued harassment of American merchant ships by the Barbary Pirates, France and England put additional pressure to create some counterbalance to the world powers that knew Americans had no way of defending themselves at sea. After Portugal and Algeria made peace, 11 merchant ships were captured. The pressure to act was high. In January 1794 Congress authorized the American Navy and the building of the frigates.

The first civil rights case made national news and importance in 1841. African slaves aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad rebelled against the crew near Cuba and overtook the ship. In 1840 the U.S. Federal Court determined that carrying slaves across the sea was illegal. This led into an 1841 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the African Slaves were not slaves but actually free men and women. The U.S. provided transportation back to their home country.

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