Cruising down the Potomac on a pleasant day in late winter could serve as the backdrop for romance, despite the fact that your vessel is not a gondola or a sailboat but a U.S. Navy steam frigate, and despite the fact that practically every dignitary in Washington is along for the ride.

uss-princeton-explosion-grangerOkay, not so romantic, but if you’re the President of the United States, recently widowed, and you’ve just proposed marriage to an enchanting 20-year-old, it may be the best you can do. And so it was, that President John Tyler (Tyler Too of Tippecanoe-And fame), was on board the USS Princeton on February 28, 1844, for a demonstration of a fancy new 27,000-pound cannon lovingly called the Peacemaker. Julia Gardiner, whose yes vote the President was seeking, was there with her sister and father David, a wealthy New Yorker. The co-designer of the cannon, John Ericsson, was on board; so was the Secretary of War, other cabinet members, congressmen, political and business dignitaries, reporters and other various hangers on. An intimate little gathering. One can imagine 400 breaths being held in anticipation of Julia’s answer.

But first we must fire that cannon. Designer Ericsson tried to persuade, pleaded with, the ship’s captain not to actually fire the weapon before such a crowd, fearing it had not been adequately tested. The captain, however, was having none of it; he had a big audience and a big gun, and he was going to have a big bang. The Peacemaker was fired, and it made a jolly big noise, much to the delight of the audience who cheered and applauded and yelled for more (perhaps this is how wars are started). Once more, the cannon was fired and once more the giddy observers whooped, then they all headed below for toasts and libations.

The Secretary of War (being the Secretary of War) was too enthused to settle for just two shots (of either kind). He insisted that the cannon be fired once more in the direction of Mount Vernon, as a tribute to George Washington. (At the same time, he was probably counting on hidden fingers — Adams, Jefferson, Madison . . .) The cannon was fired, and the third time was not a charm. Mount Vernon was left standing, but the cannon itself exploded into the worst peacetime disaster in the nation’s short history, killing several on board including a couple of cabinet members and the father of the would-be bride. While others counted the dead left by the explosion, oddsmakers recalculated the President’s chances of getting the desired answer out of Julia.

The ship docked, and in a brilliant display of presidential heroics, Tyler carried Julia off to safety. Her answer was delayed a bit, but it was an affirmative, and later that year, Julia became Mrs. Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.

 

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