April 10, 2004

Freedom's mercenaries

Last weekend, the five year old and I toured the Stephen Decatur House Museum on Lafayette Park, quite literally a stone's throw from the White House. The five year old loved it, not least because the tour begins at what was once the back door of the house, where Decatur's ghost, it is said, used to be seen hurrying from the house carrying his dueling pistols (Decatur was killed in a duel). His apparition was also seen, so the legends go, staring pensively from his second floor window; he squeezed my hand a bit tighter as we went up to the second floor. Alas, the ghost made no appearance, but the thrill (in his mind at least) was ever present.

Decatur was a pirate hunter -- he took part in the smashing of the Barbary Pirates, and gained a reputation for valor and heroism in the process. (I recently picked up a copy of A Rage for Glory: The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur, USN by James Tertius de Kay -- I'm looking forward to reading it, but I should note that my knowledge of Decatur is fairly limited.) Given that pirates rate fairly high on the five year old's list of preoccupations, he listened in rapt attention to the tour guide, who, I should add, was excellent. Unlike some other Washington area tours I've been on, this one struck a fairly good balance between the importance of the historical figure to whom the house was attached and the architectural and design features of the building itself. My sometimes fidgety son never lost interest, which is a testament to the skill of the tour guide in making the house come alive.

The house itself is fantastic -- designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who also designed some of the interiors of the U.S. Capitol as well as working for a time with Jefferson on his plans for Monticello (according to the guide). I found it especially interesting to learn how Decatur paid for it: the privateers who went after the Barbary pirates were allowed to keep as prizes any pirate ships they captured. Decatur excelled in this lucrative business so much that he could afford to build a mansion a few blocks from the White House.

Posted by Ideofact at April 10, 2004 11:13 PM