The Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations 1851, better known as "The Great Exhibition of 1851", held in the Crystal Palace, London had but one purpose; to demonstrate the industrial, military and economic superiority of Britain, with an arrogant display of accomplishments.
There were some exceptional American exhibits, such as McCormick's remarkable reaper, which could cut about 8 times more corn that its two man crew could have handled with a scythe, but, in general, Britain succeeded in putting the exhibits of all other countries in the shade.
This was, of course, made clear to a population indoctrinated with “Rule Brittania” syndrome, by the newspapers of the time, who wrote many a condescending article. This excerpt, from the London Times of June, 1851, was almost sneering in tone.
Crossing now to the south side of the building, let our visitors look round the walls, dedicated to the produce of Vermont and Massachusetts. It is not much, to be sure, that they will see, but if the Americans have failed to display their manufactures, they at least exhibit themselves. Velut in speculum should be the motto of the compartment, for so numerous and life-like are the daguerreotypes that we could gaze upon the "United States worthies" as effectually as if we had got them within the reach of Rosse's telescope.
It was in connection with The Great Exhibition that the schooner America crossed the Atlantic. In John Cox Stevens own words:
An American yacht glided quietly into a British harbor, to take up a gage which had there been thrown down to all the nations of the civilized world.
She did not go to prove that Americans were better sailors than British sailors, she went to prove that American shipbuilders were superior to British shipbuilders.
At a dinner, held at the New York Yacht Club, in 0ctober 1851, to honour Stevens and his colleagues, Charles. A. Davis, second vice president of the club, drew attention to the name of the builder of the yacht America, George Steers and, referring to the remarkable skill and enterprise of American ship builders generally, offered this toast:
The mechanics and artisans employed in the construction and outfit of the yacht America, by their science, skill and taste, they have added honor to the country.
Contemporary reports say that this toasts was more warmly received, that the ones to the American President and Queen Victoria that had proceeded it!
In January 1852, a dinner was given in honour of George Steers. George Law, himself a self made man and shipbuilder, introduced him as "Mr. George Steers, constructor of the yacht America that 'whipped' every thing of British mould in their own waters."
George Law went on:
Gentlemen, I am happy to see that such an interest has been taken in a matter of so much importance to the country. The present century is one to which the peculiar excellence of naval architecture owes its fame. It has grown with the growth of the country, all that has been so deserving of our pride, and which we have so much reason to admire, belongs to the present century. As our nation got strength, this branch of mechanical pursuits grew to its present state of practical superiority.
During our struggle for independence, it is well known that the facility for bringing the means from England, which was desirous of trampling upon us, were but frail and imperfect; and through these imperfections on her part, we were enabled to develop our resources, we were enabled to contend with their power and to push our conquests till our liberty was gained.
Gentlemen, we owe to the mechanics a debt of gratitude, we owe to them much of that commercial greatness as a nation, which we now enjoy; for without that skill in constructing the ships in which our commerce is distributed throughout the world, we should indeed know but little of our present greatness which we now enjoy in that particular pursuit.
When the World's Fair was announced, when that invitation went abroad, when very pursuit was invited to present there the fruits of its labor and produce the results of skill and science; then it was that an occasion occurred for our mechanics in naval architecture to evince theirs; and the young man who had grown up with the growth of the upper part of our city, whose boyhood days were spent in the ship yard, where he gathered these lessons which were turned to such good account, while others probably were looking upon his attention as of no consequence, stood forward at that time. It might be well for us to look with respect and regard to those children who are now perhaps neglected, for in their minds the greatest results may yet spring up to our country.
There are those standing beside me, who know well from his infancy Mr. George Steers. I know how his skill was acquired; it was from constructing boats, as well as from sailing and from the practical skill which he thus acquired from both these combined.
Replying to a toast to George Steers, Mr. Theodore E. Tomlinson said:
Let us pass to another scene, England, yes, Great Britain, whom I sometimes see through Ireland's wrongs and through Easter oppression, and whom I sometimes remember by the bloody track of my father's foot in revolutionary times; England, I say, with unerring sagacity, seeing the destiny of the day, proposed to build a crystal palace to labor and invited the nations of the earth to send forth their workmen in rivalry with hers.
It was natural, very natural, that the people of the United States, believing themselves equal to all the people on the face of the earth, should endeavor to hold up emulation with that nation which claims the trident of the seas. To this young mechanic, to this illiterate boy, the power and the pride of the nation applied. This gentleman on my right (John Cox Stevens) asked him if he could build a boat of 150 tons which could beat any boat in the world and, with the pride of a native American, he said he could. Then the strongest shipwrights and ship owners of our city came to him and said, "Do the work, do the work." Imagine the agony of this unlettered boy, who, like the great Kossuth held an empire in his brain; and he built a boat to beat the world. Out of the void he created something unknown to beat all things known, to beat the landsmen, and the sailors, and the captains and the admirals of the earth. It was a glorious yacht, a mighty task.
The boat is launched, she has gone down to the sea. She goes to Havre, and there meets our American captains. God bless them, they are fit and worthy to uphold the flag; which floats over them. They said to him, "Stevens, we have not much credit at the great Fair; for God's sake, keep her strong and make her right; for if we are beaten, we are entirely done." Well, she goes to Cowes; there she meets seventy or eighty yachts, the pride of European labor and the ornaments of the English aristocracy; but he glanced at them with the eye of a mechanic and the consciousness of the strength and power of his own glorious craft.
On the 21st of August, the cup of all nations was offered to be run for by every species of craft in the world. You will remember that this was the signal of the great contest between America and Great Britain. They are gone, God speed the gallant bark, the prayers, the hopes, and the pride of the great nation were concentrated in the noble craft, better that she should go down to the depth of the sea than bring shame or defeat upon the nation. The Ambassador from our country was on board a steamer, the Queen of England, the gentle Queen was at the Needles, it is night, then comes up a sail, I see her walking; yes, walking in the waters, like a thing of lie, bright eyes are cast upon the flag, - three cheers from the land, freemen man her, the victory is won, the name of the victorious craft is America and her builder (pointing to George Steers) stands here.
America won the Cup with an English pilot and several Englishmen in her crew, nobody cared about nationality of sailors, the intention was only to establish the superiority of American shipbuilding skills.
We are, in fact, since the Interpretative Resolutions were annulled, after Alinghi won the Cup, already pretty close to the original Deed of Gift. If the requirement for a yacht to be constructed in the country of the competing Yacht Club were to be tightened up and extended to masts, sails, deck hardware etc, we would get even closer.
Would that bring back the feeling of national pride, of wanting to get behind your country's team, that many say is now lacking? It would certainly benefit the home industries, in various countries, by forcing technological development and that has to be a national plus, in line with the spirit behind the original challenge.
That leaves just one aspect of the Deed of Gift that we have not yet considered, in this series of articles; why did George Schuyler revise the Deed of Gift, in 1881, to include "In the interest of good seaworthy construction, the challenger be required to sail to the site of the match?"
To be continued ......