Two centuries ago, the European world awaited what would become of the curious American experiment that had popped up on the other side of the Atlantic. Just 38 years prior, delegates from each of the 13 colonies from Georgia to Massachusetts declared their independence from King George III and five years after that defeated his forces at the Battle of Yorktown with the help of the French navy. The United States of America was born.
But how that country would operate and under whose influence was a question that would not be decided until the War of 1812. In the early part of September 1814, with the British Armada aiming its guns at Baltimore, residents here were unsure how it would all turn out. The nation’s capital to the south lay in ruins, and a ragtag group of volunteers, regular soldiers and militiamen were left to defend Fort McHenry against the coming British onslaught.
To any student of history or baseball fan, the outcome of the Battle of Baltimore was clear. As memorialized in the verses penned by Francis Scott Key — that “star-spangled banner” still waves “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” — America was not only here to stay, but would be unencumbered by the petty politics of Europe.
The Monroe Doctrine would formally spell out diplomatically this notion of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, but lost in the popular history are the contributions of individual patriots whose names are not enshrined in the various doctrines or upon declarations, constitutions and anthems of the time.
Were it not for the actions of two Jewish Americans, the story of the United States’ final throwing off of European chains and the nation’s early history might have been vastly different. Mendes Cohen, the subject of a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, was among the defenders the night of Sept. 13, 1814, when the British ships began their barrage on Fort McHenry. As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the bombardment nearly succeeded in destroying the fort, but a quick-thinking Cohen and two other men saved the installation’s gunpowder when a British bomb fell on the fort’s magazine.
Cohen would go on to travel the world, becoming in the words of the Jewish museum, a “Forrest Gump” of his time. But the city of Baltimore and the country have much to be thankful for in the self-sacrifice and dedication of Cohen and the rest of Fort McHenry’s defenders.
So too does the nation owe a debt of gratitude to Uriah P. Levy, a Jewish sailor who served in the fledgling American Navy, as Baltimore came under attack. Rising through the ranks — he is remembered at the U.S. Naval Academy, where the Jewish chapel bears his name, as Commodore Levy — he did away with flogging as a punishment in the Navy and given his own bitter experience with anti-Semitism as a sailor, he helped turn it into the inclusive force it is today.
Levy’s words, memorialized at the academy, provide a window into immigrant thinking and speak of the duty that all Americans, but especially its minorities, share in ensuring the continuation of this great country: “There will be other Hebrews, in times to come, of whom America will have need. By serving myself, I will help give them a chance to serve.”