Restoring Savannah to National Maritime Day

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This coming May 22, President Obama will proclaim National Maritime Day, in recognition of the American merchant mariners who have contributed so much to the prosperity of the United States. Unfortunately, there very likely will be a problem with the president’s 2014 proclamation: nowhere in it will he describe why May 22 was selected for National Maritime Day.

The answer is a simple one: on May 22, 1819, the steamship Savannah, under the command of Capt. Moses Rogers, departed on her epochal voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The Savannah’s successful crossing proved that artificially-powered vessels were not just a provincial innovation, but the beginning of a global revolution that would change the world forever.  

President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the importance of this achievement, and with the authorization of Congress, proclaimed May 22, 1933, as the first National Maritime Day. His proclamation clearly stated that it was the Savannah’s “material contribution to the advancement of ocean transportation” that formed the basis for selecting that particular date.

For the next 11 years, President Roosevelt made the same proclamation for every National Maritime Day. While the precise wording of each proclamation changed somewhat, mention was always made of the Savannah’s achievement.

Presidential successors Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson followed this tradition. So too did President Nixon for his first National Maritime Day in office, which was 1969.

But then, in 1970, Nixon (or more likely one of his aides) hiccupped: the text of the presidential proclamation for National Maritime Day that year made no mention of the steamship Savannah. This oversight was corrected in 1971, when the Savannah was mentioned again, as it would be in each proclamation for the rest of Nixon's presidency. 

Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan also followed the tradition, mentioning the Savannah in each annual National Maritime Day proclamation. At the end of his second term in office, President Reagan—with eight such proclamations behind him—offered the nation a farewell address that contained some wisdom for the ages: 

If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of that—of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.

With Reagan's thoughtful advice, the Savannah's place in the National Maritime Day proclamation may have seemed secure, as President George H.W. Bush mentioned her in each of his four proclamations, as did newly-elected Bill Clinton in 1993.

However, in 1994, the National Maritime Day proclamation signed by Clinton made no mention of the Savannah. But unlike Nixon in 1970, the omission of 1994 continued through the rest of the Clinton presidency. When George W. Bush became president in 2001, he followed this new tradition: none of his eight proclamations for National Maritime Day made mention of the steamship. President Obama maintained the status quo for his first two proclamations, omitting any mention of the Savannah.

Obama’s third proclamation would be different, however, thanks to the efforts of this author and some unknown messenger. In April 2011, I wrote an opinion editorial pointing out this ongoing historical amnesia, and sent it to five major news outlets in turn, asking each to publish the editorial with sufficient lead time to allow the president’s aides to alter that year’s proclamation accordingly.

None of the newspapers agreed to print the editorial, but somehow my message got through. The presidential proclamation for National Maritime Day in 2011 contained the following line: "On May 22, 1819, the SS Savannah completed the first successful voyage by a steam powered ship across the Atlantic, shepherding in a new age of maritime travel and transport."

At first blush, it would appear that the mission had been accomplished—but not entirely, for the Savannah did not complete her historic voyage on that date, but rather began it. In all likelihood, the source of the error was probably the same as the Nixon hiccup: a presidential aide didn’t check their work closely enough.  

For the 2012 proclamation, this mistake was nowhere to be seen, but then again, neither was any mention of the Savannah. For the third time in the history of National Maritime Day, all mention of the reason for selecting May 22 had been dropped from the proclamation. This renewed erasure of the Savannah continued with the 2013 proclamation as well.

But the presidential proclamation for 2014 can be different. After bouts of historical amnesia lasting one year (Nixon) and 17 years (Clinton-Bush-Obama), the president can cure the current two-year affliction by clearly stating in his proclamation that May 22 was chosen for National Maritime Day to commemorate the departure of Capt. Rogers and the steamship Savannah on their epochal voyage across the Atlantic.

In so doing, President Obama will be renewing the meaning of National Maritime Day, as originally envisioned by President Roosevelt. He also will be joining President Reagan in his appeal to remember those who came before us.

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