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People: Matthew Calbraith Perry

Matthew Calbraith Perry, the Commodore who led the American squadron in their expedition to the China Seas and Japan, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on April 10, 1794. As the son and brother of naval officers, he seemed destined to make his mark in the American Navy. In 1809, aided by a letter of recommendation from his father, Revolutionary War naval officer, Christopher Raymond Perry, he obtained an appointment as a midshipman. After training for two months, he joined his brother, Lt. Oliver Hazard Perry on the schooner Revenge. Oliver Perry is known best for the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 where he was the first American to defeat an entire British squadron and return to base with all the ships in the American fleet. Younger brother, Matthew Perry, did not achieve as much glory as his brother in the War of 1812, but was promoted to acting lieutenant and was assigned to protect the New York harbor in case of British attack.

While in New York, Perry met and married Jane Slidell, daughter of John Slidell, a prominent merchant. During a furlough from the Navy, the Perrys started a family and Perry gained experience on merchant ships with his father-in-law John Slidell.

After three years on furlough, Perry returned to active duty and built a distinguished naval career. Between 1833 and 1843, he commanded the Brooklyn Navy Yard and focused on several projects: sailor's conduct and health, naval education, and steam power. Perry believed strongly in the power of steam, stating in 1838 "the destinies of Nations are henceforth to be in a great measure controlled by a power of which steam will be the great governing element." His advocacy of steam engines earned him the title of "Father of the steam Navy." In 1846, when the United States instigated a war with Mexico, Perry lead the largest American naval force up to that point in history. With the conclusion of the war, Perry returned to his work with steam power. While involved with the building of mail steamers he developed an interest in Japan.

Relations with Japan served American interests since Japan could act as a station for Pacific mail runs and for American ships in need of supplies and thus help with the expansion whaling. As early as 1850, President Millard Fillmore's administration considered an official expedition to Japan. Perry was appointed to the East India Squadron in December 1851 and the following January started planning for the expedition. He collected all the materials available to him about Japan so that he would be acquainted with the country and customs of the Japanese people. One historian has written that "Perry understood that ceremonial events, lively entertainment, wine and spirits, and a good food played a part in naval diplomacy," and thus prepared accordingly by enlisting an Italian bandmaster, a French chef, and stocking copious amounts of food and alcohol. Perry also recognized the importance of the expedition in terms of science. He enlisted the aid of a botanist, Dr. James Morrow, as well as artists Wilhelm Heine and Eliphalet Brown Jr, to record the expedition, pictorially, including all plants and animals encountered by the Americans.

By November 1852, Perry was well prepared for the journey and departed for the Pacific seas on November 24. Two years later, Perry completed his mission by securing a treaty with Japan. He returned to the United States in 1855 as a diplomatic hero.

(Much of the material for this section and all of the quotations are from: John H. Schroeder, Matthew Calbraith Perry: Antebellum Sailor and Diplomat [Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001], pp. 68-9.)

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