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The Reestablishment of the Navy, 1787-1801
Historical Overview and Select Bibliography

NAVAL HISTORY BIBLIOGRAPHIES, NO. 4

 

Historical Overview of the Federalist Navy, 1787-1801

First Naval Legislation under the Constitution


"Without a Respectable Navy--Alas America!" wrote Captain John Paul Jones of the Continental Navy early in the American Revolutionary War.1 After the United States won its independence, however, Congress, under the Articles of Confed- eration, was too weak to maintain more than a token armed force. The United States had financed the war through huge foreign loans and by issuing paper money. Without taxing power, the Confedera- tion could not pay off the debt. Although the government possessed one tremendous asset, western lands, it would take time to translate that asset into cash. For the present, the Confederation government could not afford to maintain a single warship. The last ship of the Continental Navy, the frigate Alliance, was sold in 1785, and its commander, Captain John Barry, returned to civilian life. The navy disappeared and the army dwindled to a mere 700 men.

The infant Republic's military weakness further convinced American nationalists of the necessity of adopting a new constitution that would increase the authority of the national government, particularly by giving it the power of taxation. The issue of naval power, itself, produced little debate during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The frame of government proposed by the convention gave Congress power to raise money to "provide and maintain a navy," which implies a permanent naval establishment, as constrasted with the power to "raise and support armies," which suggests that armies would exist as temporary expedients. Whereas the Constitution restricted army appropriations to two years, it left the term of naval appropriations unlimited. Navies were not thought to pose the same threat to political liberty as did standing armies. After all, as Thomas Jefferson had once observed, "a naval force can never endanger our liberties, nor occasion bloodshed; a land force would do both";2 or, as James Madison would argue in favor of ratification of the Constitution, a navy could "never be turned by a perfidious government against our liberties."3

"If the new Constitution is adopted, as there is reason to expect," John Paul Jones wrote in December 1787, "America will soon be a very respectable Nation; and the creation of a Marine Force will necessarily be among the first objects of her policy."4 Despite his wishful reasoning and the initiation of the ratified Constitution in 1789, when Jones died in 1792, the only naval force the United States possessed was the Revenue Cutter Service, a forerunner of the United States Coast Guard.

The clear necessity of defending the nation's seaborne commerce finally moved Congress to create a naval force in the spring of 1794. With the beginning of the wars of the French Revolution in 1793, British warships began interfering with American trade with France, and French warships with American trade with Great Britain. Another source of genuine danger to American commerce came from corsairs of North Africa's Barbary Coast. Raiders sailing from the ports of Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis had long forced European powers either to maintain naval squadrons on station in the Mediterranean or to pay annual tribute to assure non-interference with merchant shipping. Previous to the American Revolution, American merchantmen in that region enjoyed the protection of the British government, but that protection evaporated with independence. In 1785 Algerine corsairs made their first seizures of American vessels, two merchantmen, taking twenty-two passengers and crew members prisoner. Congress declined to pay ransom, and by 1793 six of the prisoners had died in captivity. In 1793 Portugal, whose navy had been keeping the Algerine corsairs within the confines of the Mediterranean, signed a truce with Algiers. Soon after, Algerines sailed into the Atlantic to prey on American merchantmen. Before the end of the year they held over 100 Americans prisoner.

Congressional debate on the wisdom of reviving the navy began in earnest at the end of 1793. In his annual address to Congress on 3 December, President Washington spoke in general terms of the nation's need to prepare to defend itself: "If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace..., it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War."5 A few days later, news reached Philadelphia of the truce between Portugal and Algiers, opening the way for Barbary corsairs to cruise the Atlantic and imperil trade with much of Europe. On 16 December the President forwarded to Congress documents on the unsatisfactory negotiations with the Barbary Powers. In response to these events, the House of Representatives resolved on 2 January 1794 "that a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided," and appointed a committee to prepare a report on what kind of naval force would be necessary to deal with the menace. On 20 January 1794, committee chairman Thomas Fitzsimons, a Federalist from Pennsylvania, reported a resolution to authorize the procurement of six frigates, a force thought sufficient for the purpose.6

Despite the real threat to American commerce, congressional approval of naval legislation was far from certain. By the 1790s some theorists of republican government were arguing that navies posed greater dangers to liberty that did armies. They maintained that the major expence of constructing, fitting out, and manning warships meant large expenditures and mounting taxes, and they considered this transfer of wealth from the people via politicians into the hands of a few to be a source of political corruption. Influenced by these beliefs, several congressmen spoke in opposition to the proposal to procure six frigates. Some surmised the Algerines were acting on behalf of the British and that going to war with the former would risk an Anglo-American war. They thought that paying tribute would be wiser and cheaper than building a navy. One congressman even suggested the alternative of hiring the Portuguese navy to protect American commerce. Opponents of the naval measure also questioned whether the six frigates proposed would be adequate to the object intend- ed, and whether negotiation would not be a less costly and more effective means of attaining the desired end.

The pro-navy side was strengthened when the President sent documentation supporting his view that a navy was essential, and by the almost simultaneous arrival of distressing news that the British had prohibited all neutral trade with the French West Indies. The "Act to provide a naval armament," authorizing the President to acquire six frigates, four of forty- four guns each and two of thirty-six, by purchase or otherwise, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of fifty to thirty- nine. Those Congressmen who voted in favor came principally from cities that depended on maritime trade, and from the northern and eastern regions. Opponents came from rural areas, the south, and the frontier. The act passed the Senate and was signed by the President on 27 March 1794.

Secretary of War Henry Knox, responsible for the construction of these ships, reported to Congress in December 1794 that the passing of the act

created an anxious solicitude that this second commencement of a navy for the United States should be worthy of their national character. That the vessels should combine such qualities of strength, durability, swiftness of sailing, and force, as to render them equal, if not superior, to any frigates belonging to any of the European Powers.7

His succinct phrase, "this second commencement of a navy for the United States," summarized the resounding significance of this act. The "anxious solicitude" felt by the nation's leaders led to the design and building of superb ships of war.

Construction of the First Six Frigates

Without a Department of the Navy, implementation of the 1794 naval legislation fell to the Department of War, headed by Secre-tary of War Henry Knox until 1795, Timothy Pickering from 1795 to 1796, and James McHenry from 1796 to 1798. After consulting several persons knowledgeable about warship construction, including John Foster Williams, a captain in the Massachusetts Navy during the Revolution; John Barry, Continental Navy captain; Joshua Humphreys, a Philadelphia shipbuilder; and James Hackett, shipbuilder for the Continental Navy at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Knox made recommendations to Washington on 15 April 1794, which the President accepted immediately. Rather than purchasing merchant ships and converting them into men-of-war, an option under the act, Knox recommended the construction of new frigates designed to be superior to any vessel of that class in European navies. To keep labor costs down, government employees rather than by private contractors would build the ships, and construction sites would be distributed geographically in order to spread the economic benefit and win popular support. "It is just and wise to proportion . . . benefits as nearly as may be to those places or states which pay the greatest amount to its support," Knox advised. Although it might be cheaper to build the frigates successively in a single place, "a few thousand dollars in expences will be no object compared with the satisfaction a just distribution would afford."8

The President approved six construction sites: Portsmouth, N.H.; Boston, Mass.; New York, N.Y.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Baltimore, Md.; and Gosport (Norfolk), Va. At each site, a civilian naval constructor was hired to direct the work. Navy captains were appointed as superintendents, one for each of the six frigates. John Barry, last officer of the Continental Navy in active service, received commission number one as first officer in the new United States Navy.

Construction of the First Six Frigates

Site         Frigate       Guns Superintendent    Naval Constructor
Portsmouth   Congress      36   James Sever       James Hackett 
Boston       Constitution  44   Samuel Nicholson  George Claghorn 
New York     President     44   Silas Talbot      Forman Cheeseman 
Philadelphia United States 44   John Barry        Joshua Humphreys 
Baltimore    Constellation 36   Thomas Truxtun    David Stodder 
Gosport      Chesapeake    36   Richard Dale      Josiah Fox


Because of the difficulty of gathering supplies and the decision to build major structural components out of live oak, which had to be harvested in southern forests, construction proceeded slowly. In March 1795 Secretary of War Timothy Picker- ing prepared a list of ten suggested names for the ships. It is likely that President Washington was responsible for selecting five of them: Constitution, United States, President, Constellation, and Congress. Chesapeake's name was designated some time later.

The warships were still being framed when, in early 1796, word came of a negotiated peace with Algiers, at the cost of nearly one million dollars, which included payment of ransom for the American prisoners and the cost of building the 32-gun frigate Crescent for the Dey's fleet. The act authorizing the six frigates had called for a halt in construction in the event of peace with Algiers, but President Washington urged Congress to extend authorization to complete the six frigates.

Congress approved the completion of only three of the frig-ates. The other three would remain in their partially constructed state. Accordingly, on 20 April 1796 the President signed the "Act supplementary to an act, entitled 'An act to provide a naval armament.'" Under the terms of the 1796 act the frigate United States was launched at Philadelphia on 10 May 1797; the Constellation, at Baltimore on 7 September 1797; and the Constitution, at Boston on 21 October 1797.

In his last annual address to Congress in December 1796, President Washington urged "the gradual creation of a navy" for the protection of the country's commerce.9 Nevertheless, during the ensuing year Congress remained divided over whether to allow the three new frigates to fit out and man in preparation for duty at sea. In July 1797, however, the French government's disdain for American rights to trade with France's enemies prompted Congress to authorize the President to man and employ the three frigates.

France had been America's major ally in the War of Independence, and without its assistance the United States may not have won independence. But the new government of Revolutionary France viewed a 1794 commercial agreement between the United States and Great Britain, known as Jay's Treaty, as a violation of France's 1778 treaties with the United States. The French increased their seizures of American ships trading with their British enemies and refused to receive a new United States minister when he arrived in Paris in December 1796. In his annual message to Congress at the close of 1797, President John Adams reported on France's refusal to negotiate and spoke of the need "to place our country in a suitable posture of de- fense."10 In April of 1798 President Adams informed Congress of the infamous "X Y Z Affair," in which French agents demanded a large bribe for the restoration of relations with the United States. Outraged by this affront to national honor, on 27 April 1798 Congress authorized the President to acquire, arm, and man no more than twelve vessels, of up to twenty-two guns each. Under the terms of this act several vessels were purchased and converted into ships of war. One of these, the Ganges, a Philadelphia-built merchant ship, became "the first man-of- war to fit out and get to sea [24 May 1798] under the second organization of the Navy."11

In March 1798, overworked Secretary of War James McHenry brought before Congress the problem of his responsibility for naval affairs. Naval administration had become a significant portion of his department's work, as it had for the Department of the Treasury, which oversaw all the Navy's contracting and disbursing. The Department of War also had received congressional criticism for what was seen as the mismanagement and the exces- sive cost of the naval construction program. In addition, the growing trouble with the French induced Congress to authorize an increase in the size of the navy and raised the possibility that the navy would be called on to confront French privateers.

In response to the obvious need for an executive department responsible solely for, and staffed with persons competent in, naval affairs, Congress passed a bill establishing the Department of the Navy. President John Adams signed the historic act on 30 April 1798. Benjamin Stoddert, a Maryland merchant who had served as secretary to the Continental Board of War during the American Revolution, became the first secretary of the navy. One historian writes that Stoddert "was a classic Navalist" who "desired an American navy which could, not only protect commerce, but which would increase American prestige."12

On 28 May Congress authorized the public vessels of the United States to capture armed French vessels hovering off the coast of the United States, initiating an undeclared Quasi-War with France. That conflict led to the rapid passage of several pieces of naval legislation. An act of 30 June gave the President authority to accept ships on loan from private citizens, who would be paid in interest-bearing government bonds. On 9 July Congress authorized U.S. naval vessels to capture armed French vessels anywhere on the high seas, not just off the coast of the United States. This act also sanctioned the issuance of priva- teering commissions. Two days later, the president signed the act that established the United States Marine Corps. On 16 July Congress appropriated funds to build and equip the three remain- ing frigates begun under the Act of 1794: Congress, launched at Portsmouth, N.H., on 15 August 1799; Chesapeake, at Gosport, Va., on 2 December 1799; and President, at New York, N.Y., on 10 April 1800.

Quasi-War with France

Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert realized that the navy possessed too few warships to protect a far-flung merchant marine by using convoys or by patrolling the North American coast. Rather, he concluded that the best way to defeat the French campaign against American shipping was by offensive operations in the Carribean, where most of the French cruisers were based. Thus at the very outset of the conflict, the Department of the Navy adopted a policy of going to the source of the enemy's strength. Nevertheless, by 1799, in response to teh merchant's insistent demands for protection, naval vessels were convoying merchant ships in the Caribbean in addition to cruising against the enemy.

When Stoddert became secretary in June 1798, only one American naval vessel was deployed. By the end of the year a force of twenty ships was planned for the Caribbean. Before the war ended, the force available to the navy approached thirty vessels, with some 700 officers and 5,000 seamen.

The highlight of the first year of the undeclared war was the capture by Thomas Truxtun's Constellation of the French frigate l'Insurgente in February 1799. In addition, American naval vessels seized nineteen French privateers during the winter of 1798-99. The French challenge to American naval forces increased late in 1799 as six French warships arrived in the Antilles with instructions to intensify the commercial war. The American squadrons responded aggressively. Constellation fought to a draw the more powerful la Vengeance on 1 February 1800. Silas Talbot engineered an expedition in the Puerto Plata harbor in St. Domingo, a possession of France's ally Spain, on 11 May 1800 in which a naval force under Lieutenant Isaac Hull cut out the French privateer Sandwich from the harbor and spiked the guns in the Spanish fort. By the end of the war American ships had made prizes of approximately eighty-five French vessels. American successes resulted from a combination of Stoddert's administrative skill in deploying effectively his limited forces and the initiative of his seagoing officers.

Although they were fighting the same enemy, the Royal Navy and the United States Navy did not cooperate operationally, nor did they share operational plans or come to mutual understandings about deployment of their forces. The British did sell the American government naval stores and munitions. And the two navies shared a system of signals by which to recognize each other's warships at sea and allowed merchantmen of their respective nations to join their convoys.13

By October 1800, aggressiveness of the cruisers of the United States Navy, as well as those of the Royal Navy, combined with a more conciliatory diplomatic stance by the French toward America, produced a reduction in the activity of the French privateers and warships. In mid-December 1800 news reached Washington that a peace treaty with France (Convention of Mortefontaine, 30 September 1800) ended the Quasi-War.

The war highlighted several weaknesses in the fledgling navy, both in the shore establishment and in the operational forces. Problems arose in procurement, provisioning, manning of ships, delegation of authority, and planning for an extensive campaign. Squadron commanders learned that they required smaller ships to pursue enemy privateerws in shallow waters. Many of the merchantmen converted into men-of-war proved to be poor sailers. During the first year of the war, Stoddert did not fully coordi- nate the rotation of vessels refitting in port with those on stations requiring relief. By restricting the enlistments in the navy to one year, Congress effectively limited the time that ships could remain deployed. The leadership qualities among Stoddert's senior officers varied widely and politics and personal jealousies often stymied his attempts to assign them the the navy's best advantage. One of the navy's senior officers, Captain Isaac Phillips, was dismissed for permitting a British officer to board his ship, USS Baltimore, and press several seamen.

Despite these problems, the newly reestablished United States Navy acquitted itself well during the Quasi-War and succeeded in achieving its limited goal of stopping the depredations of the French corsairs against American commerce. In the war, the navy proved itself an effective instrument of national policy.

Federalist Legacy

Secretary of the Navy Stoddert was concerned not only with daily administrative and operational activities but also with increasing the navy's strength for the future. Using some of the money Congress appropriated for shipbuilding, Stoddert established six navy yards. In a December 1798 proposal to Congress, he also advocated building twelve ships of the line, twelve frigates, and twenty ships of up to twenty-four guns. Congress initially approved the construction of six ships of the line. But as the war with France would down in 1800 the prospects for a stronger naval force dimmed. President John Adams shared Stoddert's commitment to a strong navy. Whereas Adams supported a cruiser navy, his secretary wanted to build ships of the line, keep thirteen frigates, and sell off the smaller vessels. Stoddert reasoned that in the event of another war the government could purchase smaller vessels more readily than larger ones. The navy needed to have the larger vessels built before any conflict erupted because of their lengthy construction process. Congress, in a cost-cutting mood, adopted the Peace Establishment Act, which kept the frigates but eliminated construction of the ships of the line and drastically reduced the officer corps. Adams could have left this naval legislation to the new Jeffersonian Republican administration, which won the fall 1800 elections, but reasoned that the Jeffersonians might make even deeper cuts. In one of his last duties as president, he signed the act on 3 March 1801.

President Thomas Jefferson commenced his administration intent on reducing the navy's budget. Renewed problems with the Barbary States in 1801, however, forced him to send a small squadron to the Mediterranean as a show of force. Before the American squadron could leave its native shores, Tripoli declared war on the United States, compelling the President to wage a prolonged overseas war that did not conclude until 1805. In effect, therefore, this conflict resulted in the Republicans confirming their political opponents' fateful decision in the 1790s to reestablish a United States Navy.

During the first dozen years under the Constitution, the new nation grappled with the difficulties of developing a naval force. In giving the navy its "second commencement," the nation's executive and legislative leaders dealt with problems relating to finance, warship technology and design, an infra-structure of shipyards and shipwrights, sources of raw materials and naval stores, necessary force size, officering, and manning. They struggled with these challenges within the contexts of a complex international situation and of concerns about constitutional authority, high taxes, cost overruns, and political corruption. Ultimately, the United States Navy was reestablished with the purposes of defending the country's commerce and asserting its rights on the high seas as a sovereign nation.

Notes

1. John Paul Jones to Robert Morris, 17 Oct. 1776, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, edited by William Bell Clark et al., 9 vols. to date (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1964-), 6: 1303.

2. Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 11 Aug. 1786, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Julian P. Boyd et al., 25 vols. to date (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 10: 225.

3. "The Federalist Number 41," in The Papers of James Madison, edited by William T. Hutchinson et al., 17 vols. to date (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962-), 10: 395.

4. John Paul Jones to François-Louis Teissèdre de Fleury, ca. Dec. 1787, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

5. George Washington, "Fifth Annual Address to Congress," 3 Dec. 1793, in The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick, 39 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 33: 166.

6. U.S. Congress, American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, 38 vols. (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832-61), Class VI, Naval Affairs, 1: 5.

7. Ibid., 6.

8. Henry Knox to George Washington, 15 April 1794, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

9. George Washington, "Eighth Annual Address," 7 Dec. 1796, in A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897, compiled by James D. Richardson, 10 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896-1899), 1: 201.

10. John Adams, "First Annual Address," 22 Nov. 1797, in ibid., 251.

11. United States Naval History Division, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, edited by James L. Mooney et al., 8 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1959-81), 3: 17, s.v. Ganges.

12. Craig L. Symonds, Navalists and Antinavalists: The Naval Policy Debate in the United States, 1785-1827 (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1980), 72.

13. Michael A. Palmer, "Anglo-American Naval Cooperation, 1798-1801," Naval History 4 (Summer 1990): 14- 20