President Washington Signs the Naval Act of 1794
27 March 1794
Some three months before President Washington signed the Naval Act of 1794 into law ─ the act authorizing the construction of the Navy’s first six frigates ─ Congress passed a resolution to establish with haste a national navy that could protect U.S. commercial vessels from attacks by Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean and nearby Atlantic waters.
The resolution passed narrowly ─ 46 to 44 ─ and resulted in the creation of a nine-man committee to study issues of naval buildup, especially cost and size. On 6 February 1794, the committee recommended four 44-gun ships and two 20-gun ships.
Congressional debate on whether to act on the committee’s recommendation lasted until 10 March and built on years of indecision and ambivalence on the issue of a national navy. While everyone agreed that the British were behind the Barbary attacks and were otherwise imperiling United States trade in the West Indies and elsewhere, there were sharp differences of opinion on whether the establishment of a navy might help or hurt Americans’ chances of maintaining neutrality in this most dangerous moment.
The United States now faced the perilous effects of the French Revolutionary wars, which pitted Spain and Britain, with North American colonies in threatening proximity to American territory, against revolutionary France, the Americans’ only European ally. That alliance, too, was becoming precarious as the French Revolution obtained new excesses in the course of violent efforts to rid the country of the Revolution’s alleged enemies. As part of its war against the British, moreover, the French state engaged privateers in the harassment of American ships at sea. A merchant vessel sailing from a U.S. port now had to contend with European ships of war, privateers of all possible allegiances, and Barbary pirates plying the open waters of the Atlantic.
Supporters of the bill argued that under these conditions, a navy was essential for the defense of American commerce and that any other option would look like cowardice.1 Such were the views of many of the Federalists and a large number of urban-dwellers more generally, whose fortunes depended on maritime trade, now drying up as Britain blocked U.S. exports to France and United States imports from the West Indies.2
Opponents to naval buildup saw things quite differently. The natural resources of the United States, they contended, obviated the need for trade with Europe and therefore for a navy to protect that trade. The better approach would be toward American self-sufficiency by fostering rural productivity, a core Democratic-Republican priority. Naysayers such as James Madison and William B. Giles also worried about cost, debt, and government overreach.3 They preferred a diplomatic solution to the British question and a financial solution ─ tributary payments ─ for the Barbary pirates. In the event of failure, they were prepared to deploy methods of economic retaliation but urged caution when it came to most things military.4
In early March 1794, almost a month into debate, news arrived that attacks on American ships were increasing. In addition to the merchant ships Thomas, Hope, Dispatch, George, Olive Branch, Jane, President, Polly, and Minerva having been taken by Barbary pirates in late 1793, still more American vessels were now falling victim to privateers and ships of war ─ both British and French ─ much closer to home.5
Arguments for the establishment of a navy won the day. On 27 March 1794, Congress easily passed the “Act to provide a Naval Armament,” which promised the president six frigates, the new Navy’s first ships of war: United States (launched 1797), Constellation (1797), Constitution (1797), Congress (1799), Chesapeake (1799), and President (1800).
—Adam Bisno, Ph.D., NHHC Communication and Outreach Division, February 2019
1 Kenneth J. Hagan, This People’s Navy: The Making of American Sea Power (New York: Free Press, 1991), 30.
2 John Ferling, The Ascent of Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 325.
3 Michael J. Crawford and Christine F. Hughes, The Reestablishment of the Navy, 1787–1801: Historical Overview and Select Bibliography (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1995), 5.
4 Ferling, Washington, 326.
5 Edmund Randolph to George Washington, letter of 2 March 1794, in The Papers of George Washington, vol. 15, 1 January–30 April 1794, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 310–15.