This Week in History: Birth of the US Navy
The U.S. Navy was “reborn” on March 27, 1794 when Congress authorized the building of six heavy frigates. Though the new United States had a small navy during the Revolutionary War it was quickly disbanded in peacetime.
However, deprivations against U.S. shipping on the high seas convinced Americans that a blue-water, oceangoing navy was necessary. So the U.S. Navy, largely using the designs of master shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys, constructed six heavy frigates in six different American ports.
This project paid tremendous dividends later on as the innovative frigates, both more powerful than a standard frigate and faster than the larger “ships-of-the-line”--the battleships of that era--proved to be highly effective in a number of wars.
In Ian W. Toll’s phenomenal book Six Frigates: the Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, he quotes Humphreys saying of this unique ship design:
They are superior to any European frigate, and if others should be in [the enemy’s] company, our frigates can lead ahead and never be obliged to go into action, but on their own terms, except in a calm; in blowing weather our ships are capable of engaging to advantage double-deck ships.
From these humble origins the U.S. Navy has grown to become the largest and most powerful in the world, but this project nearly failed to get off the ground due to fears about prohibitive cost and long-standing apprehensiveness regarding military establishments. This fear in large part stemmed from another anniversary that takes place this week in history.
One of the most important events that drew the ire of the British Colonies in America and sparked the American Revolution was the Quartering Act--called the Mutiny Act in England--passed by Parliament on March 24, 1765. Though the colonies often welcomed the arrival of troops to fight the French in the French and Indian War, many thought the measure was arbitrary and obnoxious. It was especially so because they were forced to pay for these troops with no real control over the cost or implementation.
The colony of New York particularly resented this Quartering Act, not for dislike of British troops, but the high-handed nature of British Parliament. Parliament carried the act out with total disregard for the New York Assembly which resisted making payments. In The Coming of the American Revolution, historian Lawrence Lawrence H. Gipson wrote, “The result was passing by Parliament in June, 1767, an act to suspend all legislative functions of the province until it had met fully the requirements of the Mutiny Act.”
The Quartering Acts gave Americans a long-term fear of standing armies and the quartering of troops in private homes and businesses. Also, most of the revolutionary leaders had a deep knowledge of the Roman Republic and its downfall in part due to a corrupted military establishment and masterful military leaders.
This fear led to the writing of the Third Amendment to the Constitution which states, “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
But fear of a powerful land army did not necessarily extend to the navy. British citizens had long accepted the construction of a potent navy due to its ability to defend their interests abroad and inability to crush liberties at home. George Washington and his Federalist political allies believed it was necessity to construct a Navy to adhere to the Federal government’s constitutionally mandated duty to “provide for the common defense.” Nevertheless, there was still resistance to establishing a permanent and expensive navy. Historian Toll wrote:
Opponents of ratification warned that the navy would expand the power of the federal government to the detriment of the states; that it would increase the public debt; that it would lead to higher taxes; and that its expense would fall on the small farmer of the impoverished interior of the country, who might never even lay eyes on the sea.
It must be noted though that in the early day of the Republic, the federal government had few responsibilities other than national defense, and this government was tightly restricted in scope.
In Marion Smith’s study, The Myth of American Isolationism: Commerce, Diplomacy, and Military Affairs in the Early Republic published by the Heritage Foundation, he wrote that in early American history the navy was “non-existent” and that this made U.S. commerce “a defenseless and wealthy target of plunder.”
Since American commerce could yield fruit only if U.S. citizens were able to travel and trade safely on the high seas, this vulnerability forced America to confront the nature of its national interests and how to best protect them. America’s future prosperity was a possibility, not a foregone conclusion.
The growing United States was largely reliant on commercial trade with other nations, and many Americans came to realize the necessity of some kind quick-striking force that could respond to threats on American shipping, and so supported the building of the six innovative frigates and the permanent establishment of the Navy.
This small navy performed admirably in the nation’s early military conflicts, going toe-to-toe with French and British war ships in the Quasi War with France and the War of 1812 with England, respectively. They also laid waste to the pesky Barbary pirates in several conflicts on the North African coast.
Some of these early frigates, like the USS Constitution, nicknamed “Old Ironsides” for its near miraculous ability to deflect enemy cannon fire, became legendary for their exploits on the high seas and proved their worth to the American people.
In an era in which the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been in nearly a century, and budget priorities have been directed to numerous projects outside of national defense, it is important for Americans to understand how much American prosperity has depended on having such a powerful force to protect liberty at home and interests abroad.