Americans first took up arms in the spring of 1775 not to sever their relationship with the king, but to defend their rights within the British Empire. By the autumn of 1775, the British North American colonies from Maine to Georgia were in open rebellion. Royal governments had been thrust out of many colonial capitals and revolutionary governments put in their places. The Continental Congress had assumed some of the responsibilities of a central government for the colonies, created a Continental Army, issued paper money for the support of the troops, and formed a committee to negotiate with foreign countries. Continental forces captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain and launched an invasion of Canada.
The Continental Navy grew into an important force. Over the course of the War of Independence, the Continental Navy sent to sea more than fifty armed vessels of various types. The navy’s squadrons and cruisers seized enemy supplies and carried correspondence and diplomats to Europe, returning with needed munitions. They took nearly 200 British vessels as prizes, some off the British Isles themselves, contributing to the demoralization of the enemy and forcing the British to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes. In addition, the navy provoked diplomatic crises that helped bring France into the war against Great Britain.
Fighting with the colonialists were groups of independent fleets called privateers. These fleets were commissioned by the Continental Congress and by individual states to capture enemy merchant ships as prizes of war. A typical vessel used by the privateers was the schooner, a small, fast, flexible, flush-deck ship that carried smooth bore cannons. The schooners broke the British strangle hold on New England harbors, by slipping past the Royal Navy’s men-of-war and hiding in inlets. Unable to meet the British head-on, the American ships outmaneuvered them, striking the enemy ships in strategic places. Contrary to the views of many historians, privateering had a significant impact on the outcome of both the American Revolution [and the War of 1812]. Letters of marque, so called from the letters or commissions they carried, were armed trading vessels authorized to make prizes. They also were generally, and more properly, called privateers. The latter name should, strictly speaking, be reserved for private armed vessels carrying no cargo and devoted exclusively to warlike use. All kinds of armed vessels, however, during the Revolution, even Continental frigates, were employed under special circumstances as cargo carriers.
During the Revolution the merchantmen went generally to decay or were captured. Some were equipped as privateers. But after seven years a ship is in its dotage. New vessels were built and armed. The models which figure in old pictures, with high sterns and bows, proved too clumsy for war, and modern forms were adopted. At least five hundred armed vessels were fitted out in the commercial States, and among them one hundred and fifty-eight from the single port of Salem. Some of these vessels mounted twenty guns; they captured large numbers of English vessels, and performed feats on the ocean as brilliant as any upon the land.
Foundation of the Navy
The Second Continental Congress met on May 10, 1775 while the colonists were continuing their battle with the British. Before long, it became clear to Congress that if the colonies were to survive they would need a navy. By October 1775 the British held superiority at sea, from which they threatened to stop up the colonies’ trade and to wreak destruction on seaside settlements. In response a few of the states had commissioned small fleets of their own for defense of local waters. Congress had not yet authorized privateering. Some in Congress worried about pushing the armed struggle too far, hoping that reconciliation with the mother country was still possible.
Yet, a small coterie of men in Congress had been advocating a Continental Navy from the outset of armed hostilities. Foremost among these men was John Adams, of Massachusetts. For months, he and a few others had been agitating in Congress for the establishment of an American fleet. They argued that a fleet would defend the seacoast towns, protect vital trade, retaliate against British raiders, and make it possible to seek out among neutral nations of the world the arms and stores that would make resistance possible.
Still, the establishment of a navy seemed too bold a move for some of the timid men in Congress. Some southerners agreed that a fleet would protect and secure the trade of New England but denied that it would that of the southern colonies. Most of the delegates did not consider the break with England as final and feared that a navy implied sovereignty and independence. Others thought a navy a hasty and foolish challenge to the mightiest fleet the world had seen. The most the pro-navy men could do was to get Congress to urge each colony to fit out armed vessels for the protection of their coasts and harbors.
Then, on 03 October, Rhode Island’s delegates laid before Congress a bold resolution for the building and equipping of an American fleet, as soon as possible. When the motion came to the floor for debate, Samuel Chase, of Maryland, attacked it, saying it was “the maddest Idea in the World to think of building an American Fleet.” Even pro-navy members found the proposal too vague. It lacked specifics and no one could tell how much it would cost.
If Congress was yet unwilling to embrace the idea of establishing a navy as a permanent measure, it could be tempted by short-term opportunities. Fortuitously, on 5 October, Congress received intelligence of two English brigs, unarmed and without convoy, laden with munitions, leaving England bound for Quebec. Congress immediately appointed a committee to consider how to take advantage of this opportunity. Its members were all New Englanders and all ardent supporters of a navy. They recommended first that the governments of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut be asked to dispatch armed vessels to lay in wait to intercept the munitions ships; next they outlined a plan for the equipping by Congress of two armed vessels to cruise to the eastward to intercept any ships bearing supplies to the British army.
Congress let this plan lie on the table until 13 October, when another fortuitous event occurred in favor of the naval movement. A letter from General Washington was read in Congress in which he reported that he had taken under his command, at Continental expense, three schooners to cruise off Massachusetts to intercept enemy supply ships. The commander in chief had preempted members of Congress reluctant to take the first step of fitting out warships under Continental authority. Since they already had armed vessels cruising in their name, it was not such a big step to approve two more. The committee’s proposal, now appearing eminently reasonable to the reluctant members, was adopted.
On Friday, October 13, 1775, meeting in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress voted to fit out two sailing vessels, armed with ten carriage guns, as well as swivel guns, and manned by crews of eighty, and to send them out on a cruise of three months to intercept transports carrying munitions and stores to the British army in America. This was the original legislation out of which the Continental Navy grew and as such constitutes the birth certificate of the navy.
Within a few days, Congress established a Naval Committee charged with equipping a fleet. This committee directed the purchasing, outfitting, manning, and operations of the first ships of the new navy, drafted subsequent naval legislation, and prepared rules and regulations to govern the Continental Navy’s conduct and internal administration.
Thomas Paine was one of the most gifted writers of the English language. Common Sense, his most famous publication, was only about 20 pages long, but it motivated thousands of citizens to the cause of independence. The most important and studied points in the publication are Paine’s beliefs that Americans deserve more than to be ruled by a secular king who has little interest in the welfare of his citizens. Also imbedded in Common Sense is Paine’s argument for an American Navy:
“In point of safety, ought we to be without a fleet? We are not the little people now, which we were sixty years ago (Common Sense was published in 1776); at that time we might have trusted our property in the streets, or fields rather, and slept securely without locks or bolts to our doors and windows. The case is now altered, and our methods of defense ought to improve with our increase of property. A common pirate, twelve months ago, might have come up the Delaware, and laid the city of Philadelphia under contribution for what sum he pleased; and the same might have happened to other places. Nay, any daring fellow, in a brig of fourteen or sixteen guns, might have robbed the whole continent, and carried off half a million of money. These are circumstances, which demand our attention, and point out the necessity of naval protection.”
The first Alliance — a 36-gun frigate originally named Hancock — was laid down in 1777 on the Merrimack River at Salisbury, Mass., by the partners and cousins, William and James K. Hackett; launched on 28 April 1778; and renamed Alliance on 29 May 1778 by resolution of the Continental Congress. The Alliance was an exceedingly fast America-built ship of the class of large thirty-twos. Her first commanding officer was Capt. Pierre Landais, a former officer of the French Navy who had come to the New World hoping to become a naval counterpart of Lafayette. The frigate’s first captain was widely accepted as such in America. Massachusetts made him an honorary citizen and the Continental Congress gave him command of Alliance, the finest warship built to that date on the western side of the Atlantic. The handsome new frigate’s first assignment was the task of carrying Lafayette back to France to petition the French Court for increased support in the American struggle for independence.
The first Bonhomme Richard [with 40 guns], formerly Duc de Durae, was a frigate built in France for the East India Co., in 1765, for service between France and the Orient. She was placed at the disposal of John Paul Jones 4 February 1779 by the French King. The Duc de Duras was then fourteen years old. She proved in the end to be both dull and rotten, though she was purchased as fast and sound. She was a long, single-decked ship, and was pierced for twenty-eight guns on her main-deck. Her armament was intended for eighteens. This would have placed her about on a level, as to force, with the English thirty-eights of that day, supposing that she carried ten or twelve light guns on her quarter-deck and forecastle. The eighteens were yet to be cast, however, and failing to appear, Jones put twelves in their places. To supply this material deficiency, he caused twelve ports to be cut in the gun-room, or below, where he mounted six eighteens, intending to fight them all on one side in smooth water. Eight nines and sixes were placed above, making a total armament of forty-two guns; or of twenty-four in broadside, supposing the six eighteens to be fought together. Jones found a few native Americans of whom to make sea officers and petty officers for the Duc de Duras, but he mentions in one of his statements that altogether they did not exceed thirty. He changed the name of his vessel, however, to the Goodman Richard, or le Bon Homme Richard, in compliment to Franklin, as near an approach to nationality as that circumstance would well allow. He chose the Pen Name of Benjamin Franklin, the Ambassador to France, and author of “Poor Richard’s Almanak.” On 23 September 1779 Bonhomme Richard engaged Serapis and a bitter engagement ensued during the next four hours before Serapis struck her colors. Bonhomme Richard, shattered, on fire, and leaking badly defied all efforts to save her and sank.
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard may validly claim the title “Cradle of American Shipbuilding” as well as being the area where warship construction began in North America. HMS Falkland was constructed for the British Royal Navy in 1690 in what is now New Castle, NH. (If HMS Falkland had been constructed on nearby Fernald’s Island, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard could claim the distinction of being the oldest naval shipyard on a site devoted to shipbuilding, but that is not the case.) The Fernald yard on Fernald’s (now Seavey’s Island) built and repaired commercial vessels from the 1750s. John Langdon’s yard on Rising Island (now Badger’s Island) constructed and repaired commercial vessels from the 1760s. Langdon’s yard subsequently launched USS Ranger, after the Bonhomme Richard, arguably the most famous of Continental Navy warships.
The first Ranger, an 18-gun Continental Navy ship sloop initially called Hampshire, was launched 10 May, 1777 by James K. Hackett, master shipbuilder, at Portsmouth N.H.; Capt. John Paul Jones in command. This ship was, at first, called the Indien, and subsequently the South Carolina. She was one of the heaviest single-decked ships that had then ever been constructed, mounting Swedish thirty-sixes on her main deck. The ship was frigate built, like most of the sloops of that day, and was pierced for twenty-six guns; viz., eighteen below, and eight above. This number was furnished, but Jones rejected all but those for the main deck, mounting eighteen sixes. Even these guns he considered as three diameters of the bore too short. On 14 February, 1778, Ranger received the first official salute to the new American flag, the “Stars and Stripes,” given by the French fleet at Quiberon Bay.
The construction of 13 “Continental Frigates” was authorized by the Continental Congress on 13 December 1775. The program consisted of five ships of thirty-two guns, five of twenty-eight guns, three of twenty-four guns, making in the whole thirteen, which were planned to be fitted for the sea by the last of March 1776. For one reason or another, however, chiefly, no doubt, the difficulty of manning the ships and the British blockade, no Continental frigate got to sea in 1776. All were captured or destroyed between 1777 and 1781.
Of these frigates, the Raleigh, of 32 guns, was built at Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the Hancock, 32, and the Boston, 24, at Salisbury and Newburyport on the Merrimac River; the Warren, 32, and the Providence, 28, at Providence; the Trumbull, 28, at Chatham on the Connecticut River; the Montgomery, 28, and the Congress, 24, at Poughkeepsie on the Hudson River; the Randolph, 32, Washington, 32, Effingham, 28, and Delaware, 24, at or near Philadelphia on the Delaware River; and the Virginia, 28, at Baltimore. The actual number of guns on a ship was generally in excess of the rate; a thirty-two gun frigate commonly carried about thirty-six guns. With a few exceptions these frigates were armed with no guns heavier than twelve-pounders. The smaller vessels of the Revolutionary navy carried only four and six-pounders. All were long guns; the light, short, large-calibre guns called carronades had not yet come into general use. Some vessels carried a secondary battery, mounted on deck or in the tops, of small light mortars called coehorns or of swivels, which were light guns mounted on pivots.
In May 1776 John Langdon’s yard launched the first vessel designed and built specifically as a naval vessel, (USS Raleigh) to be delivered to the Continental Navy. The first Raleigh, a frigate built by Messrs. Hackett, Hill, and Paul at Portsmouth, N.H., under the supervision of Thomas Thompson, was authorized by the Continental Congress on 13 December 1775; laid down on 21 March 1776; and launched on 21 May 1776. Prior to the launching of USS Raleigh, a light frigate of 32 guns, all vessels purchased into the Continental Navy were commercial vessels taken from the trade and outfitted with armaments.
The second Boston, a 24-gun Continental frigate, was launched 3 June 1776 by Stephen and Ralph Cross, Newburyport Mass. In June 1776 the marine committee of the Congress appointed Hector McNeill to the command of the Continental frigate Boston, then fitting out at Newburyport, Massachusetts. The command of a new warship in a new navy taxed McNeill’s professional capacity and overtaxed his patience. It took him almost a year to find the guns, supplies, and men the Boston needed, as sailors and shipbuilders gave preference to privateers and merchantmen. He complained to the marine committee that “I have Suffer’d so much in fitting out the Ship I now have the Honour to Command, that I do not think I would undertake such a Task again for any Sum whatever unless I was better Supported”. Another frigate, the Hancock, was fitting out at the same time under the command of John Manley. Boston completed the following year with Captain H. McNeill in command. This frigate about 114 feet in length, mounting thirty assorted cannon, from 12-pounders down to 4-pounders. She acquitted herself well in the Revolutionary War, capturing or assisting in the capture of 21 British ships.
The Continental frigate Confederacy was launched 8 November 1778 at Chatham (Norwich), Conn., and towed to New London to be prepared for sea. From 1 May to 24 August 1779 she cruised on the Atlantic coast under the command of Captain S. Harding. While convoying a fleet of merchantmen, on 6 June, she and Deane captured three prizes, drove off two British frigates and brought the convoy safely into Philadelphia, Pa. The second Congress was a sailing frigate built by Lancaster Burling at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., under authority of an act of the Second Continental Congress, dates 13 December 1775. One of the first 13 ships authorized to be built by the new government, she was placed under the command of Captain Grenell in the summer of 1776. The first Delaware, a frigate, was built under the 13 December 1775 order of the Continental Congress in the yard of Warwick Coates of Philadelphia, Pa., under the direction of the Marine Committee. Effingham, a Continental frigate, was building at Philadelphia in 1776 and 1777, and Captain John Barry was ordered to command her. When the British took possession of Philadelphia in September 1777, Barry was ordered to take the uncompleted ship up the Delaware River to a place of safety. On 25 October General George Washington asked for the crew of Effingham for use in the fleet, and 2 days later the ship was ordered sunk or burned. The second Hancock was one of the first 13 frigates of the Continental Navy authorized by resolution of the Continental Congress 13 December 1775. Construction of the first Randolph was authorized by the Continental Congress on 13 December, 1775. The frigate, designed by Joshua Humphreys, was launched on 10 July, 1776, by Wharton and Humphreys at Philadelphia. Capt. Nicholas Biddle was appointed commander of the Randolph on 11 July, and he took charge of the frigate in mid-October. The second Trumbull — one of the 13 frigates authorized by the Continental Congress on 13 December 1775 — was probably laid down in March or April 1776 at Chatham, Connecticut, by John Cotton and was launched on 5 September 1776.
On 9 November 1776, the Continental Congress authorized the construction of three 74-gun ships of the line. One of these men-of-war, America, was Iaid down in May 1777 in the shipyard of John Langdon on Rising Castle (now Badger) Island in the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine.
However, progress on her construction was delayed by a chronic scarcity of funds and a consequent shortage of skilled craftsmen and well seasoned timber. The project dragged on for over two years under the immediate supernsion of Col. James Hackett as master shipbuilder and the overall direction of John Langdon. Then, on 6 November 1779, the Marine Committee named Capt. John Barry as her prospective commanding officer and ordered him to “. . . hasten, as much as will be in your power the completing of that ship ….”
Nevertheless, the difficulties which previously had slowed the building of the warship continued to prevail during the ensuing months, and little had been accomplished by mid-March 1780 when Barry applied for a leave of absence to begin on the 23d. However he did perform one notable service for the ship. In November 1777, after inspecting the unfinished vessel which was slated to become his new command, he strongly recommended against a proposal, then under consideration, to reduce her to a 54-gun frigate. His arguments carried the day, and the Marine Committee decided to continue the work of construction according to the ship’s original plans.
All possibility of Barry’s commanding America ended on 5 September 1780 when he was ordered to Boston to take command of the finest ship ever to serve in the Continental Navy the 36-gun frigate Alliance which had recently arrived from Europe. Over nine months later, on 23 June 1781, Congress ordered the Continental Agent of Marine, Robert Morris, to get America ready for sea and on the 26th, picked Capt. John Paul Jones as her commanding officer. Jones reached Portsmouth on 31 August and threw himself into the task of completing the man-of-war. However, before the work was finished, Congress decided on 3 September 1782 to present the ship to King Louis XVI of France to replace the French ship of the line Magnifique which had run aground and been destroyed on 11 August 1782 while attempting to enter Boston harbor. The ship was also to symbolize the new nation’s appreciation for France’s service to and sacrifices in behalf of the cause of the American patriots.
Despite his disappointment over losing his chance to command the largest warship ever built in the Western Hemisphere, Jones remained in Portsmouth striving to finish the new ship of the line. His labors bore fruit on 5 November 1782 when America— held partially back by a series of roses calculated to break in sequence to check the vessel’s acceleration, lest she come to grief on the opposite bank of the river—slipped gracefully into the waters of the Piscataqua. After she had been rigged and fitted out, the ship—commanded by M. Ie Chevalier de Macarty Martinge, who had commanded Magnifique when she was wrecked—departed Portsmouth on 24 June 1783 and reached Brest, France on 16 July. Little is known of her subsequent service under the French flag other than the feet it was brief. A bit over three years later, she was carefully examined by a survey committee which found her damaged by dry rot beyond economical repair, probably caused by her wartime construction from green timber. She was accordingly scrapped and a new French warship bearing the same name was built.
The Course of the War at Sea
The sentiment of local independence and the loose federation of the colonies, united only for mutual protection, naturally led to individual action, and the need that each state felt of the defense of its own shores, too urgent to wait for the deliberations of the Continental Congress, brought about the establishment of separate small navies; so that, in addition to the Continental navy, eleven of the thirteen states maintained armed vessels, New Jersey and Delaware being the exceptions.
From the beginning of the American War of Independence in 1775, the Royal Navy, with varying degrees of success, used the weapon of blockade against the American rebels. By the end of 1777, the British Royal Navy had 89 men-of-war ships off America armed with 2576 guns. At that time, the Continental Navy deployed 14 vessels with 332 guns. It was David against Goliath.
The preponderance of the British naval forces in American waters during the early years of the war was so great that for the colonists in rebellion to overcome it was out of the question; annoyance only was possible. Their control of the sea was complete until challenged by the French in 1778. The British had much larger ships than the Americans, which meant that they not only carried more guns, but far heavier ones; the thirty-two-gun frigate was the largest America had in commission.
For want of money and of available workmen the construction and repair of ships was painfully slow. On this account they were frequently kept idle in port months at a time, nearly a whole season, perhaps, while cruises planned for them were prevented, postponed, or only partially carried out. The obstacles encountered in manning the Continental ships were equal to those which hindered their fitting out. The needs of the army and the attractions of privateering, especially the latter, drew so heavily on the seafaring population that capable men for the regular naval service were scarce. The result was that after almost interminable delay a ship would be obliged to go to sea with a crew deficient both in numbers and in quality, made up of material in large part not only inferior, but sometimes dangerous.
As a consequence of these impediments the Americans never possessed a regular naval force capable of acting offensively against the enemy in any effective way. The Continental navy, therefore, naturally resorted to the readiest means of injuring the enemy, that is, by preying upon his commerce.
The battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, but independence was won at sea. Two events contributed significantly to the defeat of the British. The first occurred when the French battle fleet under De Grasse out-maneuvered and out-fought British ships commanded by Admiral Graves in a battle off Chesapeake Bay in August, 1781. The second event was the march of the French Army, under Count de Rochambeau, from Newport to New York to join General George Washington’s troops. The combined forces then marched overland to attack British General Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown. Outnumbered two-to-one, Cornwallis surrendered in October 1781, and the American war for independence was over.
The privateersmen of the Revolution played a larger part in winning the war than has been commonly recognized. This fact, however, was clearly perceived by Englishmen of that era, as “The London Spectator” candidly admitted: “The books at Lloyds will recount it, and the rate of assurances at that time will prove what their diminutive strength was able to effect in the face of our navy, and that when nearly one hundred pennants were flying on our coast. Were we able to prevent their going in and out, or stop them from taking our trade and our storeships even in sight of our garrisons? Besides, were they not in the English and Irish Channels, picking up our homeward bound trade, sending their prizes into French and Spanish ports to the great terror of our merchants and shipowners?”
The naval forces of the Thirteen Colonies were pitifully feeble in comparison with the mighty fleets of the enemy whose flaming broadsides upheld the ancient doctrine that “the Monarchs of Great Britain have a peculiar and Sovereign authority upon the Ocean . . . from the Laws of God and of Nature, besides an uninterrupted Fruition of it for so many Ages past as that its Beginnings cannot be traced out.”*
In 1776 only thirty-one Continental cruisers of all classes were in commission, and this number was swiftly diminished by capture and blockade until in 1782 no more than seven ships flew the flag of the American Navy. On the other hand, at the close of 1777, one hundred and seventy-four private armed vessels had been commissioned, mounting two thousand guns and carrying nine thousand men. During this brief period of the war they took as prizes 733 British merchantmen and inflicted losses of more than two million pounds sterling. Over ten thousand seamen were made prisoners at a time when England sorely needed them for drafting into her navy. To lose them was a far more serious matter than for General Washington to capture as many Hessian mercenaries who could be replaced by purchase.
In some respects privateering was a sordid, unlovely business, the ruling motive being rather a greed of gain than an ardent love of country. Shares in lucky ships were bought and sold in the gambling spirit of a stock exchange. Fortunes were won and lost regardless of the public service. It became almost impossible to recruit men for the navy because they preferred the chance of booty in a privateer.
The chief fault of the privateersman was that he sailed and fought for his own gain, but he was never guilty of sinking ships with passengers and crew aboard, and very often he played the gentleman in gallant style. Nothing could have seemed to him more abhorrent and incredible than a kind of warfare which should drown women and children because they had embarked under an enemy’s flag.
Extraordinary as were the successes of the Yankee privateers, it was a game of give-and-take, a weapon which cut both ways, and the temptation is to extol their audacious achievements while glossing over the heavy losses which their own merchant marine suffered. The weakness of privateering was that it was wholly offensive and could not, like a strong navy, protect its own commerce from depredation. While the Americans were capturing over seven hundred British vessels during the first two years of the war, as many as nine hundred American ships were taken or sunk by the enemy, a rate of destruction which fairly swept the Stars and Stripes from the tracks of ocean commerce.
When peace came in 1783, it was independence dearly bought by land and sea, and no small part of the price was the loss of a thousand merchant ships which would see their home ports no more. Other misfortunes added to the toll of destruction. The great fishing fleets which had been the chief occupation of coastwise New England were almost obliterated and their crews were scattered. Many of the men had changed their allegiance and were sailing out of Halifax, and others were impressed into British men-of-war or returned broken in health from long confinement in British prisons. The ocean was empty of the stanch schooners which had raced home with lee rails awash to cheer waiting wives and sweethearts.
The End of the Navy
With the end of the Revolutionary War, followed by the establishment of a new federal government, the infant U.S. Navy went into decline. By war’s end, in 1783, the Navy was down to five ships.
Following the the victory at Yorktown and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Paris, the thirteen North American colonies that had so recently won their independence from Great Britain adopted the Articles of Confederation. These articles set up a unified government, but because the states were extremely reluctant to give up their rights as sovereign entities, this government had very little power. One of the governments few powers included that of maintaining a military, and for a short time it made every attempt to keep in commission the frigates of the Contintental Navy that had played so decisive a role in the Revolutionary War. Yet the government did not have the power to collect revenue, and was entirely dependent on donations from its member states. As one can imagine, these donations were not common occurrances, and soon it became evident that it was impractical to keep the navy around. Besides, argued politicians like John Adams, the people of America had had their fill of war, and a navy could only drag us into another.
The reasons to scrap the navy were good ones. The failure of Congress to maintain a naval force was understandable. Navies were, and remain, expensive instruments of national power. Moreover, there were virtually no roles or missions that a small American navy could realistically be expected to play in the mid-1780s. The primary threats the new republic faced were to be found along the western frontier. In the Northwest, the native American tribes and the British, who refused to complete their withdrawal, challenged U.S. sovereignty and control of potentially valuable western lands. In the Southwest, the Spanish and their tribal allies held a lock on the lower Mississippi and disputed the southern boundary of the United States. Naval power could do little to change these balances of force.
A navy also could not remove the major impediments to the complete recovery of U.S. commerce. The problems the United States faced in its relations with Great Britain, Spain, and France were rooted in the philosophy of mercantilism and, as such, were more likely to be settled diplomatically than through the application of military force. Although a small effective navy might have been a source of national pride and an international display of nationhood, most congressmen were understandably less than eager, given the rather mixed record of the Continental navy, to embark on an expensive naval program.”
Desperately short of funds, the newly founded government for a time tried to dispense with a Navy-though clear-sighted men warned of the need and danger. For example, during the struggle for adoption of the Constitution, James Madison cited a regular Navy as “an indispensable instrument of national policy in dealing with foreign nations ….” Alexander Hamilton urged the creation of a Navy that could at least hold the balance of power in the American hemisphere, and be an instrument to control European colonial interests in the West Indies. He reasoned that even with “a few ships-of-the-line whose intervention would often be sufficient to decide the fate of a campaign,” that American diplomats could “bargain to great advantage for commercial privileges.” Hamilton pointed out that “a price would be set not only on our friendship, but upon our neutrality.” The American diplomat in Paris, Gouvernor Morris, also urged a strong Navy as the effective instrument of foreign policy. He wrote that “we could now maintain 12 ships-of-the-line, perhaps 20, with a due proportion of frigates and smaller vessels.” Morris was convinced that such a Navy was necessary to “render ourselves respectable.”
In the end these economic and philosophical issues won out, and the ships of the Continental Navy were sold off, the last of which (the Alliance) was sold in 1785. The Navy had been disbanded.
The critical need for a Navy in peacetime as well as in war was driven home to Americans in the first years of independence. Although the sea had already played a decisive role in her destiny-a role that would increase through the years-the young United States sold the last ship of the Navy in 1785. Lacking a naval armament, she hoped for good will and amity of world powers. She got indignities, loss, humiliation, and contempt.
Courtesy of John Pike and Global Security.
Image: The Continental Navy Frigate Confederacy by W. Nowland Van Powell.