The Magazine

Founders Afloat

'The fortunes of the nation and its navy' have always been linked.

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By JOSEPH F. CALLO
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A little-known but important player in the parallel processes of nation- and navy-building was the first secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, who was appointed by Adams and confirmed by Congress in May 1798. Daughan quantifies Stoddert's organizational and recruiting achievements, pointing out: "By the end of 1798, Stoddert had twenty-one warships in service, by the end of 1799, thirty-three, and by the end of 1800, fifty-four." The force that Stoddert organized and led was able to overcome the challenges of the United States' first war as an independent nation: the Quasi-War with France, a conflict fought at sea.

With initiative and organizational skills, Stoddert bridged the gap between the improvised naval policies of the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Navy was established with eight converted merchantmen, and the formation of a credible Naval force to deal with France's attacks on America's ocean commerce. Elements of his achievement included the firming-up of a credible navy officer corps. Stoddert also began building a pool of Navy seamen in America, using recruiting methods that included specific terms of enlistment and excluded the use of impressment, a mainstay of the Royal Navy.

The first secretary of the Navy also brought some organization to America's shipbuilding base, positioning it to create and sustain a fleet of warships that, at least on a ship-to-ship basis, could hold their own against those of any navy. Perhaps most important, the first secretary gave much needed strategic direction to the force he fashioned. Although Stoddert's name does not exactly echo down the halls of history, serious navalists might say that he has a more legitimate claim to the title of "Father of the U.S. Navy" than some with more visible achievements.

Arguably the most important aspect of the improbable beginning of the U.S. Navy is the high level of seamanship and raw courage of the diverse group of men who took to the sea on behalf of a struggling nation--initially for independence, and then for survival. The dangerous and discouraging times they faced required special motivation. They fought against long odds with meager resources. Defeats and discouragement were routine, but they persevered.

Towards the end of these three decades plus, during which the Navy was forged into an important element of national policy, five captains of the War of 1812 emerged as instructive examples: Isaac Hull, who commanded USS Constitution; Stephen Decatur of USS United States; William Bainbridge, who commanded USS Constitution; Oliver Hazard Perry, who led an American squadron at the Battle of Lake Erie; and Thomas Macdonough, who commanded a naval force at the Battle of Lake Champlain.

Hull, Decatur, and Bainbridge each achieved psychologically important victories over British opponents in single-ship combat. Their victories changed attitudes in the capitals of Europe about the fighting quality of the U.S. Navy and the ability of the United States to back up its diplomacy with military force.

They also changed attitudes in Congress about the political efficacy of funding a strong navy. Perry and Macdonough, while also demonstrating personal courage, achieved strategically important fleet victories and demonstrated that the United States was beginning to learn how to use naval forces in a strategic context.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these five leaders is that they were not alone in possessing exceptional courage, seamanship, and tactical skills in their Navy. They were, in fact, representative of a Navy culture that had been tempered in far-reaching deployments and combat against the leading navies of the world. In the process, they had developed a preference for offense over defense as the basis of a combat doctrine.

When the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, the result was, by most historical counts, a political standoff between the United States and Great Britain. There had been no clear military decision, and each party left the negotiating table without achieving all of its objectives. But for the United States Navy, the war was defining, a coming-of-age.

As far back in the Navy-building process as November 15, 1778, John Paul Jones answered a letter from Thomas Bell that stands out in hindsight. Bell was an American privateer and friend, who wrote of the sorry state of the Continental Navy and sad conditions in the capital, Philadelphia. It was a time of frustration for Jones and the Continental Navy, but he responded with optimism and astonishing vision: