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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If by Sea

The Forging of the American Navy from the Revolution to the War of 1812

by George C. Daughan

Basic, 576 pp., $30

In his first paragraph George Daughan quotes President John Kennedy's foreword for Naval Documents of the American Revolution. The words that Daughan selected to establish a premise for his own work were written by Kennedy to express the hope that the Naval Documents series would "make it amply clear the critical role played by sea power in the achievement of American Independence."

Daughan meets that challenge in absorbing detail, beginning with the initial deployment in December 1775 of a Continental Navy squadron against New Providence (Nassau) in the Bahamas and continuing through scores of naval actions and political disputes, both large and small. And to his credit, he avoids depicting naval actions as freestanding events, instead showing how they were more often than not linked to the land war.

Importantly, If by Sea also stretches well beyond the War of Independence to include two post-Revolutionary periods that were critical in the establishment of a credible U.S. Navy. The first of these was the nine years between June 1785, when Congress authorized the sale of the last ship of the Continental Navy, and March 1794, when Congress authorized the reestablishment of a navy with the purchase or construction of six frigates.

During the years when the United States had no navy at all, the Federalists, led by George Washington and John Adams, generally supported the establishment of a blue-water navy. In contrast, the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, argued against a navy that projected American power offshore, claiming it was too expensive and internationally provocative. Those two opposing policy positions permeated the first four decades of American history, and were driven by such factors as regional socio-economic differences, states' rights versus federal power, and conflicting views of America's position on the global stage.

The final post-Revolutionary period of importance that Daughan covers includes the years from 1795 through the War of 1812, when international realities such as the Barbary Wars, the Quasi-War with France, and the War of 1812 harshly demonstrated the importance of a respectable navy to the survival of the new United States of America.

As Daughan works through the Navy's early course, he goes beyond a mere chronology of events and shows how the complex political cross-
currents of America's birth somehow came together, albeit haltingly, to trigger America's emergence as a global naval power. The political rough and tumble of the four different presidencies involved emerges as a seemingly counterproductive process--surprisingly reminiscent of today's scene.

As president, Washington emphasized the importance of avoiding American entanglement in Europe's ongoing wars and supported the
reestablishment of a navy with congressional authorization of six frigates during his second term. Adams's four-year administration was marked by the struggle to establish a viable economic foundation for the country. He generally followed Washington's support of a significant navy, and his policies involved rebuilding strong commercial ties with Great Britain. His challenges included coping with attacks against American commerce by the Barbary Pirates and by France.

During his two terms as president, Jefferson gravitated towards France and put his emphasis on trade leverage, rather than naval power, to achieve international objectives. (One political ally, Albert Gallatin, expressed that position graphically by referring to navies as "great engines of war and conquest.") During his presidency, James Madison faced ongoing challenges from both Britain and France, and his use of trade to leverage international relations proved to be generally inadequate. In addition, the Army and Navy were not prepared for war against a great power, and the country was politically divided as it entered a particularly testing period.

Each administration dealt with contentious issues that bore on how--at times, even if--U.S. naval power would be created. The international challenges faced by each of those administrations were compounded by a common denominator: Each was going through on-the-job training in how maritime power leverages the geopolitical fortunes of nations. They also were struggling with the application of a principle that is now automatically accepted: civilian control of the military. The process was not tidy.