By Margherita M. Desy, Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston
The fledgling United States was in a difficult position in 1794. For the past eleven years, since the end of the War for Independence in 1783, American merchant vessels, sailing into the Mediterranean Sea had been captured by Barbary corsairs – privateers of the North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. The seizure of the vessels, their cargos, and the crews held captive and ransomed, was disruptive to trade and the American economy, contributed to the rise in marine insurance rates, and was a constant humiliation for the new United States.
At the end of the American Revolution, leaders such as George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Morris, all favored maintaining at least a small standing navy. They advocated that a navy could – provide coastal defense to protect and enable commerce on America’s extensive Atlantic shores; prevent other navies from blockading U.S. seaports; and defend against invasion by sea. [Sprout, The Rise of American Naval PowerI, 14] Regardless of these pro-naval sentiments, the Continental Congress had “neither the financial resources nor the inclination to maintain a navy in time of peace.” [Ibid, 15]
The Continental Navy was slowly disbursed. The Massachusetts-built frigate Alliance was the last warship on the roster. She was sold in Philadelphia after a vote in Congress on June 3, 1785, passed 18 to 4. For the immediate future, the American merchant fleet sailed unprotected.
The ratification of the U. S. Constitution enabled two important factors in creating a navy; it included both the “power to lay and collect taxes” and the injunction “to provide and maintain a Navy.” [Article 1, Section 8] Still in a fragile financial state, America did not immediately create a navy. And yet, the need for the navy became more apparent as the 1780s and early 1790s passed. More American merchant sailors languished in Barbary captivity, and the U.S., unable to defend its fleet, paid tribute and ransom to Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Adding to the growing tensions around the Mediterranean Sea, France and Great Britain were at war by 1793.
In January, 1793, Philadelphia ship designer Joshua Humphreys wrote to Robert Morris. In his letter, Humphreys, very aware of America’s need for a new navy, laid out his ideas of the best warships to be constructed:
From the present appearance of affairs, I believe it is time this country was possessed of a Navy…
….as our navy must for a considerable time be inferior in number we are to consider what size ships will be most formidable….
[Frigates] I suppose will be the first object and [none] ought to be built less than 150 feet keel to carry [28, 32 pounders] or 30, 24 pounders on the main gun deck [and 12 pounders] on the quarter deck. Those ships [should have] scantling[s] equal to 74s and I believe [may be] of Red cedar & Live Oak…
Humphreys concluded his letter by directly addressing the world conflicts that could involve the U.S. Navy:
Frigates built to carry 12 or 8 pounders in my opinion will not answer the expectation contemplated from them, for if we should be oblidged [sic] to take a part in the present European War, or…we should be dragged into a war with…great Britain [sic] they having a number of ships of that size, that it would be an equal chance by equal combat, that we loose [sic] our ships, and more particularly from the Algerien [sic], who have Ships & some of much greater force. Several questions will arrise [sic], whether one [large or] two small Frigates contribute most to the protection [of our trade]…. for my part I am [decidedly of opinion], the large ones will answer best. [Joshua Humphreys Papers, Coll. #306, Vol. 1, 1793-1797, Historical Society of Pennsylvania]
One year later, the United States found itself struggling to maintain its neutrality in the growing European conflict. At the same time, a British-arranged truce between Portugal and Algiers unleashed the Algerine corsairs from the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic Ocean. The new attacks on American merchant shipping were devastating to the U.S economy.
The divide over whether to create a navy and bear the burdens of the costs of maintaining even a small fleet of warships became a North vs South issue. The pro-navy Federalists of the Northern and some mid-Atlantic states saw only the advantages – the elimination of the humiliating tribute payments to the Dey of Algiers; the protection of the vital American commerce in the Mediterranean; and the positive effect a navy would have on marine insurance rates. The Southern anti-Federalists argued a navy might involve the U.S. in European affairs; the small number of warships proposed (six frigates) was inadequate, would cost more than the Mediterranean commerce was worth, and argued that it was cheaper to buy peace; and the navy was viewed as the leading edge of a scheme to increase the power of the Executive branch.
On February 21, 1794, a navy bill passed by only two votes in the House of Representatives. Opposition to this bill was intense. An amended version of the bill included the new Section 9 which stated: “Provided always, and be it further enacted, That if a peace shall take place between the United States and the Regency of Algiers, that no farther proceeding be had under this act.” With this amendment, which swayed those opposed to a standing navy,but not to a temporary naval force, the House vote passed with the larger margin of 50 to 39; the Senate passed the bill not long afterwards. [Sprout, 30-31] On March 27, 1794, President George Washington signed “An act to provide a Naval Armament,” colloquially known as the Naval Armament Act of 1794. Thus began the new United States Navy.
The act called for six frigates, four 44-gun and two 36-gun, to be built or purchased. It was decided to build the warships and in the end, three frigates of each rating were built. Timothy Pickering sent a list of proposed names to President Washington in the spring of 1795.
“To facilitate your choices I beg leave now to lay before you a select list of such [names] as have occurred in my conversations with Gentlemen on the subject.
[Pickering to Washington, March 14, 1795. Library of Congress.]
Washington chose the first five names on the list; the sixth frigate, not named by the president, became the 36-gun frigate Chesapeake.
As we reflect on the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Act to provide a Naval Armament – the legacy that gave America the beginnings of what would become the greatest navy in the world – it is important to recall those six original frigates. Each one served with some distinction in the Quasi-War with France (1798-1801), the first Barbary War (1801-1805), and the War of 1812 (1812-1815). Of the six, USS Constitution is the lone survivor. The superiority of Joshua Humphreys’ design is evident in Constitution’s elegantly shaped hull. His aspirations for the frigates’ performance – “to make them the most powerful, and…the most useful ship[s]…”, was fulfilled through Constitution’s record-setting 33 captures. It was on the decks of the six frigates that the early heroes of the U.S. Navy fulfilled their destinies – Truxtun, Preble, Decatur, Hull, Bainbridge, Stewart, Porter, Perry, and Macdonough. The weight of this legacy is evident in a letter by War of 1812 midshipman, Pardon Mawney Whipple, after he was assigned to Constitution: “…to have my name enroled [sic] on the list with this gallant crew, & be permitted to serve my country in a ship which has already so eminently distinguished herself…. Having obtained the object of my most unbounded wishes, in gaining admission to our little Navy…my next step is to get into action…. should I be so fortunate as to prove serviceable to my country I shall be in the zenith of my glory…”
For a more in-depth study of events associated with the rebirth of the American Navy in the 1790s, click here.
Historian Robert J. Allison has argued that the Barbary “pirates” were not really pirates in the classic sense of being lawless and stateless marauders. The Barbary pirates – corsairs (named after the vessels they sailed) – “were sanctioned by their governments and only attacked merchants from countries with whom their government was at war.” The corsairs were more akin to privateers, which America had used to great effect in its War for Independence. Robert J. Allison, “Sailing to Algiers: American Sailors Encounter the Muslim World, “ The American Neptune Vol. 57, Number 1 (Winter, 1997): 7-8.
 Between 1785 and 1815, thirty-five vessels and over 700 American sailors were captured and held by the Barbary States. Robert J. Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 110.