On this day in 1775, the Continental Congress passes a resolution establishing a naval force to help George Washington’s army. The Continental Navy was the precursor to our United States Navy.
The move was more controversial than you might think.
“It is the maddest idea in the world,” Samuel Chase of Maryland stormed, “to think of building an American fleet . . . we should mortgage the whole continent.”
He didn’t get his way. Congress knew that British supply ships were headed to America. Could they capture one and redirect supplies to George Washington’s army?
They certainly hoped so.
Thus, on October 13, Congress resolved to fit out two “swift sailing vessel[s], to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men....” More vessels were authorized later, along with “two Battalions of Marines” to support the Navy.
Naval advocates such as John Adams were thrilled. “We must excite by Policy that kind of exalted Courage, which is ever victorious by sea and land,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, that Navy was relatively short-lived—at least at first. Did you know that the Navy ceased to exist for about 10 years after the American Revolution? The country was then operating under the Articles of Confederation, which created a weak central government. The Confederation Congress couldn’t raise sufficient funds to support the Navy.
The missing Navy became a problem in international waters. American merchant ships found themselves caught in the crossfire between the French and the English. The Barbary pirates piled on, seizing American vessels and seeking to ransom passengers and crews.
“The Americans cannot protect themselves [from the Barbary States],” British Lord Sheffield scoffed, “they cannot pretend to a navy.”
There matters lay until the Constitution was ratified in 1788, establishing a stronger national government with federal powers of taxation. Yet it still took several years—and new pirate attacks—to convince Congress to act.
“If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it,” George Washington said at the time, “if we desire to secure peace. . . , it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War.”
Finally, on January 2, 1794, Congress resolved to create “a naval force, adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States against the Algerine corsairs.” A committee recommended that six frigates be procured, and an “Act to provide a naval armament” was passed and signed on March 27.
The task of procuring the frigates fell to Henry Knox, then the Secretary of War. But Knox wasn’t interested in procuring simple vessels. He wanted to construct all-new frigates that would “combine such qualities of strength, durability, swiftness of sailing, and force as to render them equal, if not superior to, any frigates belonging to any of the European powers.”
Knox almost didn’t get his way. Peace was negotiated with Algiers in 1796, before the frigates were completed. By law, construction was supposed to stop if a treaty was obtained, but a reluctant Congress allowed 3 of the 6 frigates to be completed. (The last 3 were eventually, but not immediately, approved.)
USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution were launched in 1797. These vessels would engage in America’s first large-scale naval engagements, first during the Quasi War, then during the War of 1812. During one notable battle, USS Constitution would earn the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
Naturally, that is a story for another day.
In the meantime, Happy Birthday to the men and women who serve in our U.S. Navy!
Enjoyed this post? More naval history
stories can be found on my website, HERE.
John Lord Sheffield, Observations on the commerce of the American states (6th ed. 1784)
Journals of the Continental Congress (Oct. 7, 1775)
Kenneth J. Hagan, This People’s Navy: The Making of American Sea Power (1991)
Letter from Colonel Joseph Reed to Captain Ephraim Bowen, Jr. (Oct. 20, 1775) (reprinted HERE)
Michael J. Crawford & Christine F. Hughes, The Reestablishment of the Navy, 1787-1801: Historical Overview and Select Bibliography (Naval History & Heritage Command)
Suit of Sails (USS Constitution Museum)
The Birth of the U.S. Navy (Naval History & Heritage Command)