Why A Navy?
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
Prior to independence, American mariners who composed about one third of the British merchant marine enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy. The mariners of the United States of America, a country so impoverished it had to sell off what remained of its wartime navy, enjoyed no such support. They soon learned that, in addition to struggling against British discriminatory practices in most parts of the world, they would be regularly victimized by pirates, especially in the Mediterranean.
For a decade, news would come to this country of a ship or ships being taken by the Barbary pirates of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. The ships themselves were taken into their service and their Christian crews enslaved, to be released only on the payment of ransom. Over long centuries, most European nations had taken to paying tribute to these bandits to protect their shipping. The Americans balked at that for many reasons, but for years had just as many reasons not to settle on any alternative course of action.
On 8 December 1793, there arrived reports in the United States of eleven Yankee ships falling victim to the predators. This spur led the Third Congress, which had convened just six days earlier, into serious debate on what was to be done. President Washington sent a message to the legislators on the 16th urging action. For another two weeks they met in secret sessions, debating against a background of fact and fiction appearing in the press. On 2 January 1794, a select committee, heavily weighted with people with maritime interests, was authorized to recommend the character of a naval force to be created to protect the shipping. On the 20th, it reported that four 44-gun and two 20-gun ships be built.
The debates that followed went along predictable North-South, inland-tidewater lines, but on 10 March the House voted 50 to 39 to authorize the construction of four 44-gun and two 36-gun frigates. The Senate followed suit on the 19th. The addition of a provision calling for the cessation of the program if ongoing diplomatic efforts were successful had ended the opposition’s hopes of preventing it. George Washington signed “An act to provide a naval armament” on 27 March 1794.
There would be further twists and turns along the way, but from this act came the 44-gun frigates United States,Constitution, and President; the 38-gun frigate Constellation; and the 36-gun frigates Congress and Chesapeake.
[Published in Naval History, July/August 1997, and in a separate booklet, USS Constitution: “Old ironsides.”]