By Dr. Randy Papadopoulos
Navy Secretariat Historian
In 1798, a war in Europe threatened American ships around the world with capture, and French representatives offered to negotiate safe passage only if the U.S. government paid them bribes first. American envoys rejected the corrupt invitation, but a French warship escalated the situation by entering Charleston, S.C., to seize a merchant ship. The threat to commerce, scandal and violation of American sovereignty forced Congress to act, yet not declare war.
At the time, the War Department was the only military cabinet office and was dominated by the U.S. Army. They admitted that they did not know how to direct the new ships of the American navy and that land forces could not stop the depredations. President John Adams carefully tread a politically charged path by appointing the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin F. Stoddert, on May 18, 1798, 217 years ago today. Stoddert organized a fleet capable of preventing this theft of American property with effectively crewed ships, backed by needed partners and deployed across the globe.
Success by USS Constellation, Delaware or Boston in battles with French ships and privateers, some of them better-armed, proved the value of talented captains and well-trained crews. Even if outgunned, the U.S. Navy’s skill meant their ships sailed well, endured punishing fire, and overcame adversity to win in battle. Captained by Thomas Truxtun, Stephen Decatur or George Little, and with officers such as John Rodgers, Isaac Hull or David Porter, they took 86 ships as prizes while losing only one ship, forcing France to end this so-called “Quasi-War” and sign a trade treaty. Good people made a crucial difference.
It helped that these crews sailed good platforms. American naval architects, such as Joshua Humphries, evolved U.S. Navy frigate designs into the most heavily armed vessels of their type. But the other side of these ships was their independence. Sailing a long way from home, they could have needed to return home to prepare for further operations. This proved unnecessary because the wind power of sailing ships was essentially free, and the Navy organized supply ships to carry provisions by sea into the Caribbean. This meant the American squadrons were independent of most bases. Here was the true value of good platforms, with effective and reliable power.
With Europe at war, friends at sea proved hard to find. French ships preyed on neutral shipping, and Britain’s warships had started their notorious “impressment” of American sailors to serve in the Royal Navy. Fortunately, the growing U.S. Navy found partners in the Revenue Cutter Service. These ships, forerunners of today’s U.S. Coast Guard, were armed to enforce tariffs. But their ships and crews frequently entered service under Navy command, to bolster squadrons in American and Caribbean waters. The Navy could not be everywhere, but this partnership between our early sea services made up much of the difference.
Saving cargoes could have meant protecting merchant ships along the American coast, but just as today, this was not the U.S. Navy method. Instead, Secretary Stoddert ordered his ships overseas, first escorting convoys to Cuba where they increased trade with the Spanish colony, then beyond. They took the battle to the raiders in the Caribbean, where many French ships were based. Cruising as far as the Mediterranean and Indian and Pacific Ocean — with up to 21 ships in late 1798 — shifted the initiative to the United States, and put French warships and privateers on the defensive. This was the value of presence, to succeed against them and presaging the deployment pattern of the fleet today.
Much has changed since the late 1700s; U.S. Navy ships are commanded and crewed by women as well as men, launch aircraft or sail submerged for months at a time, draw power from nuclear energy and rely on long-time friends such as France for support. But Secretary Benjamin Stoddert focused on key elements, which are just as important today: people, platforms, power and partnerships. Just as in the days of his first predecessor, 75th Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who celebrates his five year anniversary in office this week as well, is building a fleet using these same forms. It is one able to protect American interests around the world, one present everywhere the nation needs it.