Thursday, January 01, 2009

Six Frigates

In Six Frigates, author Ian Toll ably presents the story of the creation of the American Navy. The book balances narratives of naval action with the political battles that decided where, how and if a Navy would be built.

Building the six initial frigates was an challenging endeavor. Joshua Humphreys designed the ships to be both more powerful and more sturdy than their European counterparts. Toll describes the difficult process of building and arming the ships, including the harvesting of live oak trees, which were located on malarial islands. Although the design was incredibly successful in battle, it had its difficulties. They were initially loaded with too much cannon which limited their effectiveness. The ships took longer to build than hoped and had trouble being launched.

While construction had its own problems, politics was an even more important factor. The decision to build a Navy raised critical issues for both the Federalist and Republican parties. The Federalists were convinced that the European states and the Barbary states would continue to prey on American commerce until the United States was able to defend it. They also believed that the country needed unifying Federal institutions if it was to survive. The Republicans on the other hand feared that the Navy would cost far too much, give the Federal state far too much power and lead to unnecessary wars with foreign powers.

Toll closely examines the shifting political winds as well as their effects. The political rancor was so heated it could even lead to violence. One of the leading newspaper editors of the day was viciously beaten when he visited a frigate under construction in Philadelphia, no doubt due to his vociferous opposition to John Adam's policies.

Ultimately, it was foreign action including the XYZ affair, Barbary piracy and the British practice of impressing American sailors into British naval service that led to continued investment in the Navy. Toll is as strong at describing action at sea as he is in detailing political back and forth. He also helps show how different the navies of that time were from our own. After having been beaten in single frigate engagements by the US Navy, the British were eager to defeat one. The captain of the HMS Shannon sent a note to the captain of the USS Chesapeake noting that he had sent the other ships blockading the port in which the Chesapeake lay. Given the now even terms, would the American like to come out and fight?

This is an excellent read for the fan of naval history but it also useful for reading for those interested in the development of early American institutions and the debates that continued past the Constitutional convention.

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