The original six frigates and their lessons for today

I recently finished the book Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian Toll.  It was recommended to me by my girlfriend’s brother, who knows I enjoy U.S. history.  The book traces the development of the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy and the pivotal roles they played in the Quasi War with France, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812.  It’s an engrossing book, due especially to Mr. Toll’s ability to present both the political and naval battles involving the frigates in an equally gripping fashion.  However, the book has more to offer than just an excellent story.  Immersed within it are a series of lessons for policymakers that are as true today as they were back in the early 1800s.

The first is that governments can in fact spur the creation of vital domestic industries. When the frigates were first approved for construction in 1794, no one in the United States could make the high-quality copper sheathing needed to protect the bottoms of the boats from barnacles.  Instead, the government had to import the materials from Great Britain at great cost.  Looking to reduce the amount of money needed to build and repair ships in the future, as well as reduce our dependence on imported goods from the UK, Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy, approved a $10,000 grant to a silversmith named Paul Revere to develop the capability to produce the needed copper sheathing. After a few years of trial and error, Revere’s sheathing was of comparable quality to the British’s and in high demand all across the country.  It is important to remember stories like this when considering budget allocations for research and development funds in the future. The temptation to save money in the short term can actually end up costing you more in the long term in the form of higher costs for imported goods and decreased tax revenue from the job creation you forgo.  And of course, there’s always the national security implications to consider in the form of a secure domestic supply of vital products.

The second lesson is that the quality of officers in your ships is more important than the quality of ships they command.  Time after time, the difference between a victory and a defeat for the fledgling U.S. Navy was the competence of the officers on board the competing ships.  A potent example can be found in comparing the battle of the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere to the battle of the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon.  When the Guerriere and Constitution spotted each other 750 miles off the coast of Boston, Captain Dacres of the Guerriere told his men he expected them to capture the Constitution in thirty minutes or less, otherwise he would be “offended with them if they did not do their business in that time.”  Dacres issued this boast despite knowing Constitution was larger and more heavily armed than his ship, and having witnessed the skill with which her commander handled her during a days-long chase off the coast of New Jersey a month earlier.  According to Toll, Dacres’s “taunts were examples of the hubris that had seeped into the culture of the Royal Navy in the later stages of the Napoleonic Wars.”  Having roundly defeated both the French and Spanish navies, the British believed themselves to be unrivaled masters of the sea.  As such, “The idea that a British frigate could be beaten by an American ship of anything resembling equivalent force was simply beneath serious consideration.”  Guerriere would stand and fight; fleeing was out of the question.  The British allowed their disdain to overpower their otherwise solid mastery of naval affairs.  The result was that when Constitution and Guerriere finally closed to one another, Constitution’s 24-pounders quickly routed the less heavily armed British frigate.  (Constitution’s nickname as “Old Ironsides” originated from this battle when an American sailor, after seeing one of Guerriere’s 18-pounder shots bounce harmlessly off the sides of Constitution‘s live-oak planking, exulted, “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!”).

Unfortunately, an American commander showed similarly poor judgement less than a year later.  Blockaded within Boston Harbor, Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake decided to leave the port to challenge his jailer, the HMS Shannon, to a one-on-one battle.  Despite knowing that engaging enemy ships in battle was not in America’s strategic interest at this point in the war (much better to avoid battle and prey on English merchant shipping) and that he could simply wait a few more days for favorable weather and sail out of the harbor unmolested, Lawrence succumbed to his sense of honor and determined to fight the Shannon.  On paper it was an even match.  The ships were of almost identical size, carried nearly identical armaments, and were manned by roughly similar complements of men (379 in the Chesapeake to 330 in the Shannon).  Yet even if ship-to-ship duels were a wise policy, Lawrence should have known better than to engage the Shannon at this point in time.  As Toll notes of Lawrence,

He had commanded the Chesapeake less than two weeks, hardly enough time to grasp her idiosyncrasies.  Half of his officers and probably a quarter of his crew were new to the ship, and many had not yet even stowed their dunnage (baggage).  Many of the new hands had not yet been exercised at small arms and the great guns.  Finally, he had peremptory orders to get his ship out to sea, avoiding an engagement if possible.  None of its caused him a moment’s hesitation.

In contrast, Captain Broke had commanded the Shannon for seven years and had his ship “as ready for battle as any frigate had ever been.”  He was a “zealous advocate of daily gun drills,” both with the ship’s 18-pound batteries and with the combined small arms kept onboard.  The result was that once the Chesapeake and Shannon met, the American frigate succumbed within 15 minutes to the withering fire of Shannon’s master gunners and marksmen.

Of course there is always a measure of luck that goes into determining any battle, but these engagements show the importance of officer quality in determining whether it is even smart to fight in the first place.  Overall though, the United States was blessed throughout the war to have a navy manned by competent officers and crew.  This was the byproduct of the heavy emphasis Robert Smith, the second Secretary of the Navy, placed on developing a quality officer corps.  Appointments and promotions were distributed on the basis of ability and performance, rather than social class or wealth; “an application for a midshipman’s berth included all the same basic elements as a modern-day college admissions application – evidence of prior academic achievement, letters of recommendation, and an essay composed in the young applicant’s own hand.” Consequently, within the first two decades of its existence the navy could boast of a highly professional cadre of officers centered around a culture of merit, rather than rent-seeking or patronage.  Moreover, the American navy was an all-volunteer force, which ensured higher levels of moral and maritime skill than England’s conscription-based service.

Again, the lessons of the War of 1812 are something to keep in mind when considering the threat current rivals, such as China and Russia, pose to the U.S.  Are authoritarian regimes such as these capable of producing the quantity of high-quality officers needed to head such large militaries?  I’m skeptical.

The third lesson, and perhaps the most important in my eyes, is that power is something you invest in.  The initial attempts by the United States to resolve the problem of piracy through treaties and tributes proved fruitless because the Barbary rulers knew they could unilaterally abrogate the treaties and demand more money as the price of continued peace.  In other words, because the United States lacked the ability to defend its interests by force, the Bashaws of Tripoli, Algiers, and Morocco had little incentive to refrain from continually extorting Congress.  The European powers were not going to intervene on the United States’ behalf, and no appeal to legal precedent or morality could convince the Barbary states to act otherwise.  They respected only one thing, and that was power.  The decision to build the frigates was born out of this realization.  President Adams and Jefferson quickly realized that it isn’t enough to simply have something important to say – you have to have the power to make people listen in the first place.

There are a lot of other wonderful take-aways from Mr. Toll’s book, but these are the three main ones that stuck with me.  For anyone who enjoys U.S. or military history, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Source Note: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian Toll is the source for all quotes and bits of information listed above.  Specific pages I took information from: 177 for Paul Revere’s copper sheathing; 347-50 for Constitution vs. Guerriere battle; 404-11 for Chesapeake vs. Shannon; 281-82 for information on developing the officer corps.

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