For those Americans who lived on the continent’s coastal waterways in the fall of 1775, the question of naval defense was of no small moment. Hostilities with Great Britain were well into their sixth month and the prospect of a peaceful political settlement with the mother country appeared to be fading rapidly. Seizures of American shipping and harassment of local residents in northern and southern waters vividly illustrated the reach of the Royal Navy and the vulnerability of the continent’s seafaring communities to waterborne assault. For a maritime people whose prosperity and fortunes were tied to the sea, the prospect of full-scale conflict with the greatest sea power in the world must have been a chilling one indeed. Because Congress had already provided for an army to contend against the red coats, those who feared the British trident might reasonably have asked why could not Congress create a navy?
Over an eleven-day period in early October 1775, Congress deliberated on just this question, considering several schemes to fund the purchase or building of ships to defend the colonies. A number of congressmen argued vehemently against these proposals. Samuel Chase of Maryland declared one of the plans under consideration “the maddest Idea in the world,” one that would bankrupt the continent. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina called another plan “the most wild, visionary mad project that ever had been imagined.” He predicted “it would ruin the Character, and corrupt the morals of all our Seamen . . . [making] them selfish, piratical, mercenary, [and] bent wholly on plunder.” These arguments were countered effectively by John Adams and other pro-naval congressmen who forcefully articulated the advantages of a navy not only in “distressing the Ennemy,” but in making possible “a System of maritime and naval Opperations” to protect the American colonies.
Ultimately Adams and his fellow navalists carried the day and on 13 October Congress voted to fit out two sailing vessels, armed with ten carriage guns, as well as swivel guns, and manned by crews of eighty, and to send them out on a three-month cruise to intercept transports carrying munitions and stores to the British army in America. This was the original legislation out of which the Continental Navy grew and as such constitutes the navy’s birth certificate.
Once the decision to purchase a modest size naval force was made, the push within Congress to create a regular naval establishment gained momentum. Before the year was out, the lawmakers had authorized the purchase of an additional six ships and the construction of thirteen frigates; selected a commander for the Continental fleet, Esek Hopkins; commissioned eighteen naval officers; created two Marine battalions; established service pay and subsistence tables; authorized prize moneys for the capture and sale of enemy warships; adopted a naval code of discipline drafted by John Adams; and formed an administrative body, the Marine Committee, to give force, guidance, and direction to the new navy.
The frenetic pace of activity in naval affairs continued through the first months of 1776 enabling Esek Hopkins to have his squadron of eight vessels manned and ready to put to sea on 17 February. Hopkins returned less than two months later with a large store of ordnance and munitions taken at New Providence Island in the Bahamas and with two British warships as prizes.
The work of John Adams and others in effecting the creation of the Continental Navy in the fall and winter of 1775-76 was an impressive achievement. In five months these dedicated navalists had brought together ships, men, and administrative machinery, and launched a fleet on its first operational cruise. It was a bold signal by America’s Continental leaders that they were willing to challenge Great Britain on the high seas.
While the Continental Navy never achieved the heights of greatness many Continental leaders envisioned for it, its accomplishments were nonetheless noteworthy and enduring. Over the course of the War of Independence, the navy sent to sea more than fifty armed vessels of various types. The navy’s squadrons and cruisers seized enemy supplies and carried correspondence and diplomats to Europe, returning with needed munitions. They took nearly 200 British vessels as prizes, some off the British Isles themselves, contributing to the demoralization of the enemy and forcing the British to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes. In addition, the navy provoked diplomatic crises that helped bring France into the war against Great Britain. And at a time when the country had few national symbols to look to, the Continental Navy helped provide a focus for unity at home and a demonstration of national resolve abroad. Finally, the Continental Navy bequeathed a legacy of wartime experience, traditions, and heroes that has guided and inspired sailors and civilians in the United States Navy down to the present day.