The first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, took up his duties in May 1798, in the midst of an international crisis. Under his effective leadership, the fledgling United States Navy would defend the new nation’s burgeoning commerce against the power of one of Europe’s major powers and lay the foundations of the Navy’s honorable heritage and hallowed traditions.
France had been America’s major ally in the War of Independence, and without its assistance the United States may not have won independence. But the new government of Revolutionary France viewed a 1794 commercial agreement between the United States and Great Britain, known as Jay’s Treaty, as a violation of France’s 1778 treaties with the United States. The French increased their seizures of American ships trading with their British enemies and refused to receive a new United States minister when he arrived in Paris in December 1796. In April of 1798 President Adams informed Congress of the infamous “X Y Z Affair,” in which French agents demanded a large bribe for the restoration of relations with the United States. Outraged by this affront to national honor, on 27 April 1798 Congress authorized the President to acquire, arm, and man no more than twelve vessels, of up to twenty-two guns each.
Since 1794, naval affairs had been the responsibility of the Department of War. In March 1798, overworked Secretary of War James McHenry brought before Congress the problem of his responsibility for naval affairs. Naval administration had become a significant portion of his department’s work, as it had for the Department of the Treasury, which oversaw all the Navy’s contracting and disbursing. The Department of War also had received congressional criticism for what was seen as the mismanagement and the excessive cost of the naval construction program. In addition, the growing trouble with the French induced Congress to authorize an increase in the size of the navy and raised the possibility that the navy would be called on to confront French privateers.
In response to the obvious need for an executive department responsible solely for, and staffed with persons competent in, naval affairs, Congress passed a bill establishing the Department of the Navy. President John Adams signed the historic act on 30 April 1798. Benjamin Stoddert, a Maryland merchant who had served as secretary to the Continental Board of War during the American Revolution, became the first secretary of the navy. Stoddert “was a classic Navalist” who “desired an American navy which could, not only protect commerce, but which would increase American prestige.”
On 28 May Congress authorized the public vessels of the United States to capture armed French vessels hovering off the coast of the United States, initiating an undeclared Quasi-War with France, and on 9 July Congress authorized U.S. naval vessels to capture armed French vessels anywhere on the high seas, not just off the coast of the United States.
Stoddert realized that the navy possessed too few warships to protect a far-flung merchant marine by using convoys or by patrolling the North American coast. Rather, he concluded that the best way to defeat the French campaign against American shipping was by offensive operations in the Caribbean, where most of the French cruisers were based. Thus at the very outset of the conflict, the Department of the Navy adopted a policy of going to the source of the enemy’s strength. When Stoddert became secretary in June 1798, only one American naval vessel was deployed. By the end of the year a force of twenty ships was planned for the Caribbean. Before the war ended, the force available to the navy approached thirty vessels, with some 700 officers and 5,000 seamen. By the end of the war American ships had made prizes of approximately eighty-five French vessels. American successes resulted from a combination of Stoddert’s administrative skill in deploying effectively his limited forces and the initiative of his seagoing officers.
By October 1800, aggressiveness of the cruisers of the United States Navy, as well as those of the Royal Navy, combined with a more conciliatory diplomatic stance by the French toward America, produced a reduction in the activity of the French privateers and warships. In mid-December 1800 news reached Washington that a peace treaty with France ended the Quasi-War.
The newly reestablished United States Navy acquitted itself well during the Quasi-War and succeeded in achieving its limited goal of stopping the depredations of the French corsairs against American commerce. With Stoddert at the helm, the navy proved itself an effective instrument of national policy.