The new nation found itself in great financial debt following the American War for Independence and sold the last vessel of the Continental Navy, the frigate Alliance, in 1785. As the country took form under a new constitution, the high cost of building and maintaining a navy, as well as the fear of foreign entanglements it might bring on, kept the nation’s leaders from reestablishing the U.S. Navy. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1793 and the threats to U.S. commerce by the Barbary corsairs reinvigorated national debate and led Congress in March 1794 to authorize the construction of six new frigates to be the foundation of a new American navy.
Before any of these new warships were completed, the new government of Revolutionary France interpreted the 1794 commercial agreement between the United States and Great Britain (known as Jay’s Treaty) as a violation of the 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and France. Over the next four years the increasingly radical French government unleashed more and more privateers against American merchant ships. The tipping point came in April 1798 when President John Adams revealed to Congress that French agents demanded a large bribe for the restoration of relations between the two countries in what became known as the “X Y Z Affair”. Congress immediately provided funds for the purchase of new ships to be converted for war. On 28 May Congress initiated the Quasi War with France by authorizing U.S. warships and privateers to capture French vessels hovering off the coast of the United States.
The first prize taken by the reborn United States Navy was not by a sleek, purpose-built frigate, but a slow, over-loaded sloop formerly named the Hamburgh Packet. One of eight merchantmen purchased for the Navy at the start of the war, the 321 ton vessel was armed with twenty-four 9 and 6-pounders and carried a crew of 180 men. Renamed Delaware, and under the command of Stephen Decatur Sr., the sloop of war set sail from Philadelphia and left the Delaware River on 6 July 1798.
Early the next morning Decatur received a tip on the location of some French privateers from an American merchantman that had recently been plundered. Sailing north along the Jersey shore, Decatur soon sighted four schooners. Unwilling to risk loosing the speedy schooners in a chase, Decatur maneuvered Delaware cautiously, pretending to be an innocent merchant vessel, which her lines made her appear to be. The French privateer schooner la Croyable took the bait, but when the ship’s captain realized that he was closing on a warship he attempted to find shelter in American waters, thinking his antagonist was British. Delaware pinned the schooner to the coast, and after several shots the Frenchman surrendered. The French captain was aghast when he learned that his captor was American, and stated that he wished he had been sunk. Decatur told him he would have been “gratified if he had stood on board his vessel and fought her!”