Establishing a version of naval discipline that suited the character of Americans posed one of the earliest challenges facing the United States Navy. Americans’ egalitarian ways worked against customary forms of military subordination. During the 1790s, when the United States Navy was established, the clash between egalitarianism and military subordination intensified, for this was an era in which republican ideals, based on the American Revolution’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” were challenging traditional habits of deference of social inferiors to social superiors. In looking to European models of naval discipline, founded on rigid social separation of officers from ratings, commissioned officers of the fledgling American navy ran up against the general American desire to eliminate all vestiges of special privilege and aristocratic pretense.
An incident during Captain James Sever’s command of Congress in 1800 illustrates the difficulties that resulted from the disjunction between rising notions of liberty and equality among American seamen and traditional concepts of due subordination held by naval commanders. This episode took place hardly two years after the first U.S. Navy ships entered commission. Captain Sever’s shipboard rules required the seamen to eat their meals on the berth deck. Without lights it was too dark for the seamen to see their victuals on the deck on which they slung their hammocks, given that it was below water level. The men, therefore, ate their meals by candlelight, that is until one day, acting on Sever’s orders, the master at arms went through the deck extinguished the candles while informing the men that burning candles on the berth deck without special permission was against regulations. The next morning, a delegation consisting of two seamen, Ansel Robinson and acting armorer’s mate John Carter, requested an audience with the captain. Hats in hand, they asked that the crew be allowed candles during meals, or, failing that, that they be allowed to eat their meals on the gun deck, where natural light was sufficient. They suggested to Sever that his denying them candles “was different from the practice in every other ship in the service.” Informing the men that he would not be dictated to by them, Sever denied both requests. After the delegation had returned to the spar deck, the officers heard from among the crew on the forecastle cries of “light and liberty!” Apprehending that the crew’s mood was growing ugly, Sever ordered the men below decks. Once below deck, some thirty or forty of them shouted, “huzza for liberty!” With the marines armed and drawn up on the quarterdeck, Sever ordered the seamen back above decks. As Carter was coming up the ladder, admonished by Sever for tardiness, he replied, “If this is liberty, damn such liberty.” Sever placed Carter, Robinson, and five other men he considered the instigators of the trouble under arrest.
The transcript of the subsequent court-martial opens a window on the viewpoints of both the seamen and their commanding officer. Whereas the seamen asked for the use of candles by which to eat their meals not as a favor, but as a right, Sever denied the request because the men asked it as a right and not as a favor. Some of the men, from having served previously in U.S.S. Constitution, where they had been allowed candles at meals, believed that such was the Navy’s established practice. Asked during the trial, “was the application for candles a demand or a requisition,” Sever answered, “It was clearly a demand. The word was not ‘I demand,’ but that they had a right.” And asked if messing on the gun deck was a demand or a requisition, Sever stated, “The words were ‘if you will not let us have candles you will not object to our messing on the gun deck.’”
In their defense, the accused submitted an apology, pleading that their disgruntlement arose only because they had thought the refusal of their request was “a denial of what we imagined the rules of the navy gave us a right.”
The court acquitted one of the accused and convicted the other six, sentencing four to seventy-two lashes with the cat-o-nine-tails. Carter and Robinson, identified as the ringleaders, the court condemned to death by hanging from the fore yard arm, while recommending them to clemency. Commodore Thomas Truxtun confirmed the sentences of seventy-two lashes, referring to them as “mild,” and mitigated the hangings to one hundred lashes and dismissal from the service.
Eventually, an American version of discipline emerged out of the rough and tumble shipboard friction between officers and men, a version more compatible with the American egalitarian ethos, but still firm and maintaining a measure of social distance between ranks. More relaxed and less draconian than that of European navies, discipline in the nineteenth-century U.S. Navy made the American the more attractive service.