By Joseph Fordham, Naval History and Heritage Command
It was 220 years ago this week when the 3rd U.S. Congress received a committee report suggesting the young nation build six frigates to fight against Algerian piracy and then set aside the money needed to maintain them.
It would be the forbearer to the Naval Act of 1794 that was approved two months later.
The report requested a resolution to create a naval force to consist of four ships with 44 guns and two ships of 20 guns, to be provided for the protection of the commerce of the United States against the Algerian corsairs.
The next resolution defined ho
w to pay for the ships requesting permission to tax upon all goods, wares and merchandise, imported into the United States, an additional duty of one percent on top of the already levied 7.5 percent. Marble, slate, stone and tile were taxed an additional five percent, while salt, at 56-pounds per bushel, were nicked three cents per bushel.
The taxing didn’t stop there: ships made in the U.S. or employed in foreign trade were levied six cents per ton. The “not-made-in-America” ships were taxed 25 cents per ton.
The resolution also requested a separate fund be created to begin to build up the $600,000 expected to pay for the naval armament, including six months stores and provisions and three months’ pay to the officers and seamen, and $247,960 for the annual expense.
When the final resolution was approved two months later, March 27, it bumped up the two 20-gun frigates to 36-guns and left out the tax levy language. The final resolution did include guidelines on how to man each of the vessels, their salaries (captain at $75 a month, six rations per day; boatswain at $14 a month plus two rations a day), and the type of food they could expect for those rations: A pound of bread, a pound and a half of beef and a half-pint of rice for Sundays; one pound of bread, a pound of pork, a half-pint of peas or beans and four ounces of cheese for Monday. Added to that was a half-pint of distilled spirits, or one quart of beer per day.
Sailors know that the Navy celebrates its birth date as Oct. 13, 1775. So what happened to the Navy of the revolutionary war? After gaining her independence in 1783, the new nation’s leaders disbanded its Continental Navy, claiming a national military would be too costly to maintain, and besides, Congress had no authority to raise the money to pay for it.
But as piracy began to impede the young country’s economy, discussions arose in Congress about bringing back its navy as a means to protect the commerce flowing in and out of the fledgling nation’s sea ports.
By 1789, the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified and it gave Congress the authority they needed to “provide and maintain a navy.”
It was Ben Franklin who said “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and in this case, the need to protect the country’s economy from piracy and possible future invasion conceived the approval of the Naval Act of 1794. That decision didn’t come without much debate, funding challenges and politics. The same can be said 220 years later of today’s Navy, but as was the case then so it is today: America needs a Navy; presence still matters.
In this first of three parts, we’ll touch on the main challenges faced by America’s leadership as they attempted to re-create its naval force.
Piracy and plunder hit profits
The arguments for a navy came from the systemic problem of piracy, and not just in continental waters, but also on the high seas abroad. The early republic had no capable response to these threats because it had no people, partnerships, power nor, as mentioned earlier, platforms. After winning their freedom from Great Britain, the Continental Navy had been disbanded, with the last of its warships sold by 1785.
In his book “Six Frigates,” Ian W. Toll explains early American leaders managed the problem of Barbary piracy “with a combination of flattery, promises, bribes and occasional threats.” Yet American ships would still be hijacked, taken to Barbary Coast ports, their cargo confiscated as tributes to the Ottoman régime and their crew held for ransom, in one case, for more than 10 years.
Attempts to lean on former allies fell flat for the young nation. As a colony of Great Britain, the Royal Navy protected merchant ships from piracy. But the former motherland was hostile to American merchant ships and suspected them of aiding and abetting France during the Napoleonic Wars. British ships intercepted American merchant vessels, commandeering cargo and impressing their sailors into the British Navy, as many as 15,000 between 1793 and 1812.
In fact, English merchants appreciated having fewer nations compete for goods coming from the Barbary Coast as it gave them more of the market share, a sentiment Ben Franklin heard in London and then repeated: “If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.”
France, which had been America’s ally through her independence from Great Britain, also declined to provide safe passage through the treacherous waters of the Barbary Coast because they had their own interests to protect.
While the United States got no love from Great Britain or France, Portugal provided some protection to American ships when that country began blockading Algerian ships from entering the Atlantic.
Shortly after the warship Alliance, was sold, two American merchant ships were attacked by Algerian pirates in 1785, the survivors forced into slavery or offered to be returned for a ransom. Rumor got back to the U.S. that Ben Franklin, who was returning from peace talks in Europe around that time, may have been on one of the ships. He was not, but that just fueled the flames for a naval force to protect American interests.
In an effort to appease the pirates, the United States entered into its first treaty with Morocco in 1786.
But then Portugal signed their own treaty with Algiers in 1793, and that left American merchant ships vulnerable again. By the end of that year, 11 U.S. ships had been seized by pirates.
That was enough for President George Washington, who stood Jan. 2, 1794 before the House of Representatives for the 3rd Congress. He asked to have six frigates built for the protection of American commerce.
The House of Representatives approved the request and asked a committee to create a bill. Just 18 days later, on Jan. 20, 1794, that committee presented its recommendation for building, manning and maintaining the six frigates.
After the Senate heard and approved the bill two months later, Washington signed it into law March 27. But the bill had a clause that would later confound the construction of the frigates. In order to appease those against building a navy, Section 9 stated “…that if a peace shall take place between the United States and the Regency of Algiers, that no farther proceeding be had under this act.”
That treaty came about in 1795, and soon to follow would be treaties with Tripoli and Tunis in 1797. All involved some sort of payment, or tribute, to the Ottoman regime. For the anti-navy proponents, paying bribery and protection fees was cheaper than the cost of funding a real navy. Despite the clause, Washington asked for the three ships nearly completed to be finished, especially since trouble was brewing with their former ally, France.
Tomorrow, we’ll address the challenges of building a navy from scratch.