Mar 27

The Naval Act of 1794: Piracy and the U.S. Navy's Re-Birth

Tuesday, March 27, 2018 3:00 PM


I learned something today, dear reader. For nine long years, the United States didn’t have a Navy. Nine years! Between August 1785 and 27 March 1794, there were no Naval officers, nor sailors, not even a single ship to the Navy’s name. Yes, today is the anniversary of the rebirth of the United States Navy, and it is all thanks to pirates.

At the end of the Revolutionary War in August 1785, Congress sold the last Continental Navy ship, the Alliance. There just simply wasn’t enough money available to maintain a ship or support a naval force. Moreover, the United States wasn’t fighting a war any longer; was a Navy truly necessary during times of peace?

Apparently, no one told the Barbary pirates that peacetime did not mean plunder time. The same year Congress sold off the Alliance, two American merchant vessels were captured by pirates from the state of Algiers. Yet despite these actions—and urgings from then Minister of France Thomas Jefferson—no one moved to reinstate the Navy. In 1786 and 1791, Congress and the Senate both discussed proposals for a Navy, but again no lengths were taken to enact these plans. Many of the leaders of the young nation believed that, on top of the cost, forming a Navy would be too imperialistic, and could provoke the European powers to act against them.

In this situation, it took an event of sheer magnitude to change the status quo. And that’s just what the Barbary pirates delivered in 1793, when they captured eleven ships in one year. Eleven. To remain inactive after such events would only convey the United States’ compliance and submission to the pirates and send out a signal of weakness to the rest of the of the world.

Painting of the USS Constitution, the first ship completed after the re-establishment of the Navy.

Illustration of the USS Constitution, the first ship completed after the re-establishment of the Navy.

So, on 27 March 1794, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, authorizing the construction of six frigates, and officially reinstating the United States Navy. While the first three ships weren’t completed until 1797, I think what’s most important to take away from this event is that the United States acknowledged the need for a Navy if it wanted to participate on the global stage. Without the Navy, private citizens and their possessions would have continued to be captured and seized, both by pirates and by European powers who believed the United States too weak to stand up against them. So happy re-birthday, U.S. Navy, and thank you, pirates, for bullying it into existence.