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  • The Founders on a Standing Navy: American Military Action Abroad (1783-1860)

    In 1794, President George Washington requested and Congress authorized the building of six frigates, a type of warship widely used at the time. The presence of a standing U.S. Navy was deemed necessary in order to defend American citizens and commerce from European wars and the Barbary Coast pirates.

    By 1794, it had become clear that the ongoing wars between Revolutionary France and England would continue to place American ships in harm’s way. The United States needed to protect American commerce and enforce its neutrality in the European wars. But this was not the most immediate reason for building a navy.

    For those who believed that the U.S. could do without active naval war ships in peacetime or that future conflict could be averted through diplomacy alone, the events of November 1793 proved them wrong. In that month, Algerian Pirates captured 10 American ships and 110 U.S. citizens who they took back to the Barbary State of Algiers. From accounts of the time, we know that the Barbary Pirates killed, tortured, or enslaved the American citizens. The only recourse offered by diplomatic tradition was tribute from the U.S. in order to placate the Barbary pirates. But this option compromised America’s hard won independence.

    This was not the first incident between the Barbary Pirates and Americans abroad, but it was their boldest and deadliest attack on the United States. Prior contact between American diplomats and the Muslim States’ emissaries had alerted America to their new enemy. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote about their diplomatic encounter with the Barbary Ambassador from Tripoli, who demanded outrageous sums of payment as ransom for American citizens held captive. When Adams and Jefferson asked the Ambassador why the Barbary States would attack American ships without any justification and in violation of the Law of Nations, his answer was disturbing:

    “The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

    Adams and Jefferson recognized this for what it was—a significant clash of understandings regarding justice and war—and saw little hope for diplomatic success. Any diplomatic resolution would be “buying peace” through tribute, Jefferson said. Jefferson preferred to obtain peace through war in order to defend American lives and property, and to more stalwartly uphold America’s political principles abroad. But in 1786, the Articles of Confederation thwarted this course, because the Articles did not invest sufficient authority in the national government.

    Once the Constitution was adopted in 1788, the U.S. government could “provide for the common defense”. The idea that the United States would uphold its political principles abroad was also contained in the Constitution by giving Congress the power to “define and punish…Offenses against the Law of Nations” (Art. 1, Sec. 8). After the attack by Algerian pirates in 1793, Washington took the steps necessary to provide for the common defense. The new terror coming from the Barbary Coast had to be confronted on American terms, and that required military force. Washington’s request was granted in the Act to Provide a Naval Armament, which passed in Congress on March 27, 1794 by a vote of 50 to 39.

    The threat from the Barbary Coast was the most immediate and urgent reason for building a U.S. Navy. This was evidenced by the fact that once the unsatisfactory Treaty of 1796 between the U.S. and Algiers was signed, Congress attempted to cut off funding for the six frigates which were still being constructed. Washington implored Congress to let the ships be built, in order to provide for future safety. Congress answered by giving Washington three of the six ships (USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution). Congress, however, was soon compelled to appropriate funds for many more ships, as the U.S. would soon fight two wars with the Barbary States in 1801 and 1815.

    This episode during Washington’s administration reveals that the Founders, despite their minor disagreements over foreign policy, understood the “common defense” to encompass more than merely territorial defense in the face of immediate dangers. Washington’s wise procurement of these frigates enabled President Thomas Jefferson to dispatch them to the Mediterranean when diplomacy failed again in 1801. President James Madison did the same in 1815. They well understood that U.S. independence was directly related to America’s constant defense at home and its ability to uphold the principles of freedom abroad without coercion.

    —Marion Smith is a graduate fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation. This post is the third in a series on the Founders’ understanding of military engagement.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    5 Responses to The Founders on a Standing Navy: American Military Action Abroad (1783-1860)

    1. George Colgrove, VA says:

      This is the only legitimate military "Department.”

      The Department of the Navy, including the Marines, is the only constitutionally recognizable “Department” for the “common defense” of the nation. The other legitimate military bodies are the state controlled National Guard, air and army. In times of peace, this should be the configuration of the US military.

      In times of war, the President assembles a military from the “militia’s” to create an army and they have the Navy on call – so to speak. First strike has historically been the Navy (either by air or by Marines). The army/air force then trails in after – once assembled.

      I agree, since it is so clearly spelled out in the Constitution, one can easily conclude that the founding fathers felt a “standing” Naval force was justified. However, it was clear by every writing and every speech that the founding fathers were very cautious about a standing army. They properly learned that from history, standing armies has created mischief in the world for self-justification. Washington did feel men (at the time) should be well prepared for battle at all times. What he meant was that men should practice shooting, be physically fit and when war hit, be prepared to join the fight. In the day, men formed loose groups of Militias, that answered that call. A practice that continues on to today, inclusive of women.

      The DoD was created after WWII to consolidate common administrative structures between the three military branches. However as one navigates each branches websites, not only does the DoD have it’s own redundant administrative programs, each branch has very similar administrative programs as well. The DoD’s purpose has failed in this light. The DoD has become an “unworkable” portal where massive amounts of taxpayer and unfunded dollars gets channeled to campaign contributors in the defense community.

      The constitutional framework for the military is set up like this: at the federal level the Department of the Navy, including the Marines as a wing shall be the only military branch. Then each state should control the separate “militias” or National Guard in the form of an Army branch and an Air Force branch for each state. The governors then can have oversight on each of these two components, and the civilian leadership in DC can have oversight over the Navy. War brings it all together under the president’s control – peace, sends it all back home. During peace times, our soldiers keep skilled and up to date by a weekend drill every month and two weeks training every year. Meanwhile, they carry on normal financially productive lives in the private sector. Our Navy on the other hand continually maintains our fleet while roam the earth on patrol.

      This will help keep defense cost low as there would be more eyes on the budget and the non-war effort will be minimal cost considering active military personnel (Army/Air force) will be earning their keep in the private sector. We have seen over the last ten years how quickly a squadron can be mobilized for their contribution to the ongoing (never-ending) global wars. This can be very effective both in cost and in wartime mobilization.

      To keep the hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of millions of people we have invested in war working, we have three ongoing wars to date. We are fighting in Yemen and we have our sights set on Iran. At what point does this all count for WWIII? Does this seem like the global mischief the founders warned us of?

    2. Tom, SC says:

      Great essay. Nice to hear the real story on Washington's belief in a strong American defense. He wasn't "non-interventionist"! He also believed in more than just a standing Navy, but an Army too. Not in order to tyrannize the people, like in the Old World, but to protect them from foreign and domestic threats, at that time it was indian raids on the frontier. Libya though…that's a bridge too far. Obama doesn't even know what he's supposed to defend! Let alone how to go about it!

    3. Frank Zagger says:

      I would like a comment from Heritage on one of Obama's latest remarks that what he would want is a
      " civilian army that would be as strong or stronger than the existing army." I have my own thoughts on this but I would like others to comment on it. Our founders were very much against a standing army.

    4. and2therepublic says:

      "It is a principle incorporated into the settled policy of America, that peace is better than war, war is better than tribute."

      President James Madison – letter to Dey of Algiers – August, 1816.

    5. Self defense is not interventionism. Congress authorized the building of the six frigates strictly for self defense. You are not intervening in what already are your affairs. Non interventionist simply means you use force only in self defense.

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