Thursday, September 19, 2013

Six Frigates

We tend to forget that 1776 wasn't the end of America's struggle for independence. Fighting didn't even end until 1783 and the country wasn't exactly unified – it was just a loose confederation of thirteen states. And it wasn't until the Constitution was adopted in 1787 that we had a real government with George Washington as President. Even then Great Britain kept pushing us around while France and Spain waited patiently for the fragile republic to fall apart so they could pick off the pieces. It wasn't really until the War of 1812 (which finished in 1814 and could reasonably be considered the end of the Revolutionary War) that America had proven itself.

But keeping America free during those intervening years turned out to be a real struggle. After the troubles with Britain, many of the Founding Fathers had a strong aversion to having a standing army – it was seen as dangerous – so after the Revolutionary War the small Continental Navy was disbanded. However, with the predations of pirates and privateers upon American merchant vessels and shipping interests, it soon became clear that a navy was essential, especially at a time when the British Royal Navy was the undisputed ruler of the seas. At the urging of Vice President John Adams, President Washington authorized the building of six frigates, which was a type of warship at the time. Washington was given a list of names for the ships and he simply chose the first six that were on the list – United States, President, Congress, Constitution, Constellation, and Chesapeake – and Ian W. Toll writes a real page-turner in his book Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy that is one of my "all-time most favorite books ever."

Shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys was chosen to design the frigates and came up with a plan that accommodated many of the advantages of ships that were both larger and smaller than frigates typical of the time. And although the ships were all built in different shipyards, what resulted were strong ships which performed surprisingly well in the Quasi-War with France, the conflicts with the Barbary pirates of Africa, and against Britain in the War of 1812. The captains and admirals involved are discussed, such as Truxton, Bainbridge, Decatur, Hull and Rodgers, and they and their exploits and accomplishments come alive in wonderful detail, and many nations – especially Britain – were forced to come to terms with the idea of another nation with a strong presence on the seas.

I was thoroughly surprised by how engaging and readable this book is – I honestly had not expected much from "a history of the founding of the U. S. Navy." But Mr. Toll (a financial analyst and political aide, of all things!) has written an outstanding and well-researched book that makes an otherwise little-known part of history come alive. The only book that comes close, in my opinion, is Perilous Fight by Stephen Budiansky which covers a much shorter period of time and focuses on the War of 1812. From the brutality and violence of sea battles to the political rivalries and economic challenges, the history is placed into proper context to allow the reader to understand the forces behind the decisions and the historical impact. I was almost sad to see this book end and look forward to reading his next book... if I ever find time to get around to it!

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