On this day in 1785, the cash-strapped U.S. Government issued an order to sell the frigate USS Alliance, the last ship remaining in the Continental Navy. The ship was auctioned off on August 01, 1785, for $26,000. The sale left the infant republic without a Navy and U.S. merchantmen ripe for picking.
The U.S. Navy, for nine years a mere idea, was born in earnest when Congress decided to deal with the Barbary pirates’ depredations by passing the 1794 Navy Act. The Act, which was passed against strong opposition, authorized the building of four 44-gun and two 36-gun frigates to deal with the pirate problem, but clause 9 within the Act stipulated that, if peace were to be established, construction on all six ships would cease.
This, in fact did happen in 1796, but the far-seeing President George Washington persuaded Congress to continue funding on USS Constellation, USS Constitution and USS United States, the three frigates that were closest to completion. This was a lucky stroke, because the French Revolution was about to break out, Britain and France would start seizing U.S. ships, and the naval Quasi-War with France and then the War of 1812 were on the horizon.
Still, it took France’s decision actually to start seizing U.S. ships in 1798 to convince Congress to reauthorize funds for the remaining three frigates, USS Chesapeake, USS President and USS Congress, plus some smaller ships. And it took the War of 1812, which practically annihilated America’s economic life and exposed its coasts to constant threat of devastation, to convince the U.S. government of the utter country’s helplessness in the face of superior naval forces.
And even then, the wrong lessons were learned. Advocates of a commerce raiding and coastal defense navy (plus coastal fortifications) won the argument over the Navy’s future, and a strong seagoing Navy simply didn’t exist until late in the 19th century.
Interesting lesson to contemplate as the Obama administration continues to gut U.S. military capabilities, even in the face of a deteriorating world security situation.