March 27, 2013 marks the 219th anniversary of the formation of the United States Navy by the Navy Act of 1794. Congress appropriated funds for the building of six heavy frigates, a number of which would go on to become legendary fighting vessels.
The establishment of a powerful naval force was uneven in early American history due to the traditional American fear of military establishments and the centralization of government. However, given increasing global power and belief in free trade it became clear that a world class navy was vital to protecting American interests and ideals abroad.
President Thomas Jefferson learned the hard way about the danger of having an insufficient navy. Instead of continuing to build and service a blue water navy, Jefferson decided that a large force of tiny gunboats could protect the American homeland and ports. This was couched in the belief that the military was only needed for basic homeland defense and that economic pressure instead of military strength could accomplish American foreign policy goals abroad. The result was nearly catastrophic for the young country.
American merchants were continually pillaged by North African pirate states in the Mediterranean, which Jefferson and later Madison eventually solved by increasing American naval presence in the region. The two times they deployed the blue water navy were mostly a product of the policies of their political opponents. However, the real failure was the total lack of preparation for the War of 1812 and weakness of the American military during the worldwide conflict between Napoleonic France and Great Britain. The failure to protect American sailors from being impressed into the service of the British and French navies during these wars demonstrated the critical weakness of a great economic power that lacked the military might to protect itself and its citizens.
Instead of protecting Americans through the presence of an adequate navy, Jefferson tried to put pressure on European regimes strictly through economic warfare. Jefferson ended up placing an embargo on the belligerent France and England and restricted the abilities of American merchants to engage in trade abroad. The result was a harsh infringement of American liberties, a skyrocketing debt due to the catastrophic effect on the economy, and general embarrassment for the American people.
The great historian, Henry Adams described in detail what a failure the embargo policy had been:
Jefferson’s vast popularity vanished, and the labored fabric of his reputation fell in sudden and general ruin. America began slowly to struggle, under the consciousness of pain, toward a conviction that she must bear the common burdens of humanity, and fight with the weapons of other races in the same bloody arena.
“Jeffersonians” of a later era learned the lessons of the previous administrations and understood that free trade and peace required military strength. President Andrew Jackson, a Jeffersonian in many respects, held some of the same beliefs as his predecessors, but was ultimately more successful in accomplishing his goals in foreign policy due to a much-needed pivot in focus.
Instead of relying on foreign powers to accept the benevolence and utility of free trade and the rights of Americans, Jackson greatly expanded the navy in order to protect American rights abroad and to insure that free trade could occur without aggressive, hostile attacks by foreign threats.
According to historian John Belohlavek in his book called Let the Eagle Soar: The Foreign Policy of Andrew Jackson, Jackson’s policy was centered around, “promoting commercial expansion, demanding worldwide respect for the American flag, restoring American prestige and national honor, and fostering territorial growth… He engendered and nurtured the advancement of American commerce through his diplomatic missions, treaties with foreign nations, and revitalization of the American navy.”
Jackson nearly tripled the navy’s budget and constructed numerous ships of the line, the battleships of the era. On top of this, he aggressively pushed foreign nations to accept free trade agreements and demanded justice for Americans who had been wronged abroad.
A notable test of Jackson’s foreign policy came when an American merchant ship was attacked in Malaysia. The attack came as a consequence of the local population not believing that American ships had military protection. In response to the assault on American citizens Jackson immediately deployed a frigate and attacked the Malaysian harbor of Quallah Battoo. In the words of Jackson’s Navy Secretary Levi Woodbury, the navy gave the Malaysians “a good thrashing.”
Beyond keeping small-time pirate kingdoms in line, Jackson forced the French to pay indemnities to Americans after a long and heated diplomatic battle. This could have never been accomplished without the dramatic increase in American naval power.
Jackson said in his farewell speech, “Your navy will not only protect your rich and flourishing commerce in distant seas, but will enable you to reach and annoy the enemy and give to defense its greatest efficiency by meeting danger at a distance from home… We shall more certainly preserve the peace when it is well understood that we are prepared for war.”
Jackson’s policy of “peace through strength” created a flurry of American foreign policy successes and forced foreign powers to respect the American flag. This principle would be handed down to presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who also understood the importance of protecting American Freedom through a powerful, modern navy.