The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
Ian W. Toll
W.W. Norton & Company
The US Ambassador to the Central Africa Republic excitedly posted on the Fender Discussion Page, www.fenderforum.com , about this book, which had been given to him by a retired Royal Navy officer. Thanks, DiploStrat, for turning me on to this one.
There are lessons that we should learn from this narrative, as there are in every era of history. For one thing, Britain was a superpower – Britania Rules the waves and all that – and was quite arrogant in regard to it’s treatment of the ships and sailors of other nations, particularly the United States, “pressing” sailors into the Royal Navy, i.e. kidnapping them, whenever it suited. What’s the use of being a superpower if you can’t throw your weight around, right? Well It turns out that a smallish country at the edge of the known universe can become a royal PIA to a superpower without having to come anywhere near matching that superpower’s military might. The US managed to annoy Britain to exhaustion, for a second time, in the war of 1812.
Then there is the opposition of the Republicans (Democrats) in the US to wasting money on such a superfluous thing as a navy. American commercial shipping was growing by leaps and bounds and had no protection against pirates, privateers or arrogant naval officers. Congress finally agreed to build six frigates in 1794 after the Tripoli reneged on the protection agreement that the US had bought from them, pillaged an American ship and held it’s crew for ransom. Colonel Khaddaffi’s predecessor in Tripoli didn’t get his comeuppance until 1805, though, what with cost overruns, schedule delays, change orders, budget cuts and a small undeclared war with France.
Considerable attention is given, in the book, to the Presidential election of 1800, which made Harry and Louise and even the Willie Horton ads look pretty tame. It was the first time we actually had to chose between candidates in 1800 and there were no rules yet. It showed.
“Six Frigates” ranges over a lot of topics, Nelson’s victories at the Nile and Trafalger, Napoleon Bonepart and his wars in Europe, the Louisiana Purchase, Theodore Roosevelt’s study habits, (Teddy wrote a book on the war of 1812, standing up, while attending law school) and Winston Churchill, who said “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” It is well written, as readable as a novel and (don’t tell) educational. It isn’t just ships and cannons and whatnot, although buckles are swashed aplenty.