(WHTM) — The U.S. Navy got started twice.
The first time was on October 13, 1775, when the Continental Congress passed a resolution calling for “a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns.” This was the beginning of the Continental Navy. Over the course of the Revolutionary War, this force fielded about 65 ships, ranging from small gunboats to frigates. Of these, only about 11 survived until the end of the war. In 1785 Congress disbanded the Navy and sold off the remaining ships.
Which meant that on March 27, 1791, we had to start over from scratch.
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Even before the remnants of the Continental Navy were dispersed, the problems of not having a navy to protect our shipping were starting to show themselves. Of particular concern, the countries referred to in the history books of my youth as the Barbary Pirates, but now known more politely as the Barbary Powers. These were a group of countries along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They preyed upon unprotected American commerce, demanded ransoms for their American prisoners, and claimed the right to exact tribute from the United States.
The pressure to Do Something About This built upon Congress, and in March of 1794, they passed, and President George Washington signed, an “Act to provide a Naval Armament.”, which authorized the building of four 44-gun frigates, and two 36-gun frigates.
The United States Navy was born. Again.
Then it nearly died. Again.
A peace treaty was signed with Algiers, one of the main Barbary Powers, and there was pressure to suspend the building of the frigates. Only three were finished; the 44-gun Constitution in Boston, the 44-Gun United States, and the 36-gun Constellation in Baltimore.
Early Naval Administration Under the Constitution
They were available just in time for the next international problem. Relations with France, our ally in the Revolutionary War, had deteriorated. France was at war with Britain, the U.S. was trying to stay neutral, and the French were not too happy about us not helping the country that helped us gain our independence. French privateers began seizing U.S. shipping in the Caribbean, grabbing more than 300 ships in 1796 and 1797. American naval vessels went on the hunt for privateers, but there were also clashes between American warships and French warships. This “Quasi-war” with France never had a specific beginning, but it ended with the Treaty of Mortefontaine in September of 1800.
The Quasi-War with France (1798 – 1801)
Then came renewed hostilities with the Barbary Powers, followed a few years later by the war of 1812. The U.S. Navy would have its ups and downs, sometimes being built up, sometimes neglected, but there was never another serious effort to abolish it.
Of the three original frigates, only the U.S.S. Constitution is left. She is the oldest commissioned naval vessel of any country still afloat, and may be seen in Boston, where she was built.