Benjamin Stoddert’s Difficult Task

On March 27th, 1794, the Congress granted President George Washington’s wish by passing the Navy Act thus creating the modern U.S. Navy. The last Continental Navy ship – Alliance, 36 gunshad been sold in August of 1784. From that moment, the United States of America had no navy and in the 10 years, much had changed.

France and England were again at war. French warships and privateers were seizing U.S. ships in the Caribbean to pressure the U.S. to repay its debt to France. In the Mediterranean, pirates were capturing U.S. merchant ships without fear of retribution. Each year, they upped the ante by demanding more and more tribute. (See 7/5/20 post– We paid What for Tribute –

To create a Navy, Washington appointed Benjamin Stoddert as the first Secretary of the Navy. Few have heard about Stoddert who was the son of a merchant ship captain. He was a member of the Pennsylvania cavalry when he was severely wounded at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11th, 1777. Forced to leave the service, Stoddert recovered and after the war, he was tasked with the job of buying the initial parcels of land that we know now as the District of Columbia.

Two ships were named after the first Secretary of the Navy. The first, Stoddert (DD-302) a four stack, Clemson-class destroyer commissioned in June 1920. The second was Benjamin Stoddert (DDG-22) which was an Adams class guided missile destroyer commissioned in 1964. The 22-ship class was named for Charles Adams, John Quincy Adams’ son and John Adams’ grandson.

Stoddert had a difficult task but had the advantage of starting with a clean sheet of paper. He tasked John Barry, the last captain of Alliance, to find men who could captain the new Navy’s ships. (See 7/7/19 post…he-american-navy/). Barry recruited Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, John Rogers, Isaac Hull, David Porter, and many more who became legends.

At the same time, Stoddert began a ship building program. While most have heard of the famous “Six Frigates” – Chesapeake, Congress, Constellation, Constitution, President, United States – he also established six formal Navy yards to support the new U.S. Navy. Stoddert realized that in order to have an effective navy, the country needed an infrastructure to keep the ships manned, equipped, and maintained. This became the focus of the Department of the Navy that he created. Of the three, recruiting seamen was the hardest because the wages offered by the government were significantly less than one could earn on a merchant ship. Discipline was much stricter and there was the risk of injury or death.

Stoddert convinced President Adams that the best way to defeat the French was to attack the “enemy’s strength” which was the French frigates and privateers in the Caribbean. He ordered the new U.S. frigates and smaller ships he called “cruisers” or small frigates – six raters- in Royal Navy parlance, brigs, and sloops to the Caribbean

The officers Barry recruited were skillful and soon, the French realized the folly of their actions. The Treaty of Mortefontaine signed on September 30th, 1800, cancelled the U.S. debt to France, abrogated the 1778 Franco/American Treaty of Friendship and Alliance and ended the war.

In addition to the famous six frigates, Stoddert lobbied Congress successfully to authorize 12 ships of the line, each mounting 74 guns. These ships were funded and designed by Joshua Humphreys and were the part of Stoddert’s plan to build a small, but powerful Navy capable of defending our country’s interests.

When the Jefferson took office, he cancelled the orders for the ships of the line and reduced the Navy to three operational frigates. By 1801, U.S. merchant ships outside of home waters were again vulnerable.

Image is Eliphlet Frazer Andrews portrait of Benjamin Stoddert, the First Secretary of the Navy.


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