Jefferson Takes a Budget Axe to the New U.S. Navy

When Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy at the end of john Adam’s administration, he left behind a nascent sea going Navy that had acquitted itself well against the French. Besides the famous six frigates – Chesapeake, Congress, Constitution, Constellation, President and United States – six more were in commission. Shipyards were building smaller brigs and sloops that would support them as well as twelve ships-of-the-line, each with 74 guns.

John Barry had recruited a group of outstanding men who were building a professional Navy that would prove its value in the War against the Barbary Pirates and the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. Stoddert’s vision was to create a force that could protect U.S. merchant ships wherever they went in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Stoddert’s last day in office was March 31st, 1801. He stayed on 27 days after John Adams turned over the reins of power to Thomas Jefferson. Stoddert’s successor, William Smith didn’t take office until July 27th, 1801. The gap was caused by the process we still follow today, i.e. the president nominates an individual and the Senate then approves the appointment.

Jefferson was a lifelong Francophile. He helped the Marquis de Lafayette and other French revolutionaries write documents during the early days of the French Revolution. He and his fellow Democratic Republicans opposed closer commercial ties with England. Their machinations led to several scandals, two of which were L’Affaire de XYZ (see post – ) and L’Affaire Ganêt (see post ).

By the time Jefferson took office, the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars were in full swing. Jefferson continued Washington’s and Adams’ position that the U.S. should not be involved. This was a position that both the British and their allies and the French and their friends accepted. Our economy was booming because we were selling goods to the fighting European powers.

Jefferson decided that we no longer needed a strong Navy. He ordered construction on all new ships to be stopped right after he was sworn into office. The only ships that he allowed to be built were small ships that could be used for “coastal” defense, a concept and mission that was never well-defined.

Once Stoddert was out of office, Jefferson ordered the Department of the Navy to reduce its force to only three frigates. Thankfully, the ships that were built were not broken up, but stored in what the Royal Navy calls “in ordinary.” The ship’s guns and sails were removed and only enough men to man the three ships were kept on active duty. The rest were put on half-pay or paid off.

Once again U.S. merchant ships were vulnerable to pirates. Almost immediately, Jefferson was forced to reconsider his decision to dramatically downsize the Navy because the Barbary Pirates began taking U.S. ships without fear of reprisal. The tribute paid to the Barbary Pirates had risen to almost 30% of the Federal budget and was far more than was being spent on a navy.

To reconstitute the U.S. Navy, Jefferson had to bring back officers that served under Adams and Washington, many of whom were Federalists. Jefferson had to swallow his pride because he hated any member of the Federalist Party.

The man from Monticello learned a hard lesson that our political leaders continue to relearn today when it comes to defense policy. With the stroke of a pen one can deactivate squadrons or divisions or ships. The savings are soon realized. However, it takes years, sometimes decades to recoup the capability cut.

Under Smith, the Navy is rebuilt, at least partly and defeated the Barbary Pirates. With that mission accomplished, Jefferson AGAIN reduced the size of the Navy. This second cut would cause significant problems for his successor James Madison.

Image is Claude Joseph Vernet’s 1753 painting of French warships tied up in ordinary in Toulon harbor.

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