Jefferson’s Complicated Relationship With the U.S. Navy

When Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office on March 4th, 1801, the Convention of 1800 that ended the Quasi War with France had been signed on September 30th, 1800. It would not take effect until December 21st, 1801, some 15 months later. The Convention of 1800 also formally ended the 1778 Treaty of Alliance and Friendship signed between France and the United States and cancelled all our remaining debt obligations to the French.

The new President could concentrate on facilitating the westward expansion of our country into the territory granted by the British in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Before Jefferson took office, three more states – Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), and Tennessee (1796) – became states. During his tenure, only one – Ohio in 1803 – was added to the union.

Jefferson wanted the United States to remain a self-sufficient agrarian nation that would not need the support or assistance from other nations. He viewed international commerce as a potential source for “foreign entanglements.” Jefferson also believed that a strong standing army and navy would encourage the President to commit them to conflicts beyond the U.S. borders. Today, we would call Jefferson’s views “isolationist.”

The reality was that the U.S. economy, spurred by exports to Europe was booming. Trade with England alone had grown by 300% since the end of the revolution. The continuing wars in Europe had created a demand for U.S. raw materials, dried and salted foods, and some manufactured goods. All had to be transported across the Atlantic by ship, many of which were built in America.

Jefferson and members of his Democratic-Republican Party did not want the U.S. government to go into debt. Naval ships, in his view, cost money to build and maintain. Crews had to be kept on active duty and therefore had to be paid.

Clause Nine of the Navy Act of 1794 gave him an out. The clause was a compromise between the Federalists who supported a strong Army and Navy and the Democratic Republicans led by Jefferson who didn’t want a standing military that had to be paid for by the Federal government. It stipulates that if a “a peace treaty is signed, construction of new ships can be halted.”

Another clause in the Navy Act also states that the navy cannot be reduced to less than six “heavy” frigates. When the signers of the act agreed to these words, they were envisioning the six frigates specifically authorized in the act itself.

So as noted in last week’s post – Jefferson Takes a Budget Axe to the New U.S. Navy – – shortly after Jefferson used Clause Nine to reduce the Navy to three large frigates.

Fortunately for the navy, tribute to the Barbary Pirates was approaching 30% of the Federal budget and it was obvious to Jefferson and the Congress that it would go in only one direction, up. The money spent on tribute could more than pay for a Navy. With the Barbary Pirates again seizing U.S. flagged ships in the Caribbean, he authorized the Navy to expand and he ordered them to the Mediterranean in May 1801 to end this piracy.

The Barbary Wars will be the subject of future posts, but what is important is what happened after the Barbary Pirates were defeated in 1805. Again, Jefferson used Clause Nine as the basis of his order to the Navy to “mothball” its ships and pay off the crews while keeping some officers on half-pay.

While significantly reducing the Navy’s budget may have looked good, Jefferson’s actions created huge problems for his successor James Madison. Without a navy to protect our ships, the Royal Navy began stopping our merchant vessels and impressing as much as 25% of their crews. This set the stage for what became the War of 1812.

Image is the Charles Peale Polk 1799 painting of Thomas Jefferson at age 57.


  1. PC Coker on February 3, 2022 at 9:57 pm

    Wasn’t one of the reasons for the Barbary pirate attacks on US and other ships because Napoleon had ended the Venetian Republic in 1797 whose navy largely kept the pirates of North Africa in check?

    • Marc Liebman on February 7, 2022 at 9:00 am

      Sort of. During the American Revolution, U.S. merchant vessels were “protected” by the French Navy. Before the war, they enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy. The 1783 Treaty of Paris ended French protection, thus leaving U.S. flagged vessels vulnerable to whomever wanted to seize them because from 1783 to 1794 (when the Navy Act was passed) we had no navy. It was 1796 before the U.S. Navy had any ships. During the Quasi War,the French government encouraged nations to seize U.S. vessels and issued letters of marque for this purpose even though there was no formal declaration of war. It was not until the U.S. Navy established a deterrent presence in the Med that the Barbary Pirates menace to U.S. shipping ended.

      Having written all that, ships carrying goods to the duchies and kingdoms throughout the Med had a stake in this game because when the ships were taken, their citizens were without the goods. So, did some of the kingdoms have small navies that could protect U.S. ships, yes. Did they have an effect, frankly, I don’t know mainly because I haven’t gotten to that part of U.S. history in my research.

      Thanx for the comment.

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