Madison and Mahan

When President James Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against the United Kingdom or England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales on June 18th, 1812, Alfred Thayer Mahan hadn’t been born. In fact, his seminal work, The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660 – 1783, wasn’t published until 1890.

Mahan based his conclusions on the results of seven significant wars fought between 1160 and 1783 in which the major powers of Europe at the time – Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands. The seven wars Mahan studied were The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1666 – 1667); The War of Devolution – 1667; War of Spanish Succession (1702 – 1713); War of Austrian Succession (1744-1744) that overlapped the Anglo-French Carnatic Wars (1744 -1756); the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763); and The American Revolution (1775 – 1783) – were at war.

Madison had lived through two of the seven – The Seven Years War and the American Revolution – studied by Mahan. He already knew several of the precepts Mahan developed in his writings seven decades later The Thirteen Colonies and the new United States is a maritime nation. It was true before we won our independence, and it is true today. In the north, there are the Great Lakes. To the east, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean lap our shores. From the southern tip of Florida to Brownsville, TX, we can swim in the Gulf of Mexico, and our entire Western border is a large body of water known as the Pacific Ocean.

In Madison’s time, 100% of U.S. international commerce went by sea, and much of its domestic commerce traveled via lakes, rivers, and up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. Control of the sea in 1812 as it is today, is a strategic imperative. Today, the percentage of non-NAFTA (which goes by road or rail) international commerce that goes by ship has dropped from 100% to the mid-90s.

During the American Revolution, Madison watched as the Royal Navy moved the British Army around so it could capture Charleston, Savannah, and Newport, RI. After his defeat at Cowpens, Cornwallis retreated to Wilmington, NC where he knew the Royal Navy could resupply and reinforce his depleted army. And, when the Royal Navy could not defeat the French Navy off the Virginia Capes, surrendering was Cornwallis’ only option.

Early in Jefferson’s first term as president, control of the waters off the Barbary Coast enabled the United States Navy to conduct a sea control and a small land campaign that convinced the Barbary Pirates that the days of the U.S. paying tribute and ransoms were over. And yet, when Jefferson left office in 1808, he had either forgotten or ignored those lessons.

During the War of 1812, the British Army, transported and supported by the Royal Navy landed in Maryland and burned Washington. This was despite England being engaged in a life and death struggle with France in Europe.
Every day in the years leading up to the War of 1812, each time a U.S. ship was seized or some of its seamen were impressed by the Royal Navy, Jefferson and then Madison were reminded that much of the wealth of the United States was created by international commerce going back and forth across the Atlantic. That wealth was being affected by the Royal Navy. Along with the loss of ships, the United Kingdom’s tariff and customs policies affected our merchants’ ability to generate profits. As Mahan concluded seven decades later, national power and wealth grow when commerce flows freely across the oceans.

Knowing this, Madison can be faulted by not ordering the existing Navy frigates in “mothballs” to be manned, equipped, and sent to sea to protect U.S. merchant ships as soon as he took office. He can also be criticized for continuing to underfund and underequip the U.S. Army even though it was fighting to protect American citizens moving west.
Even today, in our internet-connected world, the lessons of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Rear Admiral, USN retired, are as valid as when he wrote them. Today, Mahan’s teachings are enjoying a resurgence amongst the U.S. and our allies, but also by a potential formidable foe in Asia.

Image of RADM Alfred Thayer Mahan when he was a professor at the Naval War College.

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