Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Happy 219th anniversary to the U.S. Navy Department

April 30, 2017 by NCC Staff


The United States Navy actually has two birthdays—one in October, leading up to the Revolutionary War, and one today, when Congress used its constitutional power to officially create the Department of the Navy.

The Navy in its earliest form dates back to 1775, when it was established by the Continental Congress on October 13 in session in Philadelphia. The Navy considers this as its official birthdate.

However, after the Revolutionary War, the new nation sold its ships and sent its sailors home. It wasn’t until 1789 that the newly ratified Constitution empowered Congress to bring the Navy back.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution allowed Congress “to provide and maintain a Navy” as part of its enumerated powers. In Article II, the Constitution named the president as the commander in chief of the Army and the Navy.

It took until 1794 for Congress to approve money to buy new ships. Relations with the British, French, and Barbary pirates forced Congress to plan to build six frigates. Three of the ships were completed before hostilities died down: the USS United States, the USS Constellation, and the USS Constitution.

The start of the Quasi-War with France in 1798 led to the official creation of the Department of the Navy on April 30. The undeclared war on France involved raids on U.S. merchant vessels by French privateers and warships (which were too weak to take on British shipping).

Benjamin Stoddert, the first secretary of the Navy, played a critical role in establishing the new Navy. He secured funding for more ships, sent the Navy on attacks against the French in the Caribbean, and made sure the best officers and sailors were in the service. Stoddert also set up the first six Navy shipyards in the country.

Stoddert left office in 1801 as the Federalists were removed from power and Thomas Jefferson took over as president from John Adams. Although funding for ships was scaled back, Jefferson sent the Navy to the Mediterranean to protect American interests against the Barbary pirates in Tripoli and other areas. It fought well using the tactics adopted under Stoddert.

But in the War of 1812, the Navy was undersized compared with the British, which had the largest, finest naval forces in the world. While the Navy had several isolated, spectacular victories over the British, it couldn’t stop the empire from imposing blockade conditions.

Even worse, British forces were able to land in Washington, D.C., burning the White House and even the U.S. Navy Yard. At the war’s end, it became apparent that an active Navy was needed to protect merchant shipping, at the very least.

Since Stoddert’s appointment in 1798, there has always been a secretary of the Navy. The secretary was a member of the president’s cabinet until 1949. Currently, the secretary serves in the Defense Department.

A civilian serves as the secretary of the Navy. Currently, former Mississippi governor Ray Mabus is the secretary.

In the past, historian George Bancroft served as secretary and played a key role in establishing the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1845.

Bancroft came into office about one year after the USS Princeton disaster of 1844. Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer and the former Navy secretary (and active secretary of state) Abel Upshur were killed when a gun exploded on the Princeton during a demonstration.

Secretary Gilmer had only been in office for 10 days. His predecessor, David Henshaw, escaped the Princeton tragedy because Congress didn’t approve his recess appointment by President John Tyler.


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