James Fenimore Cooper.

Notions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) online

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to be a favourite measure of his policy ; and as oppo-
sition grew warm, the wisdom of so early and so
considerable an expenditure of the public money was
much disputed. Men who admitted that nature and
reason both pointed to the ocean as the place where
the rights of the nation were to be maintained, still
affirmed that the measure was premature. The
country was involved in a heavy debt, and the very
means that were resorted to, in order to protect the
wealth of the country, might induce quarrels which
would inevitably involve its loss. But this reason-
ing did not immediately prevail, as the administra-
tion contrived to keep its majorities in the two houses
until near the close of its constitutional period of

In the midst of these disputes, the grave determina-
tion of the country is to be traced in its permanent
legislative enactments. In 1798, a navy department
was created, and its Secretary was admitted to a seat
in the cabinet. Notwithstanding the clamour wiiich
had been raised by the opposition against the marine,


when the power passed into their hands no very
serious blow was meditated or practised against its
positive existence'. So much had been said on the
subject of economy, that some reduction became
necessary. Perhaps in the peculiar circumstances
under which the officers and ships had been collect-
ed, it was prudent. The vessels, which had been
purchased to meet the emergency, were therefore
sold, andl)y far the greater part of the officers were

At one time, during the disturbance with France,
near sixty public cruisers were employed on the
American coast, or in the West Indies, under the flag
of the republic. Most of them were merchantmen
that had been purchased and altered to suit their
new destination, and many that were expressly built,
had been constructed in a hurry, and of course im-
perfectly. Of the officers it is unnecessary to say
more tban that they embraced, perhaps, the very best
and the very worst men of their class. Most of these
vessels were small, the largest only rating 44, and ac-
tually mounting 54 guns. The majority were clumsy
sloops, carrying between 16 and 24 guns.

Now that the heat of opposition has passed away,
the best-informed men candidly admit that there was
but little inducement to retain officers or ships so
promiscuously and so hurriedly assembled. Notwith-
standing its apparent hostility, the new government,
while reducing the service, was rather disposed to
cherish a good and efficient marine than to destroy it.

In 1 801, an act was passed, creating a naval peace
establishment. This was the law which gave form
and permanent existence to the present marine of
the country.

By the act of 1801, the number of the ships was
reduced to nine frigates, of various sizes, with a few
smaller vessels. A sufficient number of officers was
retained for their command. From that hour to this,


the corps has never been reduced in the slightest
manner, though the army has been the subject of
repeated increases and of as frequent reductions.
The boy who now enters the navy a midshipman,
enters it with a conviction that, should he behave
with prudence and spirit, he has a highly creditable
employment for life.

The partial reduction of 1801, gave the marine
department an opportunity of making a selection
among the officers, as well as among the ships. Per-
sonal interest, apart from personal merit, could have
no great influence on the movements of this govern-
ment, especially in a case of so great notoriety as
that of a choice between officers of any rank. The
captains retained w^ere men of character and expe-
rience ; and it is probable that a finer corps of inferior
naval officers, than those Vv^ho were retained on this
occasion, never had an existence.

In 1803, the bashaw of Tripoli commenced hostil-
ities against the republic. Different squadrons were
sent into the Mediterranean to oppose the depreda-
tions. His corsairs were driven from the sea, and
his town was blockaded. From watchfulness, the
Americans soon proceeded to attacks, until the slum-
bers of the Africans were almost nightly broken by
the assaults of their weak but spirited foes. The
history of this war, in miniature, is remarkable for
its romantic incidents, and for the high daring of the
actors. A few hght cruizers, with a dozen gun-boats,
and a couple of ketches, backed by a single frigate,
would often lie for hours under the batteries and
shipping of the town, throwing their shot even into
the palace of the barbarian. On several occasions
the conflicts were still more serious. Battles were
fought in closest personal collision ; officers and men,
Christian and Turk, struggling fiercely for the vic-
tory, hand to hand. It was to commemorate the
¬їames of the brave youths who fell in these sanguinary


struggles, that the little monument, already named,
was erected in the Navv-Yard at Washington.

The war with Tripoli was also distinguished hy
an enterprise that was as remarkable for its concep-
tion, as for the spirit and skiH with which it was con-
ducted. The reigning bashaw of Tripoli was an usur-
per, having, some years before, expelled his brother
from the throne. The banished prince had sought a
refuge among the Arabs of the desert in Upper Egypt.
The American consul to the regency of Algiers, was
a person of the name of Eaton. This gentleman had
once been a captain in the army of the Union. He
was a man distinguished for his reckless courage and
for a restless enterprise. During the time the squad-
ron of his country was employed in harassing the
town of their enemy, Mr. Eaton, accompanied by
two or three otncers of the navy, sought out the
exiled bashaw in the desert, and induced him to lend
himself to an attempt to recover his throne. A force,
consisting of Arabs, Turks, Christians, and of adven-
turers from all countries, was soon assembled. It
entered the territories of Tripoli by its eastern fron-
tier, and advanced rapidly upon Derne, the second
town of the principality. Here it was met and sus-
tained by a few light cruizers from the American
squadron. A sharp skirmish was fought in the vicinity
of the town, and the place was carried. A crisis was
evidently at hand. There was every prospect of
complete success to this chivalrous undertaking, when
the whole enterprise was defeated by an event as
mortifying as it was unexpected. A negotiator had
just before arrived from America ; conceiving it to
be his duty to terminate the war, he profited by the
terror excited in the bosom of the reigning bashaw,
by the success of his brother, and signed a treaty of
peace. But for this premature occurrence, the world
would probably have witnessed the singular spectacle
of a power of the western hemisplicie commencing


thus early the work of retaliation, by setting up and
pulling down dynasties of the eastern.

The navy of the United States owes most of its dis-
cipline, and of its high reputation for spirit and enter-
prise, aided by the ambitious natural character of
the people, to the experience it obtained in the war
with Tripoli. The young men (chiefly of the best fami-
hes of the country), who had commenced their milita-
ry career in the affair with France, received their com-
missions during, or at the close of this war; and they
brought with them into the higher ranks of the ser-
vice, the feelings and habits so necessary to their
class. Officers were now first seen in the command
of vessels, who had regularly risen from the lowest
ranks of the service.

From the time of the peace with Tripoli to that of
the war of England, the navy was employed in guard-
ing the coast, and in aiding to enforce the restrictive
laws of the country, A few light vessels were built,
and a plan of defending the seaports, in the event of
need, by gun-boats, grew into favour. The American
naval olBcers say, that the latter scheme had nearly
proved fatal to the tone and discipline of their service.
It was, however, of short duration, and the subse-
quent hostilities completely proved its fallacy.*

* Many absurd statements, concerning the organization of the
American navy, have been circulated in Europe. There is none
more false or more foolish than the story that young mates of
merchantmen are, or ever have been, taken for the first steps in
the service. Boys, between the ages of twelve and eighteen,
receive the appointments of midshipmen, and after having served
a certain number of years, they are examined for lieutenants.
These examinations are very rigid, and they are conducted with
the greatest impartiahty. While the writer was in America, he
formed an intimacy with the commander of a frigate. One day
at Washington, he entered the room of the captain, just as a
naval olficer of high rank was quitting it. " You met one of the
commissioners at the door," said the writer's acquaintance; "he
has been to beg I would make his son, v/ho is just ordered to my

THE NAVY OF 1812. 71

Iq 1812, the marine of the United States existed
rather as the nucleus of a future service, than as a
force to be directed to any of the more important
objects of warfare. It was sufficient to keep alive
the spirit, and to gi'atify the pride of the nation, but
not to produce any serious result on the great objects
of the struggle. So far as I can discover, the whole

ship, mind his books. They tell me the young fellow is clever
enoug-h, and a very good sailor, but he has been twice defeated
in trying to get through with his mathematics, because he will
not study." In what other navy would the son of a lord of the
admiialty lose his commission, in two examinations, for want
of a little ma'theraatics ?

The most severe system of examination, not only into profes-
sional qualifications, but into moral character, is now rigidly
observed in the American army and navy. The lower ranks of
both branches of their service, are admirably filled. Midship-
men, instead of being taken from the merchant service, have
been often taken from the service, under furloughs, to command
merchant-ships. No man in the world is more jealous of his
rank, than the American navy or army officer. It would far
exceed the power of the President to push his own son an
inch beyond the steps he is entitled to by his age and service.
The Senate would refuse to approve of such a nomination. The
same impartiality is observed in respect to commands. A cap-
tain, or commander, is not only sure of getting a ship, when his
turn comes, but he must have an excellent excuse or he will be
made to take one. Both establishments are kept within reason-
able bounds, and promotions are slow and wary. There is not
a single officer necessarily on half-pay, either in the land or sea
service. There is not now, nor has there been for twenty years,
an officer in the American navy, in command of a ship, the four
or five oldest excepted, who did not regularly enter the marine
as a midshipman. Even the oldest entered as low as a lieuten-
ant, quite thirty years ago. A Secretary of the Navy, during
the war of 1812, is said to have wished to introduce a brother
from the merchant service, by giving him the command of a
cartel, but entire!}' without success. Some six or eight clever
men, who entered as sailing-masters, a class generally taken
from the merchant service, have been so successful as to get
commissions, a favour a little out of course, though sometimes
practised to reward merit. Several of these, even, were mid-
shipmen who had resigned, and had re-entered as masters, iu
the war, because they thought themselves too old to begin anew
as midshipmen.


navy of the country, at that time, consisted of the
following ships : three frigates, rating forty-four guns
each, and fighting fifty-four; three, rating thirty-six,
and fighting fifty ; one, rating thirty-two, and fighting
forty-two, or forty- four ; two, rating twenty-four, and
fighting twenty-four or twenty-six ; and eight or ten
sloops and schooners carrying from ten to twenty
guns. There were three or four more frigates of no
great force : but they were rotten, and never employ-
ed. Perhaps the whole marine might have included
twenty cruizers of all sizes. The events of that pe-
riod are so recent as to be sufficiently known. The
war has, however, given a new impulse to the marine
of this country, and one which will probably lead to
the introduction of its 'fleets into the future contests
of Christendom.

The English are said to have employed more than
a hundred sail of cruizers on the coast of the United
States, between the years 1813 and 1815. Whatever
might have been the intentions of the British govern-
ment, it is very certain th^t much useless annoyance
was given to peaceful people by the depredations of
some of these vessels. Even the expeditions which
were attempted on a larger scale, argued a great
ignorance of the character of this nation, since they
exhibited a very mistaken application of force to
attain what the world has every reason to believe
was the object of the assailants.

It is fair to presume that the English commanders
had determined to harass the country, with a view to
bring the war as near as possible to each man's door.
Now, it so happens, that, notwithstanding the large
bays and deep rivers of this continent enabled those
who had command of the water, to do a great deal
of injury, their attacks did not, nor could not, produce
the least effect on the mass of the nation. Harassing
expeditions, and burnings, and alarms, might serve to
exasoerate, but in no degree did they serve to subdue


They often wounded the pride, and excited the in-
dignation of the Americans, without in the slightest
degree enfeebling their power. A government like
this is weak, or strong, for all offensive purposes,
exactly in the proportion that its efforts are popular.
It is well known that a serious opposition to the war
with England existed in the country from its com-
mencement to its close. But it is just as well known,
that these ^'ery acts of exasperating hostility had
begun to shut the mouths of the friends of England,
while they permitted her enemies to declaim the
louder. Had the contest continued another year, it
is probable it would have afforded a very different
scene. The American government, strengthened by
the blunder, and excited by the inroads of its enemy,
was seriously turning its attention to the work of re-
taliation. When peace was unexpectedly announced,
two squadrons of fast-saihng schooners, bought for
the purpose, were about to sail with orders to burn,
ravage, and destroy. The firebrand would have gleam-
ed on the island of Great Britain itself; and God only
knows what horrid character the war would have
next assumed. All experience shows that this is a
nation, however patient and enduring Jt may seem
under contumely and aggression, which knows how
to rise in its anger, and to make itself dreaded even
by the strongest.

But the chief and the most lasting effect of the
British policy, during the war of 1814, has been J;o
bring a respectable American marme into a sudden
existence. This truth is proved by the fact, that the
Congress, which, in these matters, takes most of its
impulses from the people, exhibited the extraordinary
policy of increasing, instead of reducing, its arma-
ments with the peace. The whole nation saw and
felt the necessity of protecting their coast, and the
friends of the navy have seized the happy moment to
interweave the polirv with their institntions, in '^nch

Vol. H. G


a manner as to render them henceforth inseparable.
That they ought to be inseparable, every man, in the
least familiar with the interests of this country, can
see ; but it was a great point gained to induce a peo-
ple so wary of expenditure, to incur the cost of a
marine, without an immediate demand for its use.
You need not be told, that without a service in peace
a service in war is next to useless, since experience,
method, and even the high spirit necessary to con-
tinued military success, are all the fruits of time. But
economical legislators, who count nothing but the
present cost, are not always so sagacious.

While passing rapidly over this subject, it may be
well to mention the little incident of the last war with
Algiers, since it serves to show the spirit with which
these people will enter on all similar enterprises,
when a little more age shall give maturity and strength
to their efforts. The barbarians had seized the op-
portunity of the British war to commit depredations
on the American commerce. No sooner was the
peace of 1815 ratified, than Congress issued a solemn
declaration of war against the regency. A squadron
immediately sailed for the Mediterranean. It crossed
the Atlantic ; passed the Straits ; routed and destroy-
ed the marine of their foe ; carried the war to the
mouth of his harbour ; and, in six weeks from the
day of sailing, it dictated an honourable and lasting
peace, under the cannon of the city. Ten years be-
fore, it had sued for disgraceful terms from an infe-
rior power of Barbary. This was the first treaty, I
believe, in which the right to lead prisoners into
slavery was formally disavowed by any of the Afri-
can states.

During the war with England, several laws were
passed, empowering the President to add to the ma-
rine. In 1813, four vessels of a force not less than
seventy-four guns, and six frigates of a force 7iot less
than forty-four guns, were authorized. Squadrons


were constructed on the lakes, and sloops of war,
of various sizes, were built, from time to time. In
1816 the Act "for the gradual increase of the Navy
of the United States'' was passed. By the provisions
of this law, eight additional ships of the line, of not
less than seventy-four guns, and nine additional
frigates of not less^ than forty-four guns, were com-
manded. The President was instructed to procure
the timber of three more steam-batteries, which were
to be put in such a state as to admit of their soonest
possible construction in time of need. As the object
of this force was to anticipate the emergency of any
future war, a sum of one million of dollars was appro-
priated annually, in order to procure the timber, and
to insure the best and most desirable construction.
In 1 822, this law was altered, so as to extend the
time, and to reduce the annual appropriation one-

Various other laws were passed, affecting the in-
terests ofthe navy. Some were for the improvement
of the officers; others for the preservation of the live-
oak, the inestimable material always employed in the
construction of a valuable American ship. So minute
and cautious was the interest taken in the service,
that a law was even passed to regulate the manner
in which the vessels were to be named. A ship of
the line was to be called after a State ; the frigates,
after rivers ; and tlie sloops, after the larger towns.
The vessels authorized by the last law are now all
on the stocks, or they have been already launched.!

* Congress often gives discretionary power to the President,
limiting its exercise in this manner. From this practice has
arisen the mistake that the Americans mean to call three-deckers

t While the writer was in the country, a law was passed to
build ten additional sloops of war, and a frigate was bought
that bad been constructed for the Greeks. Since he has left
America, another law has been passed, appropriating half a mil


The actual naval force of this country afloat, or
which might be put afloat in the course of a few
weeks, is nearly as follows : one first-rate ; eight
second ditto, first class, and three ditto of second
class ; nine third-rates, first class, and three ditto of
second class ; and sixteen corvettes and sloops of
war. To these must be added a few schooners and
light vessels, whose number is constantly varying.
The materials of one forty-four are also prepared,
but, in consequence of the purchase of a frigate, her
construction is temporarily delayed. There appears
to be no use in urging the building of these vessels,
which are all the better for delay, and which are only
launched as they are wanted for experiments, or for
actual service. Perhaps we may call the force at
instant command, or which might be fitted before the
crews could be assembled, at fifty sail, of all sizes.*
This excludes the vessels on the lakes, the whole of
which were sold by a law of 1825, except two ships
of the line (on the stocks) on Lake Ontario. I ex-
clude all vessels that are not actually intended to go
to sea. If there is any error, it is in the very smallest
vessels, whose number, as I have already said, is con-

lion of dollars annually, for six years, for the purpose of purchas-
ing the materials for vessels of the different classes already
known in the service. By the report of the commissioners, it
seems that contracts have actually been made for the frames of
five sail of the line, five frigates, and five sloops, all of the first
class. Two dry docks are, also, now in the course of construc-
tion, and a third is much urged in Congress. A new navy-yard
has also been established in the Gulf of Mexico. A naval acad-
emy is pressed by the government. He believes these are the
principal measures taken since the year 1826.

* To these must shortly be added, the vessels whose frames
and materials are now in the course of collection. The rapid
manner in which the Americans run up a ship at need, is well
known. It is clear, that when the materials shall be in readiness,
their force could easily be increased to near or quite seventy sail,
small vessels included.



.stantly varying, by shipwrecks, sales, and re-construc-

With what force the Americans would absolutely
put to sea, in the event of an immediate war, that
should call for all their energy, might be difficult to
anticipate. This government is at once both the
strongest and the weakest in the w^orld. It is weak
compared to its wealth and physical means, in all
cases of ordinary offensive operations, precisely as
other governments are weak or strong in proportion
to the absolute nature of the power they w ield. But
in a popular war, when power shall be conceded
freely to the executive, it is so much the stronger as
the government is assured of a cordial and enthusi-
astic support. I think the power of the United States,
in actual warfare, will always be found to be exactly
in proportion to the greater or less degree of cordiality
with which the mass of the people shall enter into
the views of the administration. The present navy
of the United States would be formidable under any
circumstances, to all second-rate maritime powers,
since the skill and enterprise of its officers, aided by
such legal support as a majority could always com-
mand, would at all times enable them to act with
sufficient energy out of the country. I think also,
in the event of a war, clearly defensive, with any of
the greater powers, it would be unwise to calculate
on having less than the whole of the marine to op-
pose, and that instantly. But we may form a better
opinion of these matters by going a little into detail.

It would require about 20,000 men, to man the
whole of the present marine of this country. This
may sound large to your ears, but it is necessary to
remember how^ very large a proportion of the esti-
mated fifty sail are vessels of great size. Of this num-
ber more than one thousand would be those officers,
who are always retained as a regular and durable
part o[ the service. The fifty sail will cany, as near
G 2


as I can discover, about 2,500 guns. It is a rule to
put one marine to each gun. This proportion, in-
ckiding officers, non-commissioned officers, music,
&c., would make a corps of troops of, we will say,
2,500. For petty officers and seamen 10,000 would
be a very liberal allowance, leaving a deficiency of
6,500 to be composed of ordinary seamen, landsmen
and boys. These calculations may not be critically
exact, but I think that they are near enough to the
truth to answer the present object.

I think it can scarcely be doubted that the United
States possess 30,000 men, sufficiently skilful to be
rated as seamen, on board a vessel of war. If this

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 35 of 58)