Debate on the Naval Establishment 
[Excerpted from Great Debates in American History, Marion Mills Miller, ed, vol. 9 (New York: Current Literature Publishing Company, 1913), pp. 202-224]
One of the chief issues between the Federalists and Republicans during John Adams's administration was the navy, the Federalists desiring to increase it greatly, in view of the offensive attitude taken toward the United States by France and threat Britain, and the Republicans wishing to maintain it at a minimum strength, for fear that an increase would too greatly augment the power of the Executive, and so menace State rights and the liberties of the people.
Indeed, it was a part of the bargain made by James A. Bayard, Sr. [Del.], the leader of the Federalists, with the supporters of Thomas Jefferson, whereby the deciding Federalist votes were cast for Jefferson against Aaron Burr [N. Y.] in the House contest for the Presidency, that Jefferson would at least not reduce the existing strength of the navy.
While Jefferson fulfilled the letter of the bargain, he did not go beyond it, but showed antagonism to every measure which tended to the aggrandizement of the naval power of the Government. Thus he made it a pet policy to build little shallow "gunboats" to run in and out of our shallow rivers, and so be available for defense, though not for attack, instead of large and powerful men-of-war which could strike the enemy on the high seas and even in his home ports. Historians are generally agreed that this was the chief, if not indeed the only, blot upon an Administration that stands as a record of great achievement in increasing the territory of the country, in wiping out public debt and reducing public expenditure, and in generally promoting the prosperity and liberty of the people.
James Madison continued his predecessor's policies, including that in regard to the navy. However, as war with Great Britain became imminent, the Democratic leaders of the Administration responded to the popular demand for a great increase of the navy.
On December 17, 1811, Langdon Cheves [S. C.], as chairman of a special committee on naval affairs, reported that the committee advised the refitting of all vessels in the navy, the building of ten additional frigates, averaging 38 guns, the purchase of a stock of ship timber, and the establishment of a dock for repairing vessels. A bill was framed accordingly, and brought before the House on January 17, 1812. It was discussed from that day until January 29, when it was passed by a vote of 65 to 30. It had, however, been amended by the omission of the provisions for building frigates (vote, 62 to 59) and the dockyard (vote, 56 to 52).
The debate focused upon the question of building frigates, as this involved the establishment of a permanent navy and fixed the policy of the impending war as a contest by sea as well as by land. The chief speakers in support of the bill were the chairman of the committee, Mr. Cheves, William Lowndes [S. C.], Lyman Law [Conn.], Henry Clay [Ky.], and Josiah Quinsy, 3rd [Mass.]. Those who opposed the measure were Adam Seybert [Pa.], Jonathan Roberts [Pa.], Samuel McKee [Ky.], and Richard M. Johnson [Ky.].
THE NAVAL ESTABLISHMENT
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES-- JANUARY 17-29, 1812
Mr. Cheves.--It has been said by a strong and lively figure of rhetoric [John Randolph], that this country is a great land animal, which should not venture into the water. But if you look at its broad high back, the Alleghenies, and its great sides swelling to the east and to the west, where do you find its immense limbs terminate? Not on some great plain which has been formed for their reception, but in two great oceans, the Pacific on the one side and the Atlantic on the other. The figure explains the true interests of the country, in the inseparable union and necessary dependence of agriculture and commerce. The God of nature did not give to the United States a coast of two thousand miles in extent not to be used. No; it was intended by this bounty to make us a great commercial people; and shall we ungratefully reject the enjoyment of His unexampled beneficence? No, it has not, and will not, be neglected. A great portion of our people exist but upon the ocean and its fruits. It has been eloquently, and not less truly than eloquently, said that "the ocean is their farm," and it must and will be protected.
But how is this protection to be afforded? No proposition appears to me more true or more obvious than that it is only by a naval force that our commerce and our neutral rights on the ocean can be protected.
But the adoption of a naval establishment is deemed improper on the grounds of the enormous expense which it will necessitate, and the inability of the nation, by any force which it can provide, to resist, with effect, the immense naval power of Great Britain. Is it not surprising that so much prejudice should exist against this establishment on account of its expensiveness, when it is ascertained that, during the whole eighteen years of its existence, from 1794 to 1811, inclusive, it has cost the Government only $27,175,695? The expense of the military establishment, from 1791 to 1811, inclusive, has been $37,541,669, giving an annual average of $1,700,000, or $200,000 per annum more than that of the navy. Compare, too, the services of the army with those of the navy, and it will be found that those of the latter have been most useful and most honorable to the nation. I know of no service of this character which the army has performed, except the defeat of the Indians by General Wayne, and the late gallant affair on the Wabash. The navy, in the contest with France in 1798, was victorious wherever it encountered an enemy, and probably laid the foundation of the subsequent accommodation with that nation. In the Mediterranean its exploits gave a name to the country throughout Europe, humbled, in an unexampled manner, the piratical and barbarous foe, and crowned itself with a reputation for intrepidity and heroism which had not been exceeded by the exploits of any nation, and which must go down to a distant Posterity. Admitting that, from a variety of causes, the expense quay have been unnecessarily great, an argument cannot thence be fairly drawn against its future use--the contrary is the fair conclusion. Past errors lay the foundation of future improvement. It was thus the greatest orator, and one of the greatest statesmen of antiquity, reasoned. The great Athenian orator, when rousing his countrymen, by his impetuous eloquence, to resist the ambition of Philip, declared that it was on their past misconduct that he built his highest hopes; for, said he, "were we thus distressed, in spite of every vigorous effort which the honor of our State demanded, there were then no hope of recovery." So may we reason in this case; for, had these extraordinary expenses been the result of good economy, then, indeed, would their diminution be hopeless; but, as they have proceeded from a wasteful or unskillful expenditure, the remedy will be found in a reform of the abuse; to effect this reform is the duty of Congress. But it has not only been less expensive than the army, but it may be proved, as the committee have declared in their report, that "a naval force within due limits and under proper regulations, will constitute the cheapest defence of the nation. " This will be partly proved by a comparison between the expense of the permanent fortifications of our maritime frontier and that of an adequate naval defense. The experience of modern naval warfare has proved that no fortifications can prevent the passage of ships of war. The present fortifications of our maritime frontier, though they are more numerous and better than they have been at any other period in our history, cannot prevent an inconsiderable naval force from laying many of our towns in ashes. Indeed, it is believed that no fortifications which can be erected will afford a complete protection against such attacks, while their expense would be oppressive to the nation. The city of New York alone, if completely fortified, would require a further expenditure of three millions of dollars, and a garrison of ten thousand men, and then might be laid in ashes by four or five seventy-fours. But we have a coast of two thousand miles to protect, the expense of which could not be borne by the nation. A better defense would be furnished by such a naval force as would give you a mastery in the American seas, and at home much less expense.
But, while it is contended by some that it will not be in the power of the nation to establish an effective naval force, there are others who are opposed to it, lest we become too great a naval power. They fear that our fleets will cover the ocean, and, seeking victory on all the opposite shores of the Atlantic, involve the nation in oppressive expenses, and in wanton and habitual wars. Such objects are certainly not contemplated by the report of the committee; nor can such events possibly happen as long as we remain a free people. The committee have recommended such a navy as will give to the United States an ascendency in the American seas, and protect their ports and harbors. The people will never bear the establishment of a greater force than these objects require. The reasons which forbid Great Britain, or any other European power, to station large fleets on our seas will equally forbid us to cross the Atlantic, or go into distant seas, for the purpose of frequent or habitual wars.
We are told, also, that navies have ruined every nation that' has employed them; and England, and Holland, and Venice, and other nations have been mentioned as examples. The vast debt of Great Britain is declared to be among the pernicious fruits of her naval establishment. This I deny. Her debt has grown out of her profuse subsidies, and her absurd wars on the land. Though the ruin which is supposed to threaten England is attributed to her navy, it is obvious that her navy alone has saved, and still saves, her from ruin. Without it she must, long since, have yielded to the power of France her independence and her liberties. We are told that the same wealth which she has expended in supporting her navies would have been employed more profitably for the nation in the improvement of its agriculture and manufactures, and in the establishment of canals and roads, and other internal improvements. But experience is better than theory. Let us compare England with nations which have no navies, or comparatively inconsiderable navies. The nations of the continent of Europe are without such overgrown and ruinous naval establishments, but do you there find the highest improvements in agriculture, the most flourishing manufactures, or the best roads and canals? No, it is in this nation, that has been ruined by her navy, that you find all these improvements most perfect and most extended. I mean not either to be the panegyrist of England; but these truths may be declared for our instruction, without suppressing the feelings excited by the wrongs she has done us. England has not, then, I conclude, been destroyed or impoverished, but preserved and enriched, by her navy. Was Holland ruined by her navy? No; surrounded by the great powers of the Continent, with a population not exceeding 2,000,000 of souls, she protected and secured her independence for more than a century against her powerful neighbors by means of her commercial riches, which were cherished and defended by her naval power. Did Venice owe her decline, or fall, to her navy? While the neighboring Italian states were subdued, year after year changing their masters and their tyrants, she long continued to ride triumphantly amid the storm, independent, and, in a great degree, free. It was her naval and commercial power which made her rich and great, and secured her existence as a state so long. Look even at the little republic of Genoa, whose inhabitants, but for its commerce and its navy, would scarcely ever have possessed "a local habitation, " or " a name ! "
Mr. Seybert.--The gentleman from South Carolina has told us that when the war which we are about to wage shall be over our army will leave us. Sir, I am happy to hear that on such an event the military will be readily disbanded--a dread of the contrary gave much uneasiness to many a few days since--this is just what we wish should take place. On the other hand, said he, "your proud navy" will remain. It is for this, with many other reasons, that I am opposed to a navy. I wish he could have proved to us that with the end of the war the navy would also leave us; perhaps I should then agree with him in favor of its establishment: though the "proud navy" will remain with us, he has neglected to tell us at what rate of expense.
I will ask him, if it is to remain with us in times of peace with its numerous train of officers, may it not become a powerful engine in the hands of an ambitious Executive?
Sir, I deem it inexpedient to commence a permanent naval establishment at this time. We are quite unprepared for it-- we are in want of all the necessary materials; though we have been told that our forests abound in all the necessary timber, it was said little of this material was to be found in our dockyards. The gentleman from South Carolina has told us that a sufficiency of seasoned timber to build four seventy-fours was now on hand, and that the proper authority deemed it advisable to be used for frigates. Sir, this timber is a portion of that which was purchased some years since for the purpose of building six seventy-fours. It now appears that of this timber as much as was sufficient for two of these vessels has been employed to build smaller vessels, or gunboats, I presume. This is all of a piece with our pretended economy. This mode of proceeding will not answer, sir. We are in the wrong from the commencement of our navy. I do not wish it to be understood that I have decided a navy will never be a proper mode of defense for this nation--but whenever it shall be determined on we should begin right; this can only be done by following those nations who have had most experience on the subject. Our first step should be to store away the proper timber. This should be done in times when we can best afford it--in times when our market is glutted--in times when labor can be commanded at fair prices-- at a period when we enjoy peace, and surely not when we are about to engage in a war. We have heretofore paid the highest price for every article; we have given double wages for labor; and instances might be mentioned when the workmen were transported in stage coaches, at an enormous expense, from our large seaport towns to the navy yard of this city. Contracts for timber were made in haste and at a very advanced price As soon as it was obtained it was put together, and in a few months we saw it floating in the form of a ship of war--rotten ships, I may say, sir, for I believe, without exception, in the frigates which were built by the United States the more important parts decayed and were rotten in two, three, or four years. In many instances the expense for repairs was equal to the original cost. A single frigate, the Constitution, has cost for repairs, from October, 1802, to March, 1809, the enormous sum of $302,582.21, or upward of $43,000 per annum for seven years in succession.
Let us view this subject in a more extended sense--I mean as regards our commerce generally--we shall still have cause to entertain the opinion which we first adopted. We cannot protect our commerce on the ocean. Our ships have vexed every sea--we trade to all parts of the world; of course, to protect our commerce our ships of war must abandon our coasts and encounter all the force of the enemy or those of Europe. The ports we have in view are European. If your frigates, for convenience and safety, are to cruise only on your coasts, what will be the fate of the millions which are embarked beyond the (tape of Good Hope? By this management surely you cannot afford it protection. France, Spain, and Holland, when combined and backed by an armed neutrality in the north of Europe, could not secure their commerce. The fleets of Great Britain now sail triumphant over every wave of the deep. The Russians have a navy far superior to that which it is proposed we shall establish, and they cannot protect their trade in the confined limits of the Baltic. They count fifty or sixty sail-of-the-line, besides many frigates and smaller vessels.
Sir, the expenses which are incurred by a naval establishment far exceed the profits which arise from the commerce which it is intended to protect. This proposition is warranted by the experience of Great Britain, the most commercial nation of modern times. In the year 1798 the expenditure for her navy amounted to £13,654,013. In the year 1799 Mr. Pitt computed the profits on the commerce of Great Britain at £12,000,000, or one and a half millions less than the expenses for her navy the preceding year !
Sir, I further object to a navy because it will be the means of exciting many wars, which, without the establishment, may be honorably avoided. It is said nations are involved in war in proportion to the extent of their navies; and some assert (Lord Brougham) that a perpetual war is one of the two modes which are necessary to support a powerful naval establishment. Sir, a naval establishment will create a new and a dangerous interest in our country. Nothing is more common than to be told that such are the wishes of the naval interest of Great Britain, and that this or that war must be entered into to gratify them. For my part, sir, I shall be very sorry indeed if ever the period arrives in the United States when any particular interest or community shall direct the Government, whether it be naval, agricultural, manufacturing, or commercial. The general welfare should be the sole great ruling principle in the national councils.
Sir, I am deterred when I consider the fate of all those nations who at different periods have been famous for their navies The naval strength of the Hanseatic League was such, two centuries past, as to excite terror on the part of England. These, sir, distant free cities, are now the appendages of mighty Prance, and have no political existence. Who has not heard of the once formidable fleets of Venice and Genoa? lit one time England was indebted to the latter for officers to command her ships of war--alas; these republics are now consigned to oblivion. Denmark was at one time the mistress of the ocean; by means of her fleets she often invaded England, and held her in a state of subjection. The Danes heretofore burned London, Paris, and other great cities--they are now controlled by France, and they have had their Copenhagen defeat. Holland, with her Van Tromps and De Ruyters, occupied the British Channel at pleasure; this power defeated the navies of England and France. Where is Holland now? Incorporated as a part of the French empire. Spain boasted her invincible armadas; Elizabeth of England, by nature haughty, proud, and ambitious, trembled at the very mention of them, until they were dispersed and destroyed by storms at sea; Spain is now the vassal of France. Not very long since the navy of France sailed triumphant along the British coast, looked into Portsmouth harbor, and taunted British spirit. I ask you, sir, where is the strength of which these nations formerly boasted? All are inoperative, and dread the gigantic power of the British navy--they are in part sick in dry docks, or are blockaded in their ports.
Mr. Chairman, Great Britain, though at this time triumphant in every sea, if she persists in her expensive naval establishment, with her present debt of £800,000,000, which was chiefly created for her navy--Great Britain, sir, I say, with all this, must sink under the heavy pressure. She will hereafter derive very little satisfaction from her brilliant victories on the 1st of June off Cape St. Vincent, Camperdown, Aboukir, and Trafalgar.
Shall I be pardoned, sir, when I fear our vessels will only tend to swell the present catalog of the British navy? Of the 1,042 vessels which she possessed in July, 1811, one hundred and nine were captured from the French, forty-six from the Danes, twenty-five from the Spaniards, twenty-four from the Dutch, and three from the Italians; making a total of two hundred and seven captured ships, or one-fifth of her whole navy.
Small ships are proper for the service of the United States-- by their agency we shall be able to annoy the convoys of an enemy. The privateers which were fitted out in every port during our revolutionary war destroyed much of the British commerce, even in the British and Irish Channels, while the frigates which were built by the Government did little or nothing--but two of them remained at the conclusion of the contest. The enemy will not watch your small vessels; they may enter all your small inlets, where heavy vessels cannot venture to approach them; and, at the conclusion of the war, they may be sold for the merchant service.
I shall vote against the bill, though it is my present intention to appropriate the sums requisite for the repairing and equipping our present ships of war. I will go no further. I tell you, sir, naval victories in the end would prove fatal to the United States; the consequences which have uniformly followed in other countries must take place here. If the United States shall determine to augment their navy, so as to rival those of Europe, the public debt will become permanent; direct taxes will be perpetual; the paupers of the country will be increased; the nation will be bankrupt; and, I fear, the tragedy will end in a revolution.
Mr. McKee.--Establish a navy and this country may bid farewell to peace; because you thereby organize a class of society who are interested in creating and keeping up wars and contention. Officers in the navy and army are mere cyphers in society in times of peace, and are only respectable in time of war, when wealth and fame may await their exertions. They are, therefore, interested in keeping up a state of war; and being invested with the management of an instrument of war, it is to be expected that it will be used in some degree to answer their own purposes? No man who will reflect for a moment but must be satisfied that the disgraceful and lawless conduct of the British naval officers on our coast originated in a desire on their part to bring on a war with this country, in which they looked forward to large dividends of prize money; and these acts were contrary to the wish and expectation of Great Britain; in one instance the act was disavowed; and it may be asked why were the officers not punished who acted contrary to the wishes of the government? The answer is obvious; because the influence of the navy in England is so predominant that the government are afraid to touch the subject, and the consequence is that the government are compelled to bear the odium of acts which they disapprove; and the same cause which has produced this effect in England, if permitted to operate, will produce a similar effect in this country.
Our little navy has already contributed much toward the irritation which exists between this country and England- and under any other President than Mr. Jefferson it would have brought on a war in 1807. And what real benefit has resulted from it to the Government t Has a picaroon or a buccaneer ever been chastised by theme If they have I have no recollection of the case; I have seen, indeed, paragraphs in the newspapers mentioning that the frigate President, or some one of the vessels, had sailed from the navy-yard to Norfolk, from thence to New York, and finally arrived safe at Boston; but for what purpose we are totally ignorant, unless, indeed, it was to sail back again, and furnish the materials for a new article for the newspapers; and for these eminent services the American people have already paid about $30,000,000.
Mr. Johnson.--I will not vote one cent for a system of naval force which is destined to keep foreign nations in check in distant seas, and destined to entail upon this happy Government perpetual taxes and a perpetually increasing national debt. The people will not support such a naval establishment--they have the corrective in their hands; and build this fleet of twenty seventy-fours and forty frigates, and the people will in their turn put them down. But, sir, we are told that we are a commercial people, and that you cannot restrain a spirit of enterprise in our citizens which is limited only by the polar snows to the north and the icy mountains to the south. No person has attempted to damp that gallant spirit, that mercantile enterprise --such adventurous voyages have been fostered and cherished by every means in the power of the Government. But, sir, has this unparalleled enterprise, this gallant spirit, been carried on by a navy? Such a thing has never been thought of, which proves that this question of a navy has no connection with this commercial enterprise; and the existence of one without the other is positive proof of the fact. I am not prepared to give up our rights, whether upon the ocean or upon land, whether commercial or personal; but I may differ in the means of avenging these wrongs, and vindicating those rights, and I shall ever differ from those who wish a navy to ride triumphant in distant seas, and, under a pretext of protection to commerce, doom the nation to galling burdens too intolerable to be borne. But we are told, sir, that this question partakes of the character of a self-evident proposition. Indeed, sir, and in what respect is it entitled to this definition of self-evident? Unless, indeed, from every consideration of history, experience, and reason, it is evident that a navy is an engine of power and ambition, calculated to embroil a nation in quarrels and wars, and to fix permanent wretchedness upon the industrious class of the people. When we look to the delegation from each State we find a difference in sentiment upon this subject, whether lying on the seaboard or distant from it.
I defy history for an example of a single great naval power which confined its naval strength to the legitimate object of protecting commerce in distant seas. I will refer to Tyre and Sidon, Crete and Rhodes, to Athens and to Carthage. No sooner had these nations ceased to confine their naval strength to their maritime defense at home, to the protection of their-seacoast, than they were engaged in plunder, piracy, depredations upon other nations, or involved in wars which certainly accelerated, if it did not produce, the downfall and destruction of those governments. Peace and tranquillity are not the natural state of 3 great naval power. A disregard of public law, sacred treaties, and bloodshed, would suit it better; it has been and ever will be the consequence of such force. These nations furnish another example and instructive lesson to the present generation--that, while their commerce and navy furnished a small part of the people with the luxuries of every country at that time known, the great mass of citizens at home were miserable and oppressed, their rights neglected, their burdens increased, and their happiness destroyed, while their fleets and external grandeur carried astonishment and terror to distant nations. When a nation puts forth her strength upon the ocean, the interior of the country will be neglected and oppressed with contributions. Ancient history does not furnish a solitary instance of any permanent good or long continuance of peace arising from a great naval supremacy; such overgrown power, such unnatural strength, must feed upon plunder at home and abroad.
Admit that Great Britain, with her thousand vessels, could protect her lawful commerce, let me ask i,^- her navy has ever been confined to that object; whether it is confined to that object at this time; whether her navy has not fattened upon the spoils of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, and the commerce of neutral nations, making war equally upon friends and enemies. Her navy, triumphant in every sea, is employed in a system of plunder against the world, and, notwithstanding this supremacy, we see her citizens groaning under a national debt of eight hundred millions of pounds sterling, more than all the nations of the universe could pay. We see her upon the precipice of bankruptcy--we see her people, her numerous subjects, loaded with taxes that would astonish any man who did not know the fact--notwithstanding this, the public debt is daily increasing, and it is now acknowledged by all the world that she is fighting for her existence--victorious at sea and safe at home from invasion, and still her very existence is at stake. Sir, I never wish to see the liberties of my country afloat upon the ocean and staked upon the strength of a navy. Look at France, separated from her enemy by a narrow channel, without vessels to meet the fleets of England on the water, and still she is unable to burn the seaport towns of France or invade the French territories, or in any way to make an impression upon her. Populous and powerful upon land, nothing but the imperial despotism that exists throughout that vast empire prevents the country from being the most enviable residence upon the globe, except our own favored land. Let not the Congress of the United States therefore stake their existence upon navies, let us not withdraw the protecting hand of government from the soil; let us not increase the burdens of the people, and weigh them down with a public debt to support external grandeur. Do not by this system destroy the affections and attachments of the solid and honest part of the community who support the government of the country.
But, I am asked, how will you contend with a maritime nation without a navy? Sir, that question is as easily answered as the first. I will ask how we succeeded in the Revolutionary War? We were without any security upon our seacoast and still we succeeded. But, to be more specific, I would grant letters of marque and reprisal, and authorize privateering. Give scope to individual enterprise to destroy the commerce of the enemy--which can be done effectually. I would fortify our seaport towns; station our gunboats and frigates along our coast to protect us at home. And, in this way, I would in war avenge the infractions of our neutral rights.
Mr. Lowndes.--Although the honorable gentleman from Kentucky [Mr. Johnson] is determined to defend commerce by some method which he will not fully disclose, his arguments, like those of my honorable friend from Pennsylvania [Mr. Seybert], appeared designed to show that commerce was not worth defending. I hope to be excused for remarking that both these gentlemen have considered the profits of commerce as confined to the merchant. They have forgotten that commerce implies a change of commodities, in which the merchant is only an intermediate agent. He derives, indeed, a profit from the transaction--but so must the seller and the buyer, the grower and the consumer, or they would not engage in it. So must all those who are supported by their own industry in commercial cities--the clerk, the artisan, the common laborer. But my honorable friend from Pennsylvania says that Mr. Pitt estimated the profits of commerce in England at only twelve millions for a year, in which the naval expense was fourteen or sixteen millions. I suppose this estimate to have been made in relation to the income tax, and it obviously must have referred only to the profits of merchants. The profits of merchants may be computed, but no sober financier would attempt to compute the entire profits of commerce. If it be desirable to form, not, indeed, an estimate, but some conception of its importance, let my honorable friend compute the value of New York, where a few square feet of land are an estate, and then compare it with the value of the same extent of ground for the purpose of the plow. But, is it in this nation, and at this time, that it can be supposed that the profits of commerce are confined to the merchant? Your trade was, a few years ago, unrestrained and flourishing--did it not enrich the most distant parts of your country? It has since been plundered and confined. Does not the industry of the country languish? Is not the income of every man impaired? But, whatever may be the value of commerce, you have already determined to defend it; Considerations of expense are not, indeed, to be neglected. We must employ, in the prosecution of the war, the cheapest and most efficacious instruments of hostility which we can obtain. The arguments of the honorable gentlemen on the other side are really directed against the war, rather than the navy. It would be absurd, say they, to protect commerce by a navy which should cost more than that commerce is worth. It must yet be more absurd, then, to protect it by an army which costs much more than the navy. In the comparison of the expenses and of the efficiency of an army and navy, instituted by my colleague, there is nothing invidious. The army is acknowledged to be necessary. It has had our votes. But, from the acknowledged propriety of raising the army, was fairly inferred the propriety of employing a navy, if it should be proved to be less expensive in proportion to its probable efficacy.
The honorable gentleman from Kentucky [Air. McKee] offered objections to a navy which, if they were well founded, would supersede all further reasoning and calculation. He opposes a navy now--he will oppose it forever. It would produce no possible good and all possible evil. It would infallibly destroy the Constitution. Will the honorable gentleman tell us why? how? An ambitious general might corrupt his army and seize the Capitol--but will an admiral reduce us to subjection by bringing his ships up the Potomac? The strongest recommendation of a navy in free governments has hitherto been supposed to be that it was capable of defending but not of enslaving its country. The honorable gentleman has discovered that this is a vulgar error. A navy is really much more dangerous than an army to public liberty. He voted for the army and expressed no fears for the Constitution. But a navy would infallibly terminate in aristocracy and monarchy. All this may be very true. But are we unreasonable in expecting, before we give up the old opinion, to hear some argument in favor of the new one?
What is the nature of the defense which one of our large States may be supposed interested to obtain from the general Government? Is it a land forced We can scarcely expect an attack on land, to repel which the militia of New York or Massachusetts would be unequal. Were either of these States attacked the general Government would protect her by ordering out her own militia. To render the Union permanent you must render it the interest of all the States--the large as well as the small--to maintain it; you must show them that it will provide, not an army, which they can have without it, but what, without it, they cannot have--an adequate navy.
The honorable gentleman who anticipates the destruction of the Constitution, unless we shall neglect one of the great interests which it was intended to protect, considers the English Orders in Council as leaving our institutions firm and untouched. Regulations the effect of which is to give to a foreign power the complete disposition of the property of a large class of our people are, it seems, in their political result innocent. But let a navy be raised--let the (government which expects obedience provide protection, and the Constitution perishes!
But we have been referred particularly by my honorable friend from Pennsylvania to the experience of the world as having already decided the question which we are now discussing. It seems that Venice and Genoa, and every other naval power which can be named, have all furnished abundant proof of the ruinous effects which such a force is calculated to produce. Sir, the assertion is new. I do not pretend to an intimate acquaintance with the histories of those nations, but I have hitherto believed that the first great shock which the power of Venice received was given by the League of Cambray--a league formed to repress her ambition, not of maritime, but of territorial aggrandizement. But, while Venice has lost her independence after maintaining it for five or six centuries, may I ask my honorable friend whether the states of Italy, which were never oppressed by fleets, enjoyed a longer term of prosperity and freedom? As to Genoa--her naval power, her independence and glory, rose and sunk with the same man--Doria. But Holland, says the gentleman from Kentucky, affords an example of a nation whose commerce flourished greatly before it had a navy, and decayed while her navy continued powerful. If there ever were a people whose naval power has been employed to protect and almost to create their commerce, it is the Dutch. They fought their way at the same time to trade in the East Indies and America, and to national independence in Europe. The decay of their trade is to be attributed to the development of the resources of other nations; to the navigation act of England; and the similar measures adopted by other powers. As to France--the period of her greatest financial prosperity probably coincided with that of her greatest naval power; both were due to the administration of Colbert. But the evils of a navy (gentlemen tell us) have been concentrated in the case of England. With all her fleets she is destined soon to lose her independence. The expense of those fleets has crushed the industry of her subjects, and must soon reduce her to national bankruptcy. Let us suppose that these gentlemen, who have been so much mistaken in regard to the past, may be more accurate in their narrative of the future. Still England will have owed to her fleets her redemption from invasion for ages past. While every other considerable nation of Europe has been bankrupt over and over again, she is not yet bankrupt. While nearly every other government of Europe has been overset, hers yet rides out the storm. Should England fall to-morrow, it should seem impossible to deny that her navy will have prolonged her independence for at least two centuries.
Mr. Law.--Sir, in a country so blessed by nature; where the inhabitants have the greatest stimulus to industry, the fruits of their labor secured by just and equal laws; where the property cannot be taken from the owner without his consent, there will be a vast surplus beyond what the consumption of the country requires. Hence, commerce springs up as the daughter and handmaid of agriculture. Without commerce agriculture would languish. With it, wealth is consolidated and industry promoted. It diffuses its benign influence, discoverable in the splendid and delightful improvements which rejoice the eye of the traveler throughout the country. And it is as unnatural for the farming interest to oppress the commercial as it is for the parent to abandon its offspring. They mutually cherish and support each other; and, by natural sympathy, must be affected by the checks and disorders which each may receive. But commerce, being carried on abroad on the ocean, is subject to annoyance, interruption, and hazard. We must pass the common highway of nations to get to a market; and in this route the weak and defenseless must, and always will, be the sport and prey of the strong and violent whom they meet in the way. Prom the wretched state of those nations with whom we have intercourse we, from weakness, must fall victims to their violence. This is an evil which we shall always experience as a neutral coming in collision with belligerents. Shall we, then, abandon commerce, or shall we strive to support it? If we abandon it the evil will recoil on the agricultural part of the country, who, no longer than foreign commerce is supported, can find a vent for their surplus; and, without a vent for the surplus, a bare competency might be endangered. Internal commerce, being but a stream from foreign commerce, must dry when the fountain from whence it issues fails. Enterprise ceases and languor and poverty ensue. It is, then, for the interest of the nation to cherish commerce. But how can this be done? Will a navy have this effect? I think it will. We are now the defenseless prey of both France and England; deprived of the common rights of nations and citizens of the world. I verily believe, if this nation had fostered our infant navy from the time it was commenced and had not, by a strange infatuation, abandoned and neglected it, it would now have been too important to be despised by either France or England. Our prosperity would have continued. Our strength would have been dreaded, and our friendship courted by both nations. While they have been contending for the mastery we, with such naval force as we ought to have had, and a strict course of neutrality, might have pursued a lawful and gainful trade. We might have had a perpetual revenue of sixteen millions, instead of the pittance now received at the treasury. I believe that, with the navy we might have had, and a correct strict neutral court, there would have been neither Berlin and Milan decrees, nor Orders in Council, to annoy our lawful commerce.
Mr. Roberts--Soon after the government came into operation it became a favorite object with one set of politicians to form a navy. On the occasion of our commerce being depredated upon by the Barbary corsairs the question first came up. It became a matter of deliberation whether a peace should be purchased of them with money and presents; whether some European power should be subsidized to keep a few frigates on that station, or whether a naval force should be equipped for the purpose (as alleged) of enabling the President to negotiate to better effect. The party with whom I have always found it my duty to act opposed, on that occasion, the commencement of a navy system when it was invited under circumstances so specious. They were, however, in the minority. The ships of war were voted--with what effect on the Algerines he did not stop to inquire. The question of increasing the navy was again discussed in the celebrated times of '98-9. The collisions with Prance had raised the war fever very high. A navy was vociferously contended for as the most efficient means of defense. It was when things were in this state that the President, in his reply to the Marine Society of Boston, who had, with much fervor, tendered him their approbation of his measures, hoped to see the wooden walls of America considered as her best defence. Because Athens, when she was invaded by the hosts of Xerxes, had chosen to interpret the oracle that promised her safety in wooden walls, rationally, America must take the same course, however dissimilarly situated. The people of Attica, inhabiting a circumscribed territory, found safety in their fleet, and they could have found it nowhere else. But such cannot be the case with America. Even the hosts of Xerxes could not make it necessary for the American people to quit their territory--the figure would not hold. On this occasion, too, the Republican party consistently opposed a navy.
History proves to us that maritime power has always excited national ambition to a spirit of conquest and plunder. A naval power will seek colonies and ports in distant places. The chance, nay, the certainty, of collisions with other nations is multiplied, and a corruption of morals is produced that cannot fail to make the first government on earth a tyranny by a course of events that the patriot can neither prevent nor divert to other consequences. A short time after Athens had found safety in her wooden walls one of her statesmen proposed she should burn the fleets of her neighbors, that she might thereby be rendered mistress of Greece This project the virtue of the people resisted; but that virtue soon gave way in the expedition to the Cyclades, where her navy commited acts of violence that must indelibly fix the stain of the blackest perfidy and cruelty on the Athenian character. What could be a more unprovoked act of aggression than her crusade against Syracuse, a crime that visited her with a declension of power from which she never recovered? For a nation to believe her destinies fixed is in a great measure to fix them. Nothing, perhaps, contributed more to make Rome the mistress of the world than the oracles that promised it. Her heroes and statesmen were stimulated thereby to fulfil her destiny. The maritime supremacy of Britain is, perhaps, owing as much to the belief that she is the destined queen of the waters as to any other cause. Though such operations be calculated to bring about astonishing effects, how unfortunate is it when a nation's eyes are thus directed to improper attainments--it becomes a source of incalculable evil.
Athens and Rome were the victims of such a policy as Britain is at this time. Her marine puts the trident into her hands, but she can no longer shake the earth. Her monopolizing spirit has sealed the continent of Europe against her and interdicted her commerce with America. She has reduced the ocean almost to a desert; and she seems hastening to that destiny which has generally attended her predecessors in naval power through her ambition to rule the waves.
Yet the plunder of half the world has not sustained the British navy. A debt has been accumulated that almost baffles the power of figures to estimate. But debt and a prospect of government insolvency at home are of much less account than the wrongs this navy has wrought on the society of nations. And yet it is this government that is held up to Republican America as a model for imitation.
Need I remind you of the millions of victims sacrificed to commercial cupidity on the plains of Hindustan by means of this navy? A population thrice as great as that of the British Isles has been exterminated in this devoted region within comparatively but a few years by mercantile rapacity. Colonel Dowe informs us that the wealth of one of the cities of this wretched country had whetted the avarice of Clive and his associates, and that an offer was made to the government to pay the public debt for permission to sack it. It was too gross an act of infamy to assent to and the adventurers obtained their end by other means. A famine and pestilence was substituted for the bayonet and the spoils of the devoted city glutted the hands of rapine. In this exploit a shoeblack divided his £200,000 Need I remind you that the population of Africa has been drained to groan out a wretched existence in the West India colonies to prop up this naval and commercial power, or that the remotest corners of every sea have been visited with the scourge of blood and desolation for the same purpose 2 On general principles, does not past experience afford sufficient warning to these States to avoid those shoals on which so many nations have been wrecked?
Mr. Clay.--Gentlemen fear that if we provide a marine it will produce collisions with foreign nations, plunge us into war, and ultimately overturn the Constitution of the country. Sir, if you wish to avoid foreign collision you had better abandon the ocean; surrender all your commerce; give up all your prosperity. It is the thing protected, not the instrument of protection, that involves you in war. Commerce engenders collision, collision war, and war, the argument supposes, leads to despotism. Would the counsels be deemed wise of that statesman who should recommend that the nation should be unarmed --that the art of war, the martial spirit and martial exercises. should be prohibited--and that the great body of the people should be taught that national happiness was to be found in perpetual peace alone? No, sir. And yet every argument in favor of a power of protection on land applies, in some degree, to a power of protection on the sea. Undoubtedly a commerce void of naval protection is more exposed to rapacity than a guarded commerce; and, if we wish to invite the continuance of the old, or enaction of new, unjust edicts let us refrain from all exertion upon that element where they operate and where, in the end, they must be resisted.
For my part, I do not allow myself to be alarmed by those apprehensions of maritime power which appeared to agitate other gentlemen. In the nature of our Government I behold abundant security against abuse. I would be unwilling to tax the land to support the rights of the sea, but would draw from the sea itself the resources with which its violated freedom should at all times be vindicated. While this principle is adhered to there will be no dandier of running into the folly and extravagance which so much alarm gentlemen; and, whenever it is abandoned, whenever Congress shall lay burdensome taxes to augment the navy beyond what may be authorized by the increased wealth, and demanded by the exigencies of the country, the people will interpose, and, removing their unworthy Representatives, apply the appropriate corrective. I cannot, then, see any just ground of dread in the nature of naval power. It is, on the contrary, free from the evils attendant upon standing armies. And the genius of our institutions--the great representative principle, in the practical enjoyment of which we are so eminently distinguished--affords the best guaranty against the ambition and wasteful extravagance of government.
I am far from surveying the vast maritime power of Great Britain with the desponding eye with which other gentlemen behold it. I cannot allow myself to be discouraged at the prospect even of her thousand ships. This country only requires resolution, and a proper exertion of its immense resources, to command respect and to vindicate every essential right. If we are not able to meet the wolves of the forest, shall we put up with the barking of every petty fox that trips across our way? Because we cannot guard against every possible danger shall we provide against none? I hope not. I have hardly expected that the instructing but humiliating lesson was so soon to be forgotten which was taught us in the murder of Pierce; the attack on the Chesapeake; and the insult offered in the harbor of Charleston, which the brave old fellow that commanded the fort in vain endeavored to chastise.
Gentlemen refer to the period of 1798, and we are reminded of the principles maintained by the opposition at that time. I have no doubt of the correctness of that opposition. The naval schemes of that day were premature, not warranted by the resources of the country, and were contemplated for an unnecessary war into which the nation was about to be plunged. I have always admired and approved the zeal and ability with which that opposition was conducted by the distinguished gentleman now at the head of the treasury. But the state of things is totally altered. What was folly in 1798 may be wisdom now. At that time, we had a revenue only of about six millions. Our revenue now, upon a supposition that commerce is restored, is about sixteen millions. The population of the country, too, is greatly increased--nearly doubled--and the wealth of the nation is, perhaps, tripled. While our ability to construct a nave is thus enhanced, the necessity for maritime protection is proportionately augmented. Independent of the extension of our commerce, since the year 1798, we have had an addition of more than five hundred miles to our coast, from the bay of Perdido to the mouth of the Sabine--a weak and defenseless accession, requiring, more than any other part of our maritime frontier, the protecting arm of government.
Mr. Quincy.--Commerce is the leading interest of more than one-half, and is the predominent interest of more than one-third, of the people of the United States. The States north of the Potomac contain nearly four millions of souls; and surely it needs no proof to convince the most casual observer that the proportion which the commercial interest bears to the other interests of that great section of the Union is such as entitles it to the denomination of leading Interest The States north of the Hudson contain nearly two and a half millions of souls; and surely there is as little need of proof to show that the proportion the commercial interest bears to the other interests of that Northern section of the Union is such as entitles it there to the denomination of predominating Interest. If this commerce were the mushroom growth of a night--if it had its vigor from the temporary excitement and the accumulated nutriment which warring elements in Europe had swept from the places of their natural deposit--then, indeed, there might be some excuse for a temporizing policy touching so transitory an interest. But commerce in the Eastern States is of no foreign growth, and of no adventitious seed; its root is of a fiber which almost two centuries have nourished; and the perpetuity of its destiny is written in legible characters, as well in the nature of the country as in the disposition of its inhabitants. Indeed, sir, look along your whole coast, from Passamaquoddy to Capes Henry and Charles? and behold the deep and far-winding creeks and inlets, the noble basins, the projecting headlands, the majestic rivers, and those sounds and bays which are more like inland seas than anything called by those names in other quarters of the globe! Can any man do this and not realize that the destiny of the people inhabiting such a country is essentially maritime?
How is this commerce, this great national interest, to be protected? Is it by an army? Suppose that in every land project you are successful--suppose both the Canadas, Quebec, Halifax, everything to the north pole, yours by fair conquest-- are your rights on the ocean, therefore, secure? Does your flag float afterward in honor? Are your seamen safe from impressment? Is your course along the highway of nations unobstructed? No one pretends it. No one has or can show, by any logical deduction or any detail of facts, that the loss of those countries would so compress Great Britain as to induce her to abandon for one hour any of her maritime pretensions. What then results? Why, sir, what is palpable as the day--that maritime rights are to be maintained only by maritime means.
With respect to the nature and extent of this naval force some difference of opinion may arise, according to the view taken of the primary objects of protection. For myself, I consider that those objects are first to be protected in the safety of which the national character and happiness are most deeply interested. And these are chiefly concerned, beyond all question, in the preservation of our maritime settlements from pillage and our coast from violence. For this purpose it is requisite that there should be a ship of war for the harbor of every great city of the United States equal in point of force to the usual grade of ships-of-the-line of the maritime belligerents.
But it is said that "we have not capacity to maintain such a naval force." Is it want of pecuniary or want of physical capacity? In relation to our pecuniary capacity I will not condescend to add any proof to that plain statement already exhibited, showing that we have an annual commercial exposure equal to six hundred millions of dollars, and that two-thirds of one per cent. upon this amount of value, or four millions of dollars, is more than is necessary, if annually and systematically appropriated, for this great object; so anxiously and rightfully desired by your seaboard, and so essential to the honor and obligations of the nation.
This objection of pecuniary inability may be believed in the interior country, where the greatness of the commercial property and all the tender obligations connected with its preservation are not realized. But in the cities and in the commercial States the extent of the national resources is more truly estimated. They know the magnitude of the interests at stake and their essential claim to protection. Why, sir, were we seriously to urge this objection of pecuniary incapacity to the commercial men of Massachusetts they would laugh us to scorn. Let me state a single fact. In the year 1745 the State, then the colony of Massachusetts Bay, included a population of 220,000 souls, and yet in that infant state of the country it owned a fleet consisting of three ships, one of which carried twenty guns, three snows, one brig, and three sloops; being an aggregate of ten vessels of war. These partook of the dangers and shared in the glory of that expedition which terminated with the surrender of Louisburg. Comparing the population, the extent of territory, the capital, and all the other resources of this great nation with the narrow means of the colony of Massachusetts at that period of its history, it is not extravagant to assert that the fleet it then possessed, in proportion to its pecuniary resources, was greater than would be, in proportion to the resources of the United States, a fleet of fifty sail-of-the-line and one hundred frigates.
As to respect abroad, what course can be more certain to insure it? What object more honorable, what more dignified than to behold a great nation pursuing wise ends by appropriate means; rising to adopt a series of systematic exertions suited to her power and adequate to her purposes? What object more consolatory to the friends--what more paralyzing to the enemies of our Union--than to behold the natural jealousies and rivalries, which are the acknowledged dangers of our political condition, subsiding or sacrificing? What sight more exhilarating than to see this great nation once more walking forth among the nations of the earth under the protection of no foreign shield? Peaceful because powerful--powerful because united in interests and amalgamated by concentration of those interests in the national affections.