The Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

Article excerpt

Toll, Ian. The Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 592pp. $27.95

Many books have been written about the history of the American navy, but this one is of particular excellence. While truly a scholarly work, this book contains many attributes of a historical novel. Any reader with an interest in either the U.S. Navy or early American history will find it hard to put down.

Toll begins his story with a review of the Continental navy and its limited value during the American Revolution, then moves seamlessly into the postrevolutionary period. America's colonial experience and the needs of the newly formed nation had a direct effect on the founding of a navy. Pro-navy views were largely tied to the merchant interests of the north, championed by leaders such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. The foes of a naval force were essentially southern based and included James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who favored domestic development, westward expansion, and agrarian interests.

In March 1794, these political and economic interests were rooted deeply in the American experience, and were the seeds of an acrimonious debate in Congress that preceded House and Senate authorization for the construction of six frigates to keep the sea-lanes safe for America's large merchant fleet. They were originally designated merely as frigates A through F. The first five names-United States, President, Congress, Constitution, and Constellation-were chosen by George Washington from a list of alternatives suggested by the War Office; subsequently, the Chesapeake was named.

The debate over the question of who would design the ships began in the wake of the authorization to build them. …