The Provision of Naval Defense in the Early American Republic: A Comparison of the U.S. Navy and Privateers, 1789-1815

By Ross, Nicholas J. | Independent Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Provision of Naval Defense in the Early American Republic: A Comparison of the U.S. Navy and Privateers, 1789-1815


Ross, Nicholas J., Independent Review


The War of 1812 began badly for British ocean-going commerce. Although the United States had a pitifully small navy, it did have a large merchant marine fleet keen to make a profit. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, the London Times lamented, "American merchant seamen were almost to a man converted into privateersmen and the whole of our West India trade either has or will in consequence sustain proportionate loss" (Letters from New York State 1812). Mthough the wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries typically evoke images of large public armies and navies created to wage warfare for the state's political goals, privateers also played an important role. By licensing ships of the merchant marine to legally plunder from other nations' ships, governments could reduce their enemies' trade at very little direct cost to themselves and have a viable alternative to the public provision of naval defense.

In providing naval defense during the early republic, the U.S. government faced a trade-off between a relatively versatile navy at high direct cost and privateers at little direct cost. Given the incentives facing merchants in the shipping industry, however,

The Independent Review, v. 16, n. 3, Winter 2012, ISSN 1086-1653, Copyright[C] 2011, pp. 417-433. privateers were relatively inflexible. In this article, I analyze the three major naval conflicts during the early republic and answer the question: Why did the United States rely heavily on public provision of naval defense during the Barbary Pirate Wars and the Quasi-War with France but rely more heavily on private provision of naval defense during the War of 18127

Analytical Framework

Historian Wade Dudley succinctly summarizes the role of sea power as "protect[ing] a nation's assets and extend[ing] national policy" (2003, 23). Naval forces could serve specifically by weakening the enemy's economy by interrupting its seaborne commerce and by transporting land forces to invade the enemy's territories. Naval forces could also serve to counter the enemy's attempts to do the same. Table 1 summarizes the four major missions in naval warfare and the ability of public and private navies to execute these missions.

The Royal Navy, generally considered the world's best for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a benchmark against which other navies can be evaluated, abounds with examples of a public navy that executed all four missions. Public navies could facilitate invasion by transporting armies or by escorting invasion armies. The Royal Navy's transportation of land forces to raid the Chesapeake Bay area, to assault New Orleans in 1814, and to support the war against Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula are examples of naval forces facilitating invasions. Public navies also had the capability to reduce coastal fortifications to allow for the invasion of cities. The Royal Navy's assault on Copenhagen in 1801 to destroy the Danish fleet provides a successful example of this type of mission.

The Royal Navy also succeeded in preventing invasion of Great Britain by engaging the French and its allies in battles to destroy their navies, such as Trafalgar in 1805, and by maintaining a fleet in the English Channel to deter invasions. The Royal Navy attempted to weaken its enemies' commerce through naval blockades and capture of enemy merchant vessels. It could also protect Great Britain's commerce by escorting merchant vessels in a system of convoys.

Privateers, in contrast, focused almost exclusively on raiding an enemy's commerce. They supported their own country's commerce by bringing in captured goods for sale. However, privateers generally did not engage in ship-to-ship combat to gain control of the seas or to invade enemy territory. To understand why they were much more limited in their operations than were public navies, one needs to examine how the history of privateering influenced their incentives. …

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