Who knew that we owe the U.S. Navy to long-ago Muslim machinations?
That gross oversimplification points to a historical accident that debut author and historian Toll capably works. At the time of the Revolution, America’s navy amounted to a ragtag collection of privateers and merchantmen; even John Paul Jones’s celebrated raid along the English coast was a freelance operation. After the Revolution, writes Toll, “what little remained of the Continental Navy was taken entirely out of service,” the ships auctioned off and the men dismissed. Whether the new country needed a navy at all was a matter of hot debate among rival political parties, even as America’s merchant fleet became an important presence in the Mediterranean and Caribbean markets. Enter the “Barbary pirates,” privateers of four Arabic states that seized American ships and sailors in a sort of elaborate protection racket—one that England, the world’s foremost naval power, could have easily crushed but instead used as a “check against the growth of economic competition from smaller maritime rivals,” particularly the upstart U.S. In response, though taking time out to come to the brink of war with France, Congress authorized the construction of a federal navy whose six-frigate core numbered “the most powerful ships of their class in any navy in the world.” The U.S. Navy then sailed off to Tripoli to begin the ten-year campaign that would finally break Barbary power. Toll’s narrative closes with an admirably thorough account of the naval dimension of the War of 1812, when James Madison determined that an organized fleet acting in concert was less effective than a single frigate that could “get loose in the Atlantic and prey upon British shipping,” which American ships did to great effect, doing much to win the war.
A welcome contribution to the small library of early American naval history, deserving a place alongside one of the last such books—by a pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt.