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Naval Act of 1794

Naval Act of 1794

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The Act to Provide a Naval Armament, also known as the Naval Act, was passed by the United States Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 on March 27, 1794 and established the country's first naval force, which eventually became the United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

.

Purpose


In August 1785, after the Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War , the American War of Independence, or simply the Revolutionary War, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America, and ended in a global war between several European great powers.The war was the result of the...

 drew to a close, Congress
Congress of the Confederation
The Congress of the Confederation or the United States in Congress Assembled was the governing body of the United States of America that existed from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789. It comprised delegates appointed by the legislatures of the states. It was the immediate successor to the Second...

 had sold , the last ship remaining in the Continental Navy
Continental Navy
The Continental Navy was the navy of the United States during the American Revolutionary War, and was formed in 1775. Through the efforts of the Continental Navy's patron, John Adams and vigorous Congressional support in the face of stiff opposition, the fleet cumulatively became relatively...

 due to a lack of funds to maintain the ship or support a navy. From then until 1797, the United States' only armed maritime service was the Revenue Marine, founded in 1790 at the prompting of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America's first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury...

. In the same year, 1785, two American merchant ships had been captured by Algiers and then Minister to France Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...

 began to urge the need for an American naval force to protect their passage through the Mediterranean. Jefferson's recommendations were initially met with indifference. However, Congress in 1786, and the Senate in 1791, discussed various proposals for a naval force, including estimates of costs for building frigates, but none were acted upon. Only in 1793 when Algiers had captured eleven additional merchant ships was a proposal finally taken seriously.

A bill was presented to the House of Representatives
United States House of Representatives
The United States House of Representatives is one of the two Houses of the United States Congress, the bicameral legislature which also includes the Senate.The composition and powers of the House are established in Article One of the Constitution...

 on 20 January 1794 providing for the construction of four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each — by purchase or otherwise. The bill also provided pay and sustenance for naval officers and sailors and outlined how each ship should be manned in order to operate them. Opposition to the bill was strong and a clause was added that should peace be established with Algiers the construction of the ships was to cease.

Piracy had not been a problem when America was part of the British Empire; the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

 protected American vessels, since they belonged to subjects of the British Crown. After the American Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War , the American War of Independence, or simply the Revolutionary War, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America, and ended in a global war between several European great powers.The war was the result of the...

, however, that protection was lost, and many foreign powers found that they could harass American merchant ships with impunity. Indeed, once the French Revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

 started, Britain also started interdicting American merchant ships and there was little the fledgling American government could do about it. This was a major philosophical shift for the young Republic, many of whose leaders felt that a Navy would be too expensive to raise and maintain, too imperialistic, and would unnecessarily provoke the European powers. In the end, however, it was felt necessary to protect American interests at sea.

In March 1796, as construction of the frigates slowly progressed, a peace accord was announced between the United States and Algiers. In accordance with clause nine of the Naval Act of 1794, a clause that specifically directed that construction of the frigates be discontinued if peace was established, construction on all six ships was halted. After some debate and prompting by President Washington, Congress passed an act on 20 April 1796 allowing the construction and funding to continue only on the three ships nearest to completion: , and .

By late 1798 however, France began to seize American merchant vessels and the attempt at a diplomatic resolution had resulted in the XYZ Affair
XYZ Affair
The XYZ Affair was a 1798 diplomatic episode during the administration of John Adams that Americans interpreted as an insult from France. It led to an undeclared naval war called the Quasi-War, which raged at sea from 1798 to 1800...

, prompting Congress to approve funds for completion of the remaining three frigates: , and .

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