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Birth of the United States Navy – October 13, 1775
An event every year that begins at 12:00 am on day 13 of October, repeating indefinitely
The origins of the Navy actually predate independence by almost a year. On 26 August 1775, the assembly of the colony of Rhode Island sent its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to request that “a fleet of sufficient force for the protection of these colonies” be established.2 Although the Congress had already urged individual colonies to mount their own naval defenses, the Rhode Island Assembly understood that securing American ports and waters would be a bigger job than any one colony could handle.
Philadelphia agreed on 13 October 1775 and created an advisory committee staffed by John Langdon of New Hampshire, Silas Deane of Connecticut, and John Adams of Massachusetts. (Adams would become a lifelong champion of the Navy.) In addition to protecting American trade from British blockade and predation, the committee also made recommendations for intercepting British ships laden with supplies for the king’s forces in North America.3 Within hours, the Congress approved the committee’s recommendation that Massachusetts supply General George Washington, then stationed in Massachusetts, with an armed schooner and a sloop for the purpose of seizing British supplies.4 At the same time, Connecticut and Rhode Island would arm merchant vessels to patrol the near North Atlantic for British transports.5 These small forays found immediate success.6
On the heels of these successes, the Continental Congress committed itself to naval expansion in three key ways. First, the Congress authorized the purchase of four more ships of war. Second, it enlarged the Naval Committee to seven men. And third, it extended the committee’s brief to building up a naval force south of New England waters, all the way to Georgia, “for the protection and defense of the United Colonies.”7
As plans materialized, the Congress received some bad news from London—news that would push the delegates to commit even further to the establishment of an American navy. On 9 November 1775, word arrived that George III of Great Britain had refused the Olive Branch Petition, the Congress’s last-ditch effort to preserve peace with the mother country, and that the king had declared the colonies to be in a state of open rebellion. The Continental Congress now geared itself up for a protracted struggle on the seas.
In the ensuing weeks, the Congress passed a series of resolutions to purchase more ships; to allocate funds to the naval committee; to call up “American Marines,” the country’s first; to approve the set of rules and regulations, modeled on those of the Royal Navy and penned by John Adams, for this new “American Navy”; and to authorize the capture of all British vessels involved in the suppression of the colonies’ nascent revolt.8
Taken between 13 October 1775, and the end of that year, these actions served to establish the first American navy.
When the American Revolution ended, however, the Navy passed into disuse and oblivion. The Articles of Confederation, which came into force in 1781 and bound the former colonies into a loose arrangement of sovereign states, did not provide the central government with powers of taxation sufficient for the maintenance of anything as expensive as a national navy.9 Moreover, peace with Great Britain removed the force that had called the Continental Navy into existence in the first place: imminent danger to American commerce from British blockade and predation.
Nevertheless, dangers persisted. In 1785, Barbary (North African) pirates seized their first American vessels and tried to ransom 22 passengers and crew.10 Many Americans, Thomas Jefferson included, believed that the British were behind these misfortunes.11 At any rate, the states were helpless without naval power. “The Americans cannot protect themselves,” an English politician quipped, for “they cannot pretend to a navy.”