On Friday, October 13, 1775, meeting in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress voted to fit out two sailing vessels, armed with ten carriage guns, as well as swivel guns, and manned by crews of eighty, and to send them out on a cruise of three months to intercept transports carrying munitions and stores to the British army in America. This was the original legislation out of which the Continental Navy grew and as such constitutes the birth certificate of the navy.
To understand the momentous significance of the decision to send two armed vessels to sea under the authority of the Continental Congress, we need to review the strategic situation in which it was made and to consider the political struggle that lay behind it.
Americans first took up arms in the spring of 1775 not to sever their relationship with the king, but to defend their rights within the British Empire. By the autumn of 1775, the British North American colonies from Maine to Georgia were in open rebellion. Royal governments had been thrust out of many colonial capitals and revolutionary governments put in their places. The Continental Congress had assumed some of the responsibilities of a central government for the colonies, created a Continental Army, issued paper money for the support of the troops, and formed a committee to negotiate with foreign countries. Continental forces captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain and launched an invasion of Canada.
In October 1775 the British held superiority at sea, from which they threatened to stop up the colonies’ trade and to wreak destruction on seaside settlements. In response a few of the states had commissioned small fleets of their own for defense of local waters. Congress had not yet authorized privateering. Some in Congress worried about pushing the armed struggle too far, hoping that reconciliation with the mother country was still possible.
Yet, a small coterie of men in Congress had been advocating a Continental Navy from the outset of armed hostilities. Foremost among these men was John Adams, of Massachusetts. For months, he and a few others had been agitating in Congress for the establishment of an American fleet. They argued that a fleet would defend the seacoast towns, protect vital trade, retaliate against British raiders, and make it possible to seek out among neutral nations of the world the arms and stores that would make resistance possible.
Still, the establishment of a navy seemed too bold a move for some of the timid men in Congress. Some southerners agreed that a fleet would protect and secure the trade of New England but denied that it would that of the southern colonies. Most of the delegates did not consider the break with England as final and feared that a navy implied sovereignty and independence. Others thought a navy a hasty and foolish challenge to the mightiest fleet the world had seen. The most the pro-navy men could do was to get Congress to urge each colony to fit out armed vessels for the protection of their coasts and harbors.
Then, on 3 October, Rhode Island’s delegates laid before Congress a bold resolution for the building and equipping of an American fleet, as soon as possible. When the motion came to the floor for debate, Samuel Chase, of Maryland, attacked it, saying it was “the maddest Idea in the World to think of building an American Fleet.” Even pro-navy members found the proposal too vague. It lacked specifics and no one could tell how much it would cost.
If Congress was yet unwilling to embrace the idea of establishing a navy as a permanent measure, it could be tempted by short-term opportunities. Fortuitously, on 5 October, Congress received intelligence of two English brigs, unarmed and without convoy, laden with munitions, leaving England bound for Quebec. Congress immediately appointed a committee to consider how to take advantage of this opportunity. Its members were all New Englanders and all ardent supporters of a navy. They recommended first that the governments of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut be asked to dispatch armed vessels to lay in wait to intercept the munitions ships; next they outlined a plan for the equipping by Congress of two armed vessels to cruise to the eastward to intercept any ships bearing supplies to the British army. Congress let this plan lie on the table until 13 October, when another fortuitous event occurred in favor of the naval movement. A letter from General Washington was read in Congress in which he reported that he had taken under his command, at Continental expense, three schooners to cruise off Massachusetts to intercept enemy supply ships. The commander in chief had preempted members of Congress reluctant to take the first step of fitting out warships under Continental authority. Since they already had armed vessels cruising in their name, it was not such a big step to approve two more. The committee’s proposal, now appearing eminently reasonable to the reluctant members, was adopted.
The Continental Navy grew into an important force. Within a few days, Congress established a Naval Committee charged with equipping a fleet. This committee directed the purchasing, outfitting, manning, and operations of the first ships of the new navy, drafted subsequent naval legislation, and prepared rules and regulations to govern the Continental Navy’s conduct and internal administration.
Over the course of the War of Independence, the Continental Navy sent to sea more than fifty armed vessels of various types. The navy’s squadrons and cruisers seized enemy supplies and carried correspondence and diplomats to Europe, returning with needed munitions. They took nearly 200 British vessels as prizes, some off the British Isles themselves, contributing to the demoralization of the enemy and forcing the British to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes. In addition, the navy provoked diplomatic crises that helped bring France into the war against Great Britain. The Continental Navy began the proud tradition carried on today by our United States Navy, and whose birthday we celebrate each year in October.