Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Two matching delights

Malcolm's weekend (and continuing) read is Ian W. Toll's Six Frigates: he has just reached the hotting up of the War of 1812-15, which provides the conclusion of the book, and which (apart from episodes at sea) was largely an American deb√Ęcle.

It should not surprise that Malcolm should turn to this, after a reading career which had CS Forester at its beginning, and Patrick O'Brian later on, and a bent towards history throughout. Toll's book, leaving aside the usual encomiums on the blurb, should share shelf space with the best.

The story of How Piracy, War and British Supremacy at Sea gave Birth to the Wold's Most Powerful Navy (Toll's overlong, but helpful sub-title) would be interesting in itself, but he is equally strong on the politicking and machinations that went with it. The two factions in early American politics, the Federalists and the Republicans, took opposing views on the development of an American navy. Here is Toll on the origins of this dichotomy:
Congress was not yet [in 1794] divided along formal party lines. The very concept of a political party had not yet become respectable. But the ideological schism that lay beneath the party system had already opened, and every member knew it. Individual senators and congressmen were lining up behind one or the other of the two dominating personalities in Washington's cabinet, Secretary of State Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, who cordially hated each other and took the opposite sides of every important issue that came before the president. The followers of Hamilton called themselves "Federalists", a term that had its origins in the constitutional debates. The followers of Jefferson were beginning to get comfortable with the term "Republicans" and in time they would embrace it as a party label.

... Madison and the Republicans argued that a navy was hopelessly unaffordable to a nation still groaning under the weight of its Revolutionary War debts. Once started, they warned, a navy would become a self-feeding organism, demanding greater and greater sums as it grew.
If only every historical event were described so cogently, thinks Malcolm, as he admires a piece of simple explication.

Behind that debate about the need for a navy lay another issue: what was the nascent United States to become? Was it a continental concept, entire of itself, or a trading nation, taking part in the doings of the western world? Two centuries on that, seems a no-brainer, but Malcolm sees in this the seeds of the continuing wrestling of the American conscience: intervention or isolation?

So, as Toll shows, the decision was closely fought:
The Republicans had objected to the cost of building a navy, but what did they have to say about the cost of not building one? Protecting the sea-lanes, argued the Federalists, was in the entire nation's interest... The Federalists' second thrust was a rousing appeal to national honor.
And so, on 10th March 1794:
an Act to Provide a Naval Armament passed by a margin of 50-39... The act authorized the War Office either to buy or build six frigates. Four would be rated for 44 guns and two for 36 guns.
Toll gives full credit to the shipbuilder from Philadelphia, Joshua Humphreys, for what came out of this decision:
The frigate Humphreys envisioned would be powerful enough to overwhelm a lone enemy cruiser because of her unusually heavy battery of 24-pounder long guns, weapons that had been known to drive a ball through two feet of solid oak planking at a range of 1,000 yards. When pitted against a battleship, the American frigate would enjoy one of the most important advantages that any warship can ever have: the option to either fight or flee, to outrun or outgun.
The original intention of building the frigates was to counter the depredations of North African pirates on American shipping through the Mediterranean:
but Humphreys was thinking of the potential for a confrontation with one of the warring powers of Europe.
Prescient, indeed.

Malcolm would not wish to spoil Toll's book for a reader any further than this. It is a fine achievement, marrying naval tactics with political shenanigans, full of detail, and not a little sensation (in which the figure of Stephen Decatur largely figures). Believe Malcolm in this: this book comes highly recommended, not just for historians either.

And in one way, this is living history. One can still walk the decks of the USS Constitution, the oldest warship anywhere still in commission, moored -- afloat, unlike Nelson's Victory -- at Charlestown, just opposite Boston's North End where she was launched in 1797. And one can note, in passing, the monogram of George III on one of the 24-pounder guns (of which the Queen of England commented, in 1976, "We really must talk to the Secretary of State about these foreign arms sales").

Toll's book feeds into another that Malcolm has mentioned previously: Frederick C. Leiner's The End of Barbary Terror, subtitled, again helpfully, America's 1815 War against the Pirates of North Africa. This, as one American Conservative ultra has unkindly remarked, describes "America's last successful mid-East war", and, of course, features Decatur as a central figure.

And the cherry on the top...

Malcolm has a tendency to read to music. His penchant is to set iTunes to shuffle mood, turning pages with one hand and using the other to advance the remote past those acres of grot. And, right in the middle of Toll's description of a sea-battle, up came the voice of Stan Rogers
. There are few better songs in the modern folk repertoire better than Barrett's Privateers.

Another example of Malcolm's delight in synchronicity. Sphere: Related Content

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