For thousands of years, nations have looked to the sea as a “global commons” that provides a source of sustenance, a means to efficiently trade goods in mutually advantageous economic transactions, and as a highway for the transport of armies. Since our nation’s own earliest origins, the advantages of efficient commerce over the seas have contributed to our rise as an ascendant economic power, our internal freedom, and our ability to project power and stability around the globe.
In 1775, the thirteen American Colonies were under attack by hostile forces from across the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy celebrates October 13, 1775 as the birth of the United States Navy because that is the date on which the Continental Congress officially authorized the funding of two ships to interdict British forces. However, a month earlier, General George Washington, acting unilaterally, deployed three schooners off the coast of Massachusetts and thereby provisioned the colonies with their first naval forces. Over the course of the Revolutionary War, more than 50 Continental vessels harassed the British, seized munitions, supplied the Continental Army, and engaged in international commerce with European allies like France.
The greatest naval successes of the Revolutionary War were secured by privateers, most famously John Paul Jones whose remains are kept in the crypt beneath the Chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy. A privateer was a private Sailor who was granted authority by a sovereign power by a “Letter of Marque” to intercept civilian merchant ships belonging to an enemy power. These “prize” ships were hauled into a court which had the authority to award a share of the spoils to the privateer and the ship’s owners. Some 1,700 privateers captured more than 2,200 enemy ships during the Revolutionary War, compared to perhaps 200 ships captured by the Continental Navy.
The game changing event of the American Revolution was the defeat of the English forces at Yorktown in 1781. This forced surrender occurred because the French fleet defeated the English fleet at Chesapeake and were thereby poised to annihilate the English columns with their powerful cannon. Command of the littoral waters enabled land-based forces to prevail, a pattern repeated often throughout history.
Quality Navy ships are expensive and by 1785, the Continental Navy had been completely disbanded. After a decade without a Navy, State-sponsored pirate regimes in North Africa prevented U.S. merchant vessels from engaging in free commerce in the Mediterranean. The Naval Act of 1794 created a standing Navy, featuring the commissioning of six technologically sophisticated vessels that could engage or outrun any ship it encountered. One of them was the USS Constitution, still docked in Boston today.
After restoring freedom of navigation to the Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy prevented the invasion of New York state by the British in the War of 1812. Soon after, the U.S. Navy helped stamp out piracy on the high seas in South America, Africa and the Pacific. Between 1819 and the start of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy operated an Africa squadron which suppressed the slave trade, capturing more than 36 slave ships during this time. The U.S. Navy played a critical role in choking off supplies to the South during the Civil War, again highlighting the power of international trade to shape world events.
Interestingly, although European powers outlawed privateering in the 1856 Declaration of Paris following the Crimean War, the United States declined to join this convention because we feared that our underdog Navy might need such assistance. In the 1880s, we invested in modern steel battleships and by 1900 had built the world’s fifth largest Navy. Privateering was outlawed for good at the Hague Conference of 1907.
Hopefully most Americans are still aware of the critical role that the U.S. Navy played in defending twice against the German threat in as many generations, as well as its defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945.
Since World War II, the United States Navy has provided a safety umbrella on the oceans around the world for international shipping. Whether it is the trade of wheat, oil, pork, steel, timber, or finished goods, global commerce is enabled by the protection afforded by the United States Navy. While U.S. taxes support a strong Navy, safety at sea is a collective benefit enjoyed by everyone.
It is critical that we continue to support navigational rights around the world. The right of innocent passage hearkens back hundreds of years and contributed to the economic development of millions of souls.
Today, China has built a fleet that rivals the size of the United States forces. However, China does not vocally advocate for international freedom of the seas. To the contrary, it has claimed as its private domain most of the South China Sea, an area roughly the size of the Gulf of Mexico. This zone is bordered by a number of other coastal states with superior claims, according to an international tribunal that considered the matter in exhaustive detail.
In order to guarantee international freedom and economic prosperity, it is important that the United States continue to invest in a strong Navy and to support international allies who are committed to freedom of navigation on the high seas.
Jeff Truitt serves as a Captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He frequently leads small group seminars at the U.S. Naval War College in operational maritime law, and previously served on active duty as a submarine officer in the Cold War.
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