By Dave Dentel
In the campaign to ratify the U.S. Constitution, one argument advanced by proponents of the document is that it would create a stronger federal government better equipped to defend the nascent republic from foreign belligerents.
The prescience of this thesis is borne out in Ian W. Toll’s book, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Foundation of the U.S. Navy.
Though the tome was published in the mid-2000s, I read it only recently at the suggestion of a friend. He thought it might inspire us to revisit another work that examines the age of fighting sail in a very different way—the classic boardgame Wooden Ships and Iron Men.
Powder and Shot
And Toll certainly does serve up gripping accounts of duels between ships whose names have passed into legend.
He offers vivid detail, drawing from a broad range of sources including older histories, personal journals, government records, and even fiction. To sketch the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Java, for instance, Toll cites a passage from one of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels.
But Six Frigates is much more than an account of combat.
Toll takes great care to place the story of America’s first great warships within a broader context of political, economic and social issues.
For example, I found it fascinating to learn how the party that resisted President John Adams’ initial call to form a navy—Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Republicans—eventually went on to expand the force in order to prosecute wars against the Barbary states and England.
It was also dispiriting to read how the bloody and costly War of 1812 could have been avoided had the timing of diplomatic exchanges been slightly more propitious. And though the war appeared to end in a stalemate, time showed how it indeed delivered protection for America’s common sailors, who before the conflict had been habitually dragooned off Yankee vessels at sea and forced to serve in the British navy.
The issue, of course, was complex. The British claimed they were simply repatriating sailors who had deserted the war against Napoleon; Americans cried foul but were also guilty of enticing British tars to abandon their posts.
Toll sorts through the complexity by pointing out that though the War of 1812 was fought in part to defend common rights, just as in other conflicts it was the common folk who suffered most.
Caught in the Middle
For example, if an American sailor was forced into the British navy, his options were to serve and earn wages or be thrown in the brig, flogged, or worse. And if by chance he ended up fighting his fellow Yankees, even if repatriated he faced the possibility of being charged with treason.
Toll’s fondness for detail, however, does not deter him from crafting a broader narrative. He ends his history by relating how the legacy of America’s famous frigates laid the foundation for the modern navy that defeated fascism and then defended democracy during the Cold War.
It’s a legacy that visitors can connect with tangibly aboard the Constitution, still afloat in Boston Harbor, where she was launched more than two centuries ago.