This week afloat and ashore, the U.S. Navy will celebrate its birth with fanfare and commemorative events. It’s a tradition dating back many years, but did you know the establishment of the Navy began in stops and starts?
In an effort to check Royal Navy sea control and exercise its independence, the Continental Congress established the Continental Navy, which later became the United States Navy, Oct. 13, 1775. By this resolution, the Continental Congress equipped the fledgling U.S. Navy with “a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months….”, according to Naval History and Heritage Command records.
When the Continental Navy was initially formed it consisted of only two armed vessels that were tasked with disrupting munition ships supplying the British Army in America. Over the past two and a half centuries, the Navy has transformed into the largest, most advanced and most lethal fighting force the world has ever known.
The theme for the Navy’s 243rd Birthday is “Forged by the Sea.” It expresses the conviction that every Sailor is shaped and strengthened into a more capable version of themselves through Navy service. It also describes the Navy as a team that has been forged, tempered and toughened over 243 years of maritime dominance, while acknowledging the Navy’s unique and fundamental relationship with the sea, according to the U.S. Navy.
In keeping with its origins in 1775, the Navy continues to promote America's prosperity by keeping sea lines and international markets open to ensure a vibrant national economy. At the same time, the Navy advances America's interests around the world through global diplomacy.
Pundits have called the current complex security environment “a maritime era.” Americans can be proud and assured that the Navy has a dynamic maritime strategy to defeat the challenges of this new era of near-peer competition.
To meet its responsibilities head-on, America's Navy is forward deployed every day to deter adversaries; influence U.S. global security interests; and build alliances and partnerships — all while responding to security crises and natural disasters, and providing humanitarian relief to those in need.
U.S. Navy History
After the United States won its independence, Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, was too weak to maintain more than a token armed force. The United States had financed the war through huge foreign loans and by issuing paper money. Without taxing power, the Confederation could not pay off the debt.
Recognizing the ongoing need for a naval fleet even after American independence, on Nov. 15, 1781, President George Washington wrote to Marquis de Lafayette, “It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.” [The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799. vol.23. (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1937): 341.]
Sadly, although the government possessed one tremendous asset, America’s Western region, it would take time to translate these holdings into cash. For the present, the Confederation government could not afford to maintain a single warship. The last ship of the Continental Navy, the frigate Alliance, was sold in 1785, and its commander, Captain John Barry, returned to civilian life. The navy was dismantled and the army dwindled to a mere 700 men, according to NHHC.
Congressional debate on the need to revive the Navy began in earnest at the end of 1793. In his annual address to Congress on December 3, President Washington spoke in general terms of the nation’s great need to prepare to defend itself: “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace..., it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War,” according to NHHC records.
A few days later, news reached Philadelphia of the truce between Portugal and Algiers, opening the way for Barbary corsairs to cruise the Atlantic and threaten trade with much of Europe. On December 16, Washington forwarded to Congress documents on the unsatisfactory negotiations with the Barbary powers. In response to these events, the House of Representatives resolved Jan. 2, 1794: “that a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided.”
The House also appointed a committee to prepare a report as to what kind of naval force would be necessary to deal with the threat. On Jan. 20, 1794, committee chairman Thomas Fitzsimons, a Federalist from Pennsylvania, reported a resolution to authorize the procurement of six frigates, a force thought sufficient for the purpose.
The “Act providing a Naval Armament” authorizing the President to acquire six frigates, four of 44 guns each and two of 36, by purchase or otherwise, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 50 to 39. The act passed the Senate and was signed by the President March 27, 1794.
In March 1798, an exhausted Secretary of War James McHenry brought before Congress the problem of his responsibility for naval affairs. Naval administration had become a significant portion of his department’s work, as it had for the Department of the Treasury, which oversaw all the Navy’s contracting and disbursing. The Department of War also had received congressional criticism for what was seen as the mismanagement and the excessive cost of the naval construction program. In addition, growing tensions with revolutionary France induced Congress to authorize an increase in the size of the Navy and raised the possibility that the service would be called on to confront French privateers, according to NHHC.
In response to the urgent need for an executive department responsible solely for, and staffed with, persons competent in naval affairs, Congress passed a bill establishing the Department of the Navy. President John Adams signed the historic act April 30, 1798. Benjamin Stoddert, a Maryland merchant, who had served as secretary to the Continental Board of War during the American Revolution, became the first Secretary of the Navy.
The history of the United States Navy can be divided into two major periods: the "Old Navy" -- a small but valiant force of sailing ships that was also notable for innovation in the use of ironclads during the American Civil War. The "New Navy" era was the result of a modernization effort that began in the 1880s which made the U.S. Navy the largest in the world by the 1920s. The Navy had innovatively transitioned to coal in the 1850s, from coal to oil in the early 20th century and it pioneered nuclear power in the 1950s. Today, many Navy ships are efficiently powered by gas turbines and an auxiliary propulsion system.
From the early days of the Continental Congress, naval leaders have distinguished themselves in war and peace, beginning with the jaunty John Paul Jones, a founder of the U.S. Navy, to those on the waters and battlefields of World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, to those in the fight today.
Through the ensuing years, there have been many forward-thinking naval leaders who introduced the technological wonders of the machine age and industrial processes into Navy operations in the early 20th century -- to those modern age visionaries of today who recognize that information has become a commodity made more valuable through advanced computing, human-machine teaming and artificial intelligence.
Settling the debate on which day to celebrate the Navy’s establishment, in 1972, Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt designated October 13 as the Navy’s official birthday, to “enhance a greater appreciation of our Navy heritage, and to provide a positive influence toward pride and professionalism in the naval service.”
U.S. Navy Today
The Navy has an impressive number of high-tech ships, aircraft and advanced weapons, but merely quoting numbers is meaningless without recognizing the Sailors that bring them to life. Today’s Sailors are more talented and committed than ever. With a roaring U.S. economy, service members have many career choices but they choose the Navy because of its illustrious history, mission and ethos. They make great sacrifices for our nation, leaving the comforts of family and friends to defend and protect America in harm's way. At the same time, Sailors across all rates and ranks enjoy the camaraderie, the esprit de corps of serving – the common devotion to mission, the fun in visiting foreign ports – the realization they are a force for good. Serving as shipmates, Sailors form deep bonds, they make lifelong friends. It’s part of Navy culture that has endured for 243 years.
Today's Navy force is a unique, diverse team of professionals from all walks of life, who seek adventure, self-fulfillment and to safeguard America’s place in the world.
It’s never been a better time to be in the Navy.
View the Navy birthday message from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russel Smith on YouTube.
U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command