It was “the maddest Idea in the World to think of building an American Fleet.”

The above was famously spoken by Samuel Chase of Maryland scoffing at a proposal to build an American Navy before the Continental Congress.

Brittania ruled the waves in those days. Although it had been contested by the Dutch, Spanish, and especially the French, she beat every adversary it had fought. Now America itself was the Crown’s enemy for rebelling and seeking independence.

The Colonies ran up the Eastern Seaboard of North America and were entirely dependent on foreign trade for their economy.  Now with a war on, the Royal Navy was blockading or occupying the Colonies’ seaports and British ships were arriving from England laden with troops, ammunition, guns, and supplies.

Members of Congress, John Adams in particular, were strong advocates of a Continental navy that could capture British merchant vessels, raid British possessions in West Indies, and in doing so draw blockading Royal Navy ships away in pursuit.  This would allow American merchant ships a chance to bring much-needed war materials in from France.

Other members saw a navy as a waste of money and resources that were needed elsewhere desperately. Ships, crews, and especially cannons were expensive and Washington needed the guns more than the few ships the Continental navy could put to sea.

Besides, the various colonies had already commissioned dozens of privateers who were already preying on British shipping and doing some damage in the process. But these ships were privately owned and were not warships in the classic sense. They would run down a merchantman with a crew of 20 sailors to seize the ship and cargo for the financial incentive of a share of the value of both. Yet, taking on a Royal Navy frigate was just out of the question for privateers. They were in it for the money, not the glory.


Washington Had Ships Crewed by Soldiers and That Just Wouldn’t Do

Then, as so often happened during the Revolutionary War, the providence of George Washington shaped events. He wrote to Congress saying he had obtained two schooners, equipped them with cannons and crews drawn from his army, and set about using them to seize supplies for his army from the British.

So, a Continental navy already existed under Washinton’s command and by extension the Continental Congress’s as well, so it was just a matter of formalizing it.

Continental Frigate Alfred
Continental Frigate Alfred. Oil painting by Nowland Van Powell, 1969. (U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command)

The Navy began with the 24-gun frigates Alfred and Columbus, the 14-gun brigs Andrew Doria and Cabot, and three schooners, the Hornet, the Wasp, and the Fly, Officers were appointed for this tiny fleet that included a young lieutenant named John Paul Jones. The rest as they say is history.

From these humble beginnings, the U.S. Navy has become the mightiest navy the world has ever seen. At the end of WWII, the U..S Navy had more than four million sailors and a fleet bigger than the combined fleets of all the nations on the planet.

Over this 246 year history, the U.S. Navy has been at the forefront of innovation. The five frigates that are sisterships of the USS Constitution, created the concept of the battlecruiser: a ship that could outrun anything with bigger guns and could outfight anything that could catch it. The Navy invented the iron-clad vessel as well and was an early adopter of both the submarine and the aircraft carrier. It was the first to power submarines and ships with nuclear reactors and launch ballistic missiles from underwater.

Today, the U.S. Navy operates the largest and one of the most complex machines ever devised by man, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Not just one, but 11 of them.


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Protecting Free Trade and Freedom of Navigation on the High Seas

Unlike the navies of most other countries, which are dedicated to the defense of their homeland waters, the U.S. Navy’s mission is to assure free trade and navigation on the high seas, for the sake of all nations. The U.S. Navy still goes to contested waters where other nations (and even modern-day pirates) try to assert control over vast swaths of the ocean;  in the Baltic, the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea, and the east coast of Africa. And wherever the Navy goes, the American flag goes with her.

Ticonderoga class guided missile cruiser
The U.S. Navy (USN) Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruiser (Aegis) displays her battle ensign in a high-speed turn. (U.S. Navy)

The successful battle record of the U.S. Navy would fill pages and pages, but unlike the Army which can commemorate its victories on the battlefield with monuments and parks, the victory monuments of our Navy are the wrecks of enemy ships and planes at the bottom of the world’s oeans. And the memorials where U.S. Navy ships lie, mark the undisturbed and honored tombs of American sailors who gave their lives in the service of their country.

So, Happy Birthday to the U.S. Navy, the “maddest Idea in the World” and its 246 years of “Sinkin’ Bones to Davey Jones.”




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