Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
Author: Ian W. Toll
Over the past few months, I've witnessed a startling revolution in the field of naval literature. In August, I read Stephen Johnson's Silent Steel, on the loss of the submarine Scorpion. A couple months later, I devoured Anthony Tully's and Jonathan Parshall's Shattered Sword, a fascinating reexamination of the Battle of Midway from the Japanese perspective. This brings me to Ian W. Toll's Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, which more than lives up to its title.
What do all three have in common? They've all been released in the last year, were very good bordering on brilliant, and each one was a debut book by a previously unknown author. In the case of Six Frigates, Ian W. Toll has been a Wall Street analyst, political aide and speechwriter, and a Federal Reserve financial analyst. Despite his stodgy-sounding credentials, he more than acquits himself with Six Frigates.
Imagine being a citizen of the United States in the early 1790s. Less than 10 years ago, your country fought a bloody war to free itself from the shackles of British oppression. There's a good chance you consider a standing army or navy the tools of tyrants, which would require huge amounts of tax money to maintain. After all, taxation was one of the main reasons for the Revolutionary War.
During the Revolutionary War, the stillborn Colonial Navy was a disaster, and most of it was either wrecked or captured by the British. Americaís economy thrived on foreign trade, and most of her shoreline was completely unprotected. If you were a merchant, you were probably enjoying the spoils of war from neutral trade. Unfortunately, trouble was brewing in the Mediterranean. The Barbary pirates were wreaking havoc on unprotected ships, and American merchants were no exception. England and France were at war, and content with bribing the Barbary states for protection. Something had to be done - but would bribing the Barbary pirates be cheaper than building a navy?
That was the situation on March 10, 1794, when Congress enacted the "Act to Provide a Naval Armament" by a margin of 50 to 39. The act allocated the then-colossal sum of $666,666 towards the construction of six powerful new frigates, four 44-gun and two 36-gun - the United States, President, Congress, Constitution, Constellation, and Chesapeake. Today, with the US spending upwards of $400 billion on defense yearly, such a decision would go by relatively unnoticed. However, in 1794, the mere idea of establishing a standing military, paid for through taxes, was enough to divide the nation.
It was the first major expenditure of the Washington administration, and an early demonstration of the governmentís power. Politically, it divided the nation into two main camps: the anti-naval Republicans lead by Thomas Jefferson, and the pro-naval Federalists, lead by Alexander Hamilton. In a way, the "Six Frigates" decision had a long-lasting impact on American politics, an impact still being felt today.
First-time readers probably expect Six Frigates to be an epic swashbuckler full of violent, bloody naval battles. Not that there isnít plenty of that, but they certainly arenít the books most interesting aspect. Now, I have to admit my knowledge of early American history is pretty rough. I had it rammed into my head year after year in school, and I basically walked away knowing that the Founding Fathers were all really great guys, and that America kicked Englandís ass in 1776 and in 1812. Deep inside, I knew there was more to it than that, but until recently I never gave it much thought.
Toll paints a vivid portrait of a newborn republic, grasping for a greater glory, stumbling at first but eventually reaching some prominence on the international stage. His descriptions of life in post-Colonial America are so striking and atmospheric I felt like I was really there, walking down the streets of Philadelphia when it was the nationís largest city. Far from being "just" a nautical adventure, Six Frigates is also a richly detailed social, economic, political, and military history.
For those looking for action at sea, Toll doesnít disappoint. The three major American naval conflicts of 1793-1815 (the "Quasi War" against French privateers, the war against the Barbary pirates, and the War of 1812) are all described in detail. We see the American navy transform from a disorganized rabble into a professional force capable of bloodying the noses of superior opponents. While the War of 1812 may have been an unnecessary, indecisive war, the successes of American warships, especially the capture of several British frigates, showed the world that the United States was a nation willing to protect itís interests. Toll describes these actions with a vividness not usually found in contemporary history books.
Six Frigates raises a number of interesting questions. What is the role of a modern navy, and how should it be deployed? How many of each type of ship be built, and how should they be manned? How should freedom of the sea be enforced, and how should pirates and other malcontents be dealt with? The setting might be two centuries in the past, but the questions themselves are still important.
Thereís also plenty of little vignettes and pieces of trivia to go around. Did you know that the copper for the Constitutionís hull was built by a factory run by Paul Revere? Or that only 8 US marines participated in the battle of Derna, forever immortalized in the Marines' Hymn?
Six Frigates is a fine piece of naval literature, but there are certain things preventing me from giving it five stars. At times, Toll allows his penchant for self-indulgent scene setting to slow the narrative to a crawl. Some passages seemed completely unrelated to the story, and left me wandering exactly what their significance was. The bookís epilogue meanders a bit, and focuses mainly on Theodore Rooseveltís history of the early American Navy. Toll seems to waffle about the War of 1812, unsure of whether to describe it as a glorious naval victory or a bloody historical curio that nearly destroyed America.
Except for the epilogue and parts of the narrative, Six Frigates is an excellent book Iíd recommend to anyone interested in the Age of Fighting Sail. I sincerely hope that Mr. Toll quits his job as a financial analyst and writes more wonderful books.
© 2007 SUBSIM Review