President George Washington
George Washington’s name is synonymous with so many aspects
of American culture that even more than 200 years after his death, his
name is one of the first children come to know. He was our
nation’s first president, the most famous commander in the
Revolutionary War and while it is true that the Navy has no official
founder, he is credited for creating the organization where, since
1798, there has always been a vessel sailing under his name.
Born in 1732 into a Virginia planter family, he learned the morals,
manners, and body of knowledge requisite for an 18th century gentleman.
Although Washington only made one trip out to sea in his entire life (a
voyage to Barbados with his half-brother, Lawrence), he instinctively
saw a potential gold mine of commerce and supply, witnessing first-hand
the value of Caribbean ports, by which good from Europe found their way
to the New World. He also fully understood the strategic significance
of the new nation’s waterways because he saw from whence came
the resources to wage a rebellion. These were two factors that would
later become key points to victory in the Revolutionary War when
Washington fully procured a navy.
In 1775, the Continental Congress was
divided on the decision to create a navy. It was thought to be
preposterous that any navy the Continental Army could muster would ever
rival the British navy’s powerful fleet. But without a navy,
the colonies on the East Coast had little defense against the British
ships that raided their trading posts and harbors at will.
Thus, in September of 1775, the first ships to be considered a part of
the United States Navy were privateers, manned by fisherman. These
fishermen, however, were not fighting men, and they were largely
ineffective as a front line of defense. But Washington was desperate
for gunpowder and lead at this time, and he knew that there had to be a
way to use the privateers to his advantage. Thomas Jefferson once said
of Washington that his strongest character trait might have been
prudence “never acting until every consideration was maturely
weighed and, once decided, going through with his purpose whatever
obstacles opposed him.”
After much consideration, he decided if the privateers could not be
used as fighting men, they would become plunderers, stealing supplies
and munitions from the British and giving them to the colonists. He
commissioned 11 schooners, starting with the 70-ton Hannah, whose sole
purpose was to raid enemy vessels and acquire whatever supplies they
could. This was extremely successful, with
“Washington’s Fleet,” capturing up to 55
This success was enough to persuade Congress that if their navy were
properly financed and outfitted with the right people, they could stand
a chance of defeating the British. In October 1775, Congress appointed
a Naval Committee and gave its members $500,000 to immediately purchase
and arm four ships and begin construction on 13 frigates, the largest
type of American warship to see action in the Revolutionary War.
By the War’s end, more than 50 ships, from whalers to supply
ships, had been converted for the colonies’ cause. The young
U.S. Navy reached its pinnacle in 1779 with John Paul Jones at the helm
of Bonhomme Richard. Although his ship sustained mortal damage from an
internal explosion at the British Serapis, Jones bravely boarded the
enemy vessel and fought the crew hand-to-hand. In order to accomplish
the boarding, the disabled Bonhomme had to move in close to Serpis and
the two vessels became entangled.
Throughout the night, the two crews waged a bloody and fiery war, with
Jones finally forcing Capt. Richard Pearson to surrender. Two days
later, Jones took Serapis’ helm, as Bonhomme slipped beneath
the waves, committed to the sea forever. Jones victory was a shot in
the arm for the navy, but in 1781, all 13 frigates originally
constructed six years before had been destroyed or captured.
Washington took his retirement on December 23, 1783, as the Navy he
initiated was flailing. Still, he had an avid interest in the sea and
saw the trading across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean Sea as
the future of American commerce. He sought to capitalize on this vision
by institution a policy of neutrality with the warring countries of
France and Britain prior to his retirement.
Unfortunately, neither country in conflict paid this any mind, and
America saw its merchant ships falling victim to plunderers and pirates
from the Barbary States in North Africa.
When he rejoined public life and was elected as the nation’s
first president on February 4, 1789, Washington ultimately avoided war
by paying $1 million ransom for 115 Sailors held hostage in North
Africa. This event gave Congress the proof needed to realize a strong
maritime presence was necessary if America was to prosper from
international trade. Washington’s efforts culminated in the
Naval Construction Act of 1794, which set in motion the groundwork for
the most powerful Navy in the world today.
Washington gave his farewell address on September 19, 1796, and
returned to his Mount Vernon home upon the inauguration of John Adams
on March 4, 1797. Washington died at his home on December 14, 1799 of a
throat infection, leaving behind the most recognizable name and legacy
in American history.