Alasdair Roberts: How U.S. Naval Power Grew to Match Mercantile Ambitions





Alasdair Roberts is a professor of law and public policy at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. His book “America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837” was published by Cornell University Press in May. The opinions expressed are his own.

In the early years of the American republic, Sackets Harbor in upstate New York was one of the U.S. Navy’s most important ports, guarding access to the St. Lawrence River. In the War of 1812, Americans repulsed two British assaults there. As the war ended, they erected an odd memorial to their victories: the forlorn, uncompleted hulk of the battleship New Orleans.

It could still be seen rotting on its stocks 70 years later. If it had been launched, the New Orleans would have been one of the most powerful ships in the Navy. It was larger than Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory. But when peace came, construction stopped and the New Orleans began its long decline.

It wasn’t alone. From 1813 to 1816, Congress authorized the construction of 16 large battleships. In 1830, only one was on duty. Six were launched but quickly removed from service. Six others stood incomplete in naval yards. Frederick de Roos, a British officer visiting New York in 1826, was startled by the condition of the USS Ohio, put into storage immediately after launching in 1820. “A more splendid ship I never beheld,” he wrote. “She is already falling rapidly into decay.” In Philadelphia, de Roos marveled at the USS Pennsylvania, designed to be the largest fighting ship of any nation, whose hull had never touched water....



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