Build-down

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However, during Washington’s second term, the issue of sea power came anew to the forefront, as commerce raiders from France and the Barbary Coast menaced our shipping. As with the Indian threat, here was a challenge that we could not meet with our available resources, and in 1794 Congress passed the first naval bill, calling for construction of six frigates. “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution , emerged as a flagship within this modest fleet.

In the Royal Navy a frigate was a fighting ship with a single gundeck. The Constitution and her sisters conformed to this design, mounting forty-four guns, but in many respects these vessels were on a par with Britain’s standard seventy-four-gun ships of the line. They were similar in size, superior in speed, and their hulls of live oak had an extraordinary ability to stand up to gunfire. No less an authority than Lord Nelson was impressed, declaring in 1803 that “I see trouble for Britain in those big frigates from across the sea.”

 

These warships indeed would distinguish themselves in single combat, but when the United States went up against the first team, in 1812, the best it could do was to hold its own. Naval actions on Lakes Champlain and Erie preserved our northern border, but despite several attempts, we failed to take Canada, and when the British took the offensive, they seized Washington, burning the Capitol and White House.

The peace treaty of 1814 left our country intact, about as much as we could have hoped for. Fortunately Britain did not press its advantage. Instead, during the following few years, the crown sponsored two initiatives, both of which strongly favored our interests. The first came in 1817, when the Rush-Bagot Agreement demilitarized the Great Lakes. The unfortified border that resulted was earnest of a British intention not to use Canada as a springboard for a future invasion.

The second initiative grew out of Britain’s hostility toward Spain, an enmity that antedated the Armada. Spain had been a key ally of Napoleon, furnishing many of the ships that had fought Nelson at Trafalgar. Seeking to weaken this foe, the British foreign minister, Lord Canning, saw his opportunity in the work of Simon Bolivar. A Spain without colonies would be less formidable, and those ex-colonies, as newly independent states, were offering fine trading possibilities to Britain’s merchants.

Canning therefore proposed that Britain and America go “hand in hand” in opposing any Spanish effort at reconquest. John Quincy Adams, President Monroe’s Secretary of State, was cool. He saw no threat to Latin America from across the seas, and he believed that such a joint effort could stymie any U.S. opportunity to annex Cuba. He advised Monroe to act alone, rather than as “a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war,” and in December 1823 the President issued his famous doctrine. By itself it was rather fatuous; we were in no position to fight a naval war with Spain. But Monroe’s policy, issued in concert with Canning’s, marked a turning point. It meant that throughout virtually the entire hemisphere our interests and those of Britain would coincide.

 

With the coming of general peace, our Navy drifted into desuetude. Our peacetime military policies were set: a minimal navy and an army around ten thousand strong that would put its emphasis on fighting Indians. Nevertheless, the U.S. Army marked those years with a growing professionalism, and the rise of that professionalism stood out as another milestone.

Its center was West Point. Founded in 1802, the Military Academy spent its early years as a technical school of no great distinction. Indeed, its graduating students were not even required to serve in the Army; many of them took their government-paid educations and rejoined the civilian world, where they could find good use for their knowledge of bridges and roads. But all this changed after 1817, and quickly. For in that year Maj. Sylvanus Thayer took office as West Point’s superintendent.

An Academy man himself and a veteran of the recent war, Thayer was President Monroe’s personal choice for the post. He weeded out “Uncle Sam’s bad bargains” (the unpromising students), insisted that all cadets had to live solely on the Army stipend —no money from home—and forbade them to leave the post without his permission. He divided the classes into small sections, in which cadets had to demonstrate daily that they knew the course material. He also set up an ongoing competition, ranking the cadets into class standings, with the choicest military assignments reserved for those at the top. Demerits for minor offenses could easily outweigh brilliance in class; as Cadet Ulysses S. Grant put it, “Any special excellence in study would be affected by the manner in which he tied his shoes.”