Uss Boondoggle

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Many historians have argued that whatever their function in the state religion, the pyramids of Egypt were also politically useful make-work projects. By employing peasants during the season when the Nile flooded the fields, pyramid building provided an income to the poor and thus helped secure political tranquillity for those in power. If this is the case (and Egyptology is hardly my field), then the pyramids are not only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World but the earliest surviving government pork-barrel project as well.

Despite the ancient history of the concept, however, the term itself is at least forty-five hundred years younger than the pyramids. Pork barrel first entered the American language only in 1904, when the Republicans were in the ascendant. Given the phrase’s Southern origin (it refers to the custom of regularly handing out joints of salted pork, stored in barrels, to each slave family on a plantation), it is highly likely that it is a Democratic coinage. Thirty years later, by the time of the New Deal, boondoggle had become popular, doubtless courtesy of disgruntled—and now out-of-office—Republicans.

By their nature, of course, these terms are employed by politicians only when their own constituents are not beneficiaries. Some such phrase as “vital national project” is preferred by the rest. And here’s the rub. At least since the end of the age of the godkings, a real, or apparent, utility has been a sine qua non of every well-designed vital national/pork-barrel project. That’s why the true motivation behind so many has been impossible to ascertain, at least until the dust of history settles.

Complicating matters still further, many projects that start out clearly justified by circumstances turn into pure pork barrel when circumstances change but the projects roll on relentlessly anyway. The new Seawolf attack submarine, for instance, is now considered too big, too heavy, too complex, and so costly that even the Pentagon—hardly the Vatican of selfdenial—wants to cancel it. Regardless, Congress has forced the Defense Department to complete keep spending billions on the boats.

For one very early example of this, consider the Navy’s ship-of-the-line program that followed the War of 1812. Ships of the line were so called because they were large enough and powerful enough to stand in the line of battle and slug it out with any ship afloat. For two hundred years they were the ultimate instrument of naval power. By the mid-eighteenth century the standard ship of the line carried 74 guns on three decks and required a crew of nearly seven hundred men to sail and fight it. A few behemoths carried as many as 110 guns on four decks. HMS Victory , the most famous ship of the line ever built, is one of these so-called first-raters. Being the largest and most powerful ships, ships of the line were, of course, also the most expensive to build and to operate, especially given the fact that they were intended to function only as a part of a fleet of similar vessels.

When the American navy came into existence in the Revolution, it was, naturally, almost entirely an improvised affair of privateers and converted merchant ships. One ship of the line, however, was built. Called the America , she was launched at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1782, a year after the war had effectively ended at the siege of Yorktown. Far too expensive for the nearly bankrupt confederation government to operate, she was immediately given to the French navy to replace a ship that had been lost in Boston Harbor, thanks to an incompetent local pilot.

Indeed, from 1785 until 1797 the new United States had no navy at all. But in 1794, with war raging in Europe and our relations with both France and Great Britain deteriorating, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, and the Navy was born again, this time permanently. Frigates were smaller than ships of the line and far better sailors than the lubberly battleships. They were intended primarily for showing the flag, commerce raiding, and reconnaissance.

Although money was appropriated for six ships of the line in 1799, and material for their construction gathered—a lengthy process when trees of exactly the right size and shape had to be located—they were never built. It was frigates that would give the U.S. Navy its first taste of glory.

But while the victories of the American frigates early in the War of 1812 were a cause of national rejoicing, they didn’t affect the vastly larger Royal Navy’s control of the seas one bit. British fleets sealed off American ports and brought American foreign trade to a standstill. The American Navy was powerless to do anything about it, for it lacked the one thing capable of attacking ships of the line: ships of the line.

Six months after war was declared, with the British noose tightening inexorably around American commerce, Congress authorized the building of four ships of the line, utilizing the materials already gathered for such a purpose. None of these could be completed before the war ended, and one, built for use on Lake Ontario, was never finished at all.