The U.S. Navy was established on this day in 1794 when the federal government passed a Naval Act, authorizing the building of six frigates. Several of the six had seen battle action in the 1798–1800 “Quasi War” against France, but as told in Ronald Utt’s Ships of Oak, Guns of Steel, it was the War of 1812 that made the navy, if not the modern nation. Utt begins his study by quoting from a speech which the historian C. F. Adams, great-grandson of John Adams, delivered in 1912 at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Asked to address the question of whether the U.S. was a “world power,” Adams used the war and its most famous naval battle to frame his definitive answer:
I propose to specify the exact day of the year and month and week, the hour and almost the minute at which the United States blazed as an indisputable world power on the astonished, and, for some time yet, incredulous nations. To be specific, it was at thirty minutes after six o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 19, 1812. On that day and at that hour, just twenty weeks over a hundred years ago, this country, I confidently submit, became a nationality to be reckoned with; and such it has ever since been.
Utt comments that Adams did not need to be any more specific: “They all knew, as did every schoolboy in the nation. That was the moment when the American frigate Constitution shattered and sank the British frigate Guerriere in the first major sea battle of the War of 1812.” While the Constitution remains afloat and famous, Utt says that the War of 1812 is now so little known that it is in danger of “being carted off to the historical attic.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.