Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the American Navy

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Before the ink was dry on the Constitution of the United States, the establishment of a permanent military had become the most divisive issue facing the young republic. Would a standing army be the thin end of dictatorship? Would a navy protect American commerce from the vicious depredations of the Barbary pirates, or would it drain the treasury and provoke hostilities with the great powers? How large a navy would suffice? The founders -- particularly Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams -- debated these ...
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Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

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Overview


Before the ink was dry on the Constitution of the United States, the establishment of a permanent military had become the most divisive issue facing the young republic. Would a standing army be the thin end of dictatorship? Would a navy protect American commerce from the vicious depredations of the Barbary pirates, or would it drain the treasury and provoke hostilities with the great powers? How large a navy would suffice? The founders -- particularly Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams -- debated these questions fiercely and switched sides more than once.

In 1794, President Washington signed legislation authorizing the construction of six heavy frigates. The unique combination of power, speed and tactical versatility -- smaller than a battleship and larger than a sloop -- that all navies sent on their most daring missions. It was the first great appropriation of federal money and the first demonstration of the power of the new central government, calling for the creation of entirely new domestic industries, and the extraction of natural resources from the backwoods of Maine to the uninhabited coastal islands of Georgia.

From the complicated politics of the initial decision, through the cliffhanger campaign against Tripoli, to the war that shook the world in 1812, Ian W. Toll tells this grand tale with the political insight of Founding Brothers and a narrative flair worthy of Patrick O'Brian. In the words of Henry Adams, the 1812 encounter between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere "raised the United States in one half hour to the rank of a first class power in the world."

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Editorial Reviews

Evan Thomas
This first book by Toll, a former financial analyst and political speechwriter, is a fluent, intelligent history of American military policy from the early 1790s, when Congress commissioned six frigates to fight the Barbary pirates, through the War of 1812. But the book's real value, and the pleasures it provides, lies in Toll's grasp of the human dimension of his subject, often obscured in the dry tomes of naval historians. The battle depictions are worthy of Patrick O'Brian.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

It's hard to imagine a better place for listening to this shrewdly abridged, excitingly read audio version of Toll's impressive history of the founding of the United States Navy than aboard some sort of seagoing vessel. One of Patrick O'Brian's warships would be perfect, but anything from a smaller sailboat to the Staten Island Ferry would be almost as auspicious. Veteran actor Lang, his voice instantly recognizable from films and television, never lets that familiarity take over. He trusts instead to Toll's virtuoso combination of details large and small (everything from the uniquely horrible ways men died during sea battles to the greed of shipbuilders and their representatives in government) to keep listeners intrigued—changing his voice in subtle ways when he brings to life the real words of American and British naval heroes from Lord Nelson to the officers who won the war of 1812. Lang is a lucid guide through the stormy seas of politics and commercial intrigue surrounding the birth of the U.S. naval fleet, which would soon surprise the world—especially the British navy, which thought of itself as invincible. Simultaneous release with the Norton hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 21). (Oct.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This history will be a delight to fans of naval literature, fact or fiction. Toll, a former Wall Street analyst, vividly recounts the first two decades of the U.S. Navy, beginning with Congress's decision to build six heavy frigates in 1794 and continuing to the end of the War of 1812 (the navy itself takes its founding from the start of the Continental Navy in 1775). The decision to create a maritime force was made in reaction to the seizure of U.S. merchant ships and sailors by the Barbary pirates, and it sparked much heated debate among the Founding Fathers over the issue of a permanent military establishment. But, clearly, the country could not continue with only a standing army. The six frigates, one of which the USS Constitution is still afloat, were all of innovative design, more heavily armed yet faster than anything else on the seas. Their service through battles with Barbary pirates, the quasiwar with France, and the War of 1812 are vividly narrated here with firm historical detail and a strong cast of characters ably handled by Toll, ranging from the country's Presidents to the colorful officers and sailors on these frigates. Strongly recommended for all collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/06.] David Lee Poremba, Davenport, FL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Who knew that we owe the U.S. Navy to long-ago Muslim machinations?That gross oversimplification points to a historical accident that debut author and historian Toll capably works. At the time of the Revolution, America's navy amounted to a ragtag collection of privateers and merchantmen; even John Paul Jones's celebrated raid along the English coast was a freelance operation. After the Revolution, writes Toll, "what little remained of the Continental Navy was taken entirely out of service," the ships auctioned off and the men dismissed. Whether the new country needed a navy at all was a matter of hot debate among rival political parties, even as America's merchant fleet became an important presence in the Mediterranean and Caribbean markets. Enter the "Barbary pirates," privateers of four Arabic states that seized American ships and sailors in a sort of elaborate protection racket-one that England, the world's foremost naval power, could have easily crushed but instead used as a "check against the growth of economic competition from smaller maritime rivals," particularly the upstart U.S. In response, though taking time out to come to the brink of war with France, Congress authorized the construction of a federal navy whose six-frigate core numbered "the most powerful ships of their class in any navy in the world." The U.S. Navy then sailed off to Tripoli to begin the ten-year campaign that would finally break Barbary power. Toll's narrative closes with an admirably thorough account of the naval dimension of the War of 1812, when James Madison determined that an organized fleet acting in concert was less effective than a single frigate that could "get loose in the Atlantic and prey uponBritish shipping," which American ships did to great effect, doing much to win the war. A welcome contribution to the small library of early American naval history, deserving a place alongside one of the last such books-by a pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt. Agent: Ian W. Toll/Janklow & Nesbit Associates
From the Publisher
"Wonderfully atmospheric...brilliantly researched, full of stirring action and rich with the scent of the sea."
— Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393058475
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc
  • Publication date: 10/2/2006
  • Pages: 592
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.46 (d)

Meet the Author


Ian W. Toll has been a Wall Street analyst, a Federal Reserve financial analyst, and a political aide and speechwriter. Six Frigates is his first audiobook. He lives with his wife and two-year-old son in San Francisco.


Stephen Lang 's Broadway credits include Wait Until Dark, A Few Good Men, The Speed of Darkness (Tony and Outer Critics noms), and Death of A Salesman (Drama Desk nom). Among his feature films are Last Exit to Brooklyn, Tombstone, Gettysburg, and Manhunter. His television work includes, The Fugitive, Crime Story, Babe Ruth, and Death of A Salesman.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 55 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(43)

4 Star

(10)

3 Star

(1)

2 Star

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1 Star

(1)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 55 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 17, 2011

    I now understand what made these frigates the titans of the sea that they were

    I enjoy a good history, and Ian Tolls book is well researched and contains exhaustive details. I enjoyed learning the details of each ship, from where the beams were cut and shipped to where the cannon came from. Well done, complete with excerpts from letters and drawings of the ships themselves.

    Paul Buckner,

    author of "From Broke to Broker, and other stories of finding financial freedom."

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2008

    I still can't put it down

    I have read and listened to this book several times, and seem to enjoy every bit of information given by the author more and more each time. Mr. Toll does a thourogh job of combining historical recounts of U.S. Naval battles and political causes and effects while describing, in detail, the sacrifice every man in the 18th and 19th centuries endured. I am currently listening to this book on CD in my car for, quite possibly the 16th time and after disc 6 has ended, I'll replace it with disc 1 again. Thank You, Ian W. Toll.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2008

    A Young Nation's New Navy

    I enjoyed every page of this book. A little difficult to put down. Helps the reader to gain a real appreciation for the great sense of patriotism possessed by our early countrymen. They seemed to understand that they were part of a very special generation of Americans. The book has interesting insight into the social and political oddities of the era. If you enjoy US history or maritime history, you will probably find this to be very good reading.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2012

    Profound History

    This is one of the best history books I've ever read. It's flow and captivating style leaves you wanting more. It seems to be unbiased as it points out failing on all sides. A great refresher course on early American History focused around our Navy. It points out things about the War of 1812 that I didn't learn in school.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 17, 2010

    Why is this not an ebook?

    Should we take your ebook library seriously?

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2008

    A very good story told in a marginal audio recording.

    A very good story told in a recording that could have been done better. Ian Toll has written a very enjoyable and instructive account of the first six frigates built by the U.S. Navy. Laymen like myself with an interest in the Age of Sail, the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Pirates, and the War of 1812 should enjoy it. A nice book to listen to on your way to visit USS Constitution. Mr. Toll covers bits of the political background of events, snapshots of key figures, and recounts of many of the famous actions of these frigates. He says enough about each of those topics to be interesting and to keep the story going by quickly. It can be appreciated without constant reference to a map which is very nice since most of us purchase audio books for times during which reading is impractical. The reader speaks at a good speed and is clearly understandable although some of the early chapters are read in a monotonous tone. The audio recording leaves much to be desired, however. Most of us purchase audio books for times during which reading is impractical. For me, that is exercising on the treadmill. So any issues with the recording tend to be quite a nuisance. Most of the chapters start in the middle of a track, making it clumsy to find a stopping and restarting point. The last track on each CD starts and runs for several minutes of nothing before finally switching to the next CD ¿ it distracts you into doing something and then resumes the reading on the next CD just before you could do anything. The audio level is not consistent between many tracts, requiring frequent readjustment of the volume. The first audio book I purchased had at least two bad tracks on the second CD but Barnes and Nobel did exchange it for me with one that worked. It is a great story but don¿t expect the quality of its recording to match.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2007

    When We Got Our Sea Legs

    If you are a war history buff suffering from a nagging lack of knowledge about America¿s role in the Mediterranean in the age of the Barbary Coast corsairs, the ineptitudes of elected officials, the run-up and engagement in the war of 1812, or the early history of the US Navy read this book. Add to that the evaporation of zeal in some of our early statesmen, the false confidences in heroes, the stumbling tactics of politicians and the steadfast confidence in the righteousness of a nation new to freedom, and you have a great book. So far as the Mediterranean was concerned, passing through the straits of Gibraltar took us into a strange, little known enclave of mysterious religion, piracy, bribery 'tribute' and other means of assuring safe passage for trade. Six frigates is not just about our early Navy. It uses the vessels around which to build a narrative taking us from our fledgling days as a nation to a world maritime powerhouse. It seemed that Britain had learned nothing about us during the recent war that gave us our liberty. That nation still looked upon us as colonial upstarts, not really worthy of serious concern to a country that considered itself `rulers of the waves.¿ Along came the war of 1812, where we defeated HMS capital ships, one after another, to the point where upturned British noses could no longer be pacified by starched handkerchiefs. Up turned hulls were more likely. We learned that we, too, were a nation dependent on the sea and that we had as much claim on the broad expanse of the Atlantic as did the British. On land, we were surprised that the Brits could humiliate us from Canada, pillage Washington and that they would suffer a colossal defeat outside of New Orleans. They, of course, had much more seniority in ruling the sea but that would not last. We, however, had infinitely more coastline and were an ocean and a continent away. Through it all, we prevailed and the story is enlightening. We learn much more about our early years than just about how to build a navy. We learn, stumbling at times along our way, how to build a nation.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2007

    Struggle to exist

    Six Frigates realistically portrays not only the nation's struggle for a navy but the young country's own deperate struggle to exist and be respected by the then world's powers. Evidently, the pecking order for bullies began with respect for a country's citizens and navy at sea. The book emphasizes that without a navy to protect its trade and commerce, the fledging United States was at the bottom of the pecking order. An excellent book that teaches the importance of such simple things as a navy that we tend take for granted in the modern world. Unfortunately the book emphasizes that politics and politicians have not really changed since the birth of the nation. It is easy to understand why some presidents (early and modern)will never have an aircraft carrier named after them. The book makes you want to cry in frustration and then shout and cheer in triumph. An excellent, moving book that deals with the reality of history in a gripping, hard to put down manner.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2007

    This is the way History should be written!

    Beautifully written. Masterfully thought out. Mr. Toll moves easily through his pages - taking the reader with him. He tells a straightforward story and yet covers the complexity of what turns out to be a many faceted situation. His jumps in time and focus in order to present a broad and multi-dimensional description of his subject are never jolting, disturbing or confusing. Instead they add dimension and depth to the remarkable story he tells. He has written not just a description of an incident of the times but rather an account of the American world as it was - which provides insights to what has followed and where we stand today.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 24, 2013

    Hard to Put Down

    I first listened to this when a friend loaned me his copy. I liked it so much that I ordered my own. This book is full of rich detail about a critical period in America's history that few pay much attention to. At the same time, it provide a window into the trials and tribulations of our first navy.
    Highly recommended for anyone with more than a passing interest in American history.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2013

    Me

    My famley made this

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2012

    Fantastic

    Ian Toll paints pictures with words which bring history to life. A great story teller. Very much enjoyed!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2012

    Amazing!

    A must read for anyone intrested in the history of the navy.

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  • Posted February 23, 2012

    Great book

    A very thoroughly researched and well written account of the period from the creation of the US Navy to the end of the War of 1812.

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  • Posted February 3, 2012

    Recommened - IF you enjoy detail about a favorite subject

    The 'Six Frigates' is both a look into Early Naval History of the United States and explains in great detail the building of a Frigate of the late 1700's. Plus the gathering of the resources in order to build a Frigate cause's one to pause and become aware of the mountains of labor needed and the tansporting of resources to the building site. Creating the Leadership and Organiization by the "New" U.S. Government to build a Navy - is a story in itself. Where does one start? The early Battles are well written and gives good account of Battle. Enjoyable read.

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  • Posted June 15, 2011

    A Must Read

    Exciting, well researched, showing the actors (and personalities) at the beginning of our country, the political forces, battles, builders, and sailors. Incredible direct quotes from letters (yes, they wrote letters - Jefferson has a machine that wrote a second copy as he wrote). The author takes no political views of his own. Anyone who loves constitutional history, politics, navel history, and tall ships will love this book cover to cover. Filled with facts and personal observations that will make you feel like you were there.

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  • Posted June 1, 2011

    Great Read, Well Worth Your Time!

    This is one of the most well researched, well writen books I have ever read. It describes in detail the founding of the US Navy, the political and economic climate of the time without having the reader lose intrest. The detailed acounts of the campaings the frigates were involved in and 1st hand acounts of specific battles make this book a must read. This book is a MUST READ if you have the slightest intrest in history or the founding of our nation.

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  • Posted August 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    The Early US Navy

    This book is well written and will hold your attention. However, the action does slow in the periods of peace. Still, the story would not be complete without the explanation of what happened between incidents.
    This book filled a gap in my knowledge of the early US Navy. I will be waiting for more from Ian Toll.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2007

    Fantastic!

    There are certainly other books more detailed about the conflicts depicted in Toll's book. But it's doubtful there is a better book about the founding of the US Navy. Toll puts the reader inside the halls of government to see the debate for the need for a navy and the political will to make it happen. He introduces the reader to the egos of the designers, builders and captains of the Navy¿s first frigates. Who knew that the wood specifically from the Southern Live Oak tree would make a huge difference in the ships construction? It is those types of details that impressed me page after page. If I had any criticism 'and it would be very small', it would be how much nautical terminology is used throughout the book. Toll warns the reader that he does not take the time to define the terms, so unless the reader already knows what it means to be ¿close hauled, eight points free of the wind,¿ you¿ll probably lose a little bit of the detail when he describes the sailing of these great ships ¿ particularly in the battles. Aside from tacking, windward and leeward, I don¿t have the faintest idea what most of the terms meant and it didn¿t diminish my appreciation for the book. If you have any interest in naval history, this is a must read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2006

    Great Maritime History of the Early Republic

    This is a great book tracing the origins of the American Navy by focusing on the first Frigates built and launched under the new Nation's flag. After an engaging narrative describing the funding and construction of the first Frigates, the author weaves his tale through three distinct conflicts: the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Pirates War, and finally the War of 1812, all of which were naval-centered wars. The author does a great job teaching us about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the nations¿s first naval heroes, such as Stephen Decatur. The book should appeal to a wide range of early American History buffs, but maritime history buffs will find it a real gem. The author includes maritime language of the era in his narrative leaving the reader to discern the meanings of words through context clues. I found this really engaging, and it reminds us of an era which has faded away leaving a vocabulary of familiar expressions to us, such as ¿Jury Rigging¿ which today means to fix something quickly with what parts you have on hand. In that era it meant to fabricate sells from available materials to create a makeshift sell in times of dire need out at sea. There are many more examples, and the best way to enjoy this book is to loose yourself in the narrative like a novel, so sit back and enjoy the waves splashing in your face and happy reading.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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