Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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GUNBOAT SYSTEM, The (IN U. S. HISTORY). President Jefferson succeeded an administration which had begun the formation of a navy, and for the first year of his first term he made no open effort at a change in this particular. In his message of Dec. 15, 1802, he proposed the addition to the navy yard of a dry dock in which the vessels of the navy could be laid up under cover. This proposition was much ridiculed as a fresh instance of Jefferson's ruling passion for public economy. About the year 1803 the president's attention seems to have been attracted to the figure made in naval action by the armed galleys of the Barbary and other Mediterranean powers, and it seems to have struck him that here was a species of vessel which, in American hands, would prove a very effective and, above all, economical naval force. Feb. 28, 1803, an act was passed appropriating $50,000 to build gunboats, mainly for use on the Mississippi; but the acquisition of Louisiana gave further time for experiment. The message of Nov. 8, 1804, announced the expenditure of the appropriation, and expatiated with considerable enthusiasm on the utility and economy of a gunboat system instead of a navy. This part of the message was referred to a house committee of which Nicholson was chairman, and to this gentleman the president, in a letter of Jan. 29, 1805, fully elaborated his pet scheme. He argued that coast and harbor defenses would cost at least $50,000,000, and could never prevent the entrance of a hostile vessel. A more advisable measure was to provide for the defense of the fifteen principal harbors by 240 gunboats, to cost from $2,000 to $4,000 each. The seamen and militia of the various towns were to be trained to man them, and the vessels were ordinarily to be drawn up under sheds, in which situation they would cost nothing but an inclosure or a sentinel to see that no mischief was done them. A few were to be kept constantly afloat as revenue cutters, and in case of war the emergency would determine the number necessary to be equipped. The gunboats were to be built in ten years, at the rate of twenty-five annually. Their effective force was to be increased by another feature of the plan. This consisted in loaning to the seaports heavy cannon, to be mounted on traveling carriages and dragged along the beach by the militia to points from which a hostile vessel or fleet might be annoyed or dislodged.


—All this now seems a very extraordinary plan to be the sole reliance of a neutral nation against the unbridled license of the great European belligerents; but congress appropriated $60,000 to try the system, and at the following session, in 1806, fully adopted it, refused further appropriations for a navy, authorized the president to sell such frigates as required repairs, ordered the other vessels to be laid up in ordinary, and appropriated $230,000 for gunboats. The fact that New England federalists favored, and President Jefferson opposed, the creation of a strong navy was sufficient for the southern and western members of congress, and adherence to the gunboat system became, for nearly six years, a test of orthodox republicanism. Thus was inaugurated a system, founded in a confessed, and even avowed, ignorance of nautical affairs, which temporarily demoralized the navy, cramped its energies, proved utterly and hopelessly useless either for offense or defense, and never realized even Jefferson's leading ideal of economy, since the gunboats were found to cost about $10,000 each (instead of $2,000). Nevertheless the system was continued, in spite of the incessant ridicule of the federalists, and 103 gunboats were built in Jefferson's last year of office.


—Much of the harbor defense during the war of 1812 was left of necessity to the gunboats, as the only important naval provision which had been made for war; but the gunboat system was no longer a test of party faith. Rodgers, of the navy, receiving early news of the declaration of war, and escaping from New York harbor before orders to remain in port could reach him, vindicated the fair fame of his branch of the service by the capture of the Guerrière. Subsequent successful sea fights increased the popular enthusiasm for the navy, in which the democratic president and congress joined as heartily as if naval equipment had always been the main article in the party creed. The appropriations for the support of the navy rose from $1,870,274 in 1811 to $7,989,910 in 1814. The last appropriation for gunboats was made in 1813; after that time no attempt was made to build any other than sea-going vessels. But the initial successes of the little American navy had already drawn a strong detachment of the heaviest British vessels to the American coast, and toward the close of the war the capture or blockade of most of the national vessels compelled an unwilling dependence upon the gunboats on the seaboard. On the great lakes, the naval operations during the war advanced from the original employment of gunboats by both sides to the building of ships of over 100 guns.


—See Cooper's Naval History of the United States; American Register, 1806-10; 5 Hildreth's United States, 538, 579, and 6: 29; 1 Statesman's Manual (Jefferson's messages); 4 Jefferson's Works (ed. 1829), 28; 2 Tucker's Life of Jefferson, 175; 1 Garland's Life of Randolph, 271; Carey's Olive Branch, 51; 3 Benton's Debates of Congress, 516 (see also index); 2 Stat. at Large, 206, 616, and 3: 105-144.


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