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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

“Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy”, by Ian W. Toll


560 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393058475

Six Frigates is a comprehensive look at the founding of the American Navy from the years shortly after the Revolutionary War. While the young nation had won its independence, the rest of the world still thought of it as a target ripe for exploitation, and the United States soon found its vulnerable merchant fleet being preyed upon, not only by the Great Powers of Europe, but even the small, piratical nations of the Barbary Coast.

The obvious solution would seem to be the creation of an armed navy, but a surprising revelation of Toll's book is just how much opposition to the idea existed amongst the country's early leadership. Fans of David McCullough's John Adams and 1776 will be pleased by the appearance of figures like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, but here Toll focuses more on their political actions and philosophies than their personalities or character. The arguments over whether creating a navy only served the interests of war profiteers, or whether having one placed too much power in the central government, or might cause the government's bankruptcy, provides a fascinating perspective on the differences between the early Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans.

Grudgingly, and in fits and starts, the federal government allowed for the creation of the book's eponymous six frigates. Toll gives credit to Joshua Humphreys, a Quaker who had never before designed a military vessel, for creating a new class of warships that would be more heavily armed than conventional frigates, but lighter and faster than ships of the line, a choice that would prove to be of immense value in later years, when the small American fleet found itself in conflict with the supreme might of the British Royal Navy.

Initially, however, the U.S. Navy's performance was at best uneven. Toll describes the early U.S. conflicts in the Quasi-War against France and in the wars against Barbary pirates, and his accounts of the various ship battles are the best feature of this work. Those who love Patrick O'Brian will be thrilled by the true life exploits recounted here, and Toll spares none of the details. America's early captains and commodores are presented as the book's most colorful characters--variously incompetent, unlucky, hot-headed, or charismatic--and their victories and defeats alternately were the source of great pride and humiliation for their nation.

With the outbreak of war against Great Britain in 1812, the "little navy" finally came into its own, by defeating the Royal Navy in several ship-to-ship battles--and again, Toll's descriptions of the numerous actions are superb. Coming at a time when His Majesty's ships were thought to be unbeatable, especially by the British, these victories finally proved the worth of maintaining a standing navy to the Jeffersonian Republicans; even more importantly, they played a vital role in forcing the other nations of the world to realize that America was a power that had to be respected.

The jacket cover of this book indicates Mr. Toll was a financial analyst by trade. I hope he's given up that mundane calling, and dedicates himself to writing more exciting stories like this one. I very much look forward to his next effort.

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