By George C. Daughan
This book tells of sea and lake battles and other activities of the United States Navy through 1815. The best chapters are of navel efforts during the American Revolutionary War. The author mentions but lacks detail about the ships and the weaponry: American ships were better constructed, why? They carried more cannons, and had better cannons than the British, French or Spanish. He also mentioned that the American sailor was well treated, although that policy did not last. (See Two Years Before the Mast)
The book is woefully short when it enters the fields of finance and politics. The author’s reading of sources after 1789 is painfully incomplete. The United States had a huge debt which all the country wanted to pay or remove; Hamilton’s initial effort to make all debt obligations of the federal govcrnment – like what happened after 2008 – failed. The Great Compromise of 1790 is partially relayed.
The author overlooks Hamilton’s close relationship with a British espionage agent, Colonel Beckwith. He laments that Madison and Jefferson (Republicans) wanted to set and follow Constitutional rules and procedures. In 1795 Hamilton arranged for John Jay to negotiate the Jay Treaty (about trade) with Britain, yet Hamilton later called Jay “an old woman” for delivering such a lame treaty. The author also seems to approve of the Alien and Sedition Acts, despite the direct conflict with the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Much of what John Adams did as President is approved, although he was away from the seat of government for two years. Adams began building frigates, yet when war came 15 years later, those ships were bottled up in harbors or defeated on the seas, just as the Republicans said would happen during any war with the British. Adams did successfully negotiate a peace treaty with the French (1800).
In the meanwhile throughout Adam’s administration, Hamilton was a war monger. He wanted to lead American forces to remove French and Spanish rule from North America with British backing. No American wanted that: Too much debt; too much military and war; too British – no American wanted the British close to American borders. Americans did not want to resume a political relationship with the British. Hamilton failed in his military ventures by 1800, and later that year he accused Adams of incompetence. [ Note that Aaron Burr took the plans of his good friend, Hamilton, and tried to make them work. He was accused of treason and put on trial, 1807.]
The Republicans willingness to favor peace and not increase the Navy or to finance campaigns left the waters calm. Diplomacy worked during the peace. The United States seemed a pacific nation. Napolean likely believed he would sell Louisiana to America and in the future reconquer it. For the price of the military budget for less than 20 years, the Republicans bought Louisiana and doubled the size of the country. The author of If By Sea pooh-poohs this second greatest accomplishment by American diplomats. Even Hamilton approved, and American finances did withstand the increase of debt.
The author is entirely correct that the Embargo of 1807 was ineffective and likely the wrong policy. As happens embargos were used and threatened (1794), and they were widely and popularly supported before and during the American Revolution. (see histories by T.H. Breen) There is no mention of this historical context in If By Sea, and the applicability of the policy, earlier, and other effects later.
A primary fact which allowed Americans to prevail on America’s lakes during the War of 1812 was the British blockade. American shipping was at a standstill; no ships in, or out. Sailors went to the lakes. On the other hand the British were far from the ocean up a river frozen for half the year. They did not their Navy ships and sailors trapped, so the British were using trappers, farmers and fur traders as sailors. If the war had lasted into 1815, the British would have had a difficult time on the lakes.