Thomas Jefferson and the Navy: A Complicated Relationship

A reproduction of an 1805 Rembrant Peele portrait depicting Thomas Jefferson.

A reproduction of an 1805 Rembrandt Peele portrait depicting Thomas Jefferson.

The following is an essay on Thomas Jefferson’s interactions with the United States Navy. Unfortunately, WordPress does not support footnotes; a copy with footnotes and a bibliography can be viewed here.


Thomas Jefferson is a figure whose idiosyncrasies enthrall historians to this day. Born to a land-owning but not particularly remarkable Virginia family, Jefferson rose to the pinnacle of American politics during the formative years of the United States. First a state legislator and then a delegate to the Continental Congress, Jefferson would eventually become the third President of the United States and a key figure in the Democrat-Republican political party. Profoundly influential, he produced or helped to draft an impressive body of works, including the Declaration of Independence and many records of colonial affairs.

As a remarkably skilled writer and highly opinionated man, Jefferson had the ability to sway opinions with the stroke of a pen. However, his messages and views did not always stay consistent over time. His writings about and interactions with the United States Navy exemplify this. Jefferson frequently railed against the Navy in his writings, fearing its expansion would lead to war and increased commerce. However, when in the Oval Office and faced with a war against the Barbary States, Jefferson skillfully moderated his stance on the Navy, opting to soften his rhetoric and defer many questions of naval policy to Congress while keeping Federalist officers on the register even when they offered to resign.

In contemporary America, the Navy receives over one hundred billion dollars in funding per annum. While the levels vary from administration to administration, the United States Navy always receives enough resources to ensure its supremacy. However, this was not always the case. Indeed, the extravagant military expenditures of the modern United States would surely cause many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, to turn in their graves.

Naval power was no less important in Jefferson’s era than it is today. English academics of the era recognized the influence their seapower granted; in his work Seaman’s Vademecum, English author William Mountaine stated: “For it is our formidable Navy-Royal and our Maritime Commerce that render us so considerable in the Eye of the World.” The only way to trade with far-flung regions such as the Caribbean, North America, and India was by ship, so any state which could control the seas had the ability to exercise significant control over commerce. In addition, seapower was necessary to transport troops and provisions to colonies thousands of miles away without being interdicted by the vessels of another nation. Throughout the eighteenth century, the Royal Navy was the world’s preeminent naval power, although other nations attempted to challenge this order.

Despite the importance of naval power to empire-building and commerce, Jefferson and his party, the Democrat-Republicans, had no desire for a large and powerful United States Navy. While European powers which aspired to global influence needed navies to protect their holdings, the United States was still a fledgeling country with pressing domestic issues and no overseas colonies to defend. Because of this, Jefferson preferred that the United States take a minimalist approach to naval expenditure. In a 1799 letter to Elbridge Gerry, Jefferson described the ideal United States military: “for internal defence, [we should have a] militia solely till actual invasion, and [] such a naval force only as may protect our coasts and harbours.” His Federalist opponents, however, wanted to mold the United States into a European-style military power. To achieve this, they took out loans in order to expand the United States Army and Navy.

Jefferson’s own writings and letters demonstrate his opposition to the Federalist military agenda. In a 1798 letter written to James Madison, he referred to the Federalists as the “war party” and discussed how his Democrat-Republican allies in Congress could acquire the votes necessary to defeat a bill expanding the Army to 20,000 men. He similarly opposed expanding the Navy, which he discussed in a different letter to James Madison: “The questions about building a navy, to be sure must be discussed out of respect to the speech: but it will only be to reject them.” Jefferson referenced discussing the bill “out of respect to the speech,” illustrating his reverence for civil conduct. Nevertheless, he had already made up his mind: the naval expansion of the Federalists could not be allowed to continue.

There were numerous reasons why Jefferson opposed expansion of the Navy. For one, he associated large standing militaries with the tyranny of European states, which tended to amass significant military power. In a 1799 letter to Elbridge Gerry, Jefferson warned of the ability standing militaries had to “overawe the public sentiment” and corrupt affairs within the republic. Jefferson also saw large military establishments as a threat to peace, a view which was substantiated by the tendency of powerful European states to become involved in warfare. In the same letter, Jefferson warned of the “eternal wars in which [the Navy] implicate us.” As his letters and writings demonstrate, Jefferson viewed the Navy as a threat to the peace and a gateway to the eternal warfare which entangled European states during his time.

Jefferson also associated large navies with commerce, which he feared would overrun the United States. To Jefferson, the ideal society was an agrarian one, in which citizens worked the land; farmers were virtuous, incorruptible, and the foundation of society. In an 1800 letter to Joseph Priestly, Jefferson lamented that the United States was “running navigation-mad, & commerce-mad, and navy-mad, which is worst of all.” It is noteworthy that Jefferson viewed commerce and naval power as interrelated developments. While his reasons for calling the Navy “worst of all” were not elaborated on in the letter, his objections to military expansion, as previously examined, are likely the explanation: the Navy was more nefarious than mere trade because it not only encouraged commerce but also burdened the taxpayer and risked causing warfare. In Jefferson’s mind, a nation of agrarian farmers had no need for a large navy and the associated expansions of government power and expenditure, not to mention the increased risk that the United States would find itself entangled in war with a powerful European adversary.

Ideological concerns were not the only reason Jefferson opposed expansion of the Navy; he also worried about the financial implications of the Federalist shipbuilding programs. In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson complained of a five million dollar loan taken out to fund expansion of the Navy. He went on to express his disdain for the current state of federal finances, noting that year’s budget would “leav[e] a deficit of between 5 & 6[] million [dollars].” This deficit was partially the result of the aforementioned loan. Jefferson then called on Madison to release records of Congressional proceedings, asserting: “[T]hat [legislation expanding] the army, navy & direct tax will bring about a revulsion of public sentiment is thought certain.” This statement offers crucial insight into one of Jefferson’s motives for attacking the Federalists on naval spending: he believed it to be politically popular.

Eventually, Jefferson himself would be elected president and thus exercise great control over the affairs of the Navy. As commander in chief, his scepticism regarding the Navy certainly persisted. However, he was not always eager to cut funding, and his actions as president regarding the Navy were far less radical than the previously cited letters would suggest.

Jefferson’s first annual message to Congress is an important window into how he instructed Congress to act with regards to naval funding. While his attacks on Federalist naval policy during his time in the opposition were scathing, Jefferson did not dismantle the naval apparatus established by the previous Federalist administration. In his message to Congress, he discussed the status of shipbuilding projects, noting that “[p]rogress has been made . . . in providing materials for seventy-four-gun ships as directed by law.” The law that ordered construction of the ships was a Federalist one. Yet, rather than directing Congress to halt the construction of large “seventy-four-gun ships,” Jefferson seems to have accepted their construction, a departure from his previous attacks on large naval construction projects.

In another portion of the address, Jefferson shied away from instructing Congress to keep naval appropriations funding to a bare minimum. Instead, he said “whatever annual sum beyond [what is necessary to fund the Mediterranean fleet] you may think proper to appropriate, to naval preparations, would perhaps be better employed in providing those articles which may be kept without waste or consumption.” Rather than advising Congress to cut funding, Jefferson instructed Congress to spend money on “articles which may be kept without waste,” which means equipment such as ships and cannons that can be stored in peacetime and crewed by volunteers during war. By instructing Congress to supply “whatever annual sum . . . you may think proper,” Jefferson essentially deferred the issue of naval funding to Congress and declined to stake out his own position. Later in the address, he made a similar statement while examining the state of harbor fortifications. While acknowledging the expense of such forts, he made no attempt to limit their construction, rather stating “[Congress] may be enabled to judge whether any alteration is necessary in the laws respecting this subject,” again deferring financial judgment to Congress instead of taking a decisive stand in favor of military force reductions.

There is an obvious explanation for the discrepancy between Jefferson’s earlier rhetoric and his activities as president: Jefferson had a naval war with the Barbary States of the Mediterranean on his hands. These Ottoman provinces, which were de facto independent, raised funds by requesting tributes from the world’s seafaring nations. In return, the Barbary States withheld from raiding the ships of the countries who acquiesced. For nations such as France and Britain, the sum was rather trivial and its payment was seen as a cost of doing business. Under the auspices of the British Empire, the thirteen colonies were covered by Britain’s payment of tribute and thus did not have to worry about interdiction by the Barbary States.

However, upon attaining independence, the United States government was asked by the Barbary States to send the tribute. Under Washington and Adams, the United States agreed. Jefferson, being fiscally conservative, was disgusted by the request, and refused to pay. He was also likely angered that small Mediterranean states would dare threaten free trade and attempt to pirate citizens of the United States. The way forward after rebuking the Barbary States was to pacify them by force, which would require sending a fleet across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The conflict would come to be known as the First Barbary War. Suddenly, Jefferson, who only years prior had advocated for a coastal defense navy, was sending a fleet halfway across the world.

The schooner USS Enterprise captures the corsair Tripoli during battle.

The schooner USS Enterprise captures the corsair Tripoli during battle.

When considering Jefferson’s military policies it is necessary to examine not only his stance on procurement but also his actions regarding personnel, which are a critical asset in any navy. In his writings, Jefferson lampooned the Federalist administration for creating frivolous government offices and appointing allies to them. During his message to Congress, Jefferson rhetorically asked whether the government under the Federalists had become “too complicated, too expensive; whether offices & officers have not been multiplied unnecessarily.” This accusation, while levelled at the government as a whole, certainly applied to the military, which had been greatly expanded under Adams and counted a large number of Federalist officers in its ranks.

However, Jefferson had a war on his hands, and training new naval officers to replace old Federalist ones was no trivial task. Naval officers had to learn by heart a multitude of procedures and techniques before they would be fit to serve. Naval handbooks of the day demonstrate this. William Hutchinson, a self-described “mariner and dockmaster,” wrote a book titled A Treatise on Practical Seamanship, which describes skills essential for sailors. The lengthy work contained over 200 pages of instructions for naval officers, most of which would need to be learned by heart before one could safely command a complex and expensive sailing ship. Prospective officers needed to know skills varying from celestial navigation to preventing sea scurvy to anchoring in four different types of current, and everything in between. As a result, commanding a warship was a difficult task which required copious skill and extensive practice. This hindered the rapid training of new officers, especially for the United States, which did not have the same level of experience and naval tradition as the Royal Navy.

Because training officers was a difficult and time-consuming endeavor, replacing Federalist naval commanders before the First Barbary War would not have been practical. In fact, Jefferson experienced firsthand the shortage of qualified mariners while trying to appoint a Secretary of the Navy. Three candidates initially refused the nomination before one of them, General Smith, had a change of heart and, after being asked repeatedly, agreed to the appointment. Debacles such as this illustrated how difficult it was for the fledgeling United States defense establishment to find skilled and willing officers to fill its ranks.

In light of manpower deficiencies, Jefferson made do with the Federalist officers he had. Illustrating this, he invited Edward Preble, a moderate Federalist who had served under Adams, to have dinner with him. The fact that Jefferson engaged on a personal level with Federalist officers could be viewed as pragmatism; perhaps Jefferson was trying to inoculate these officers with his own ideas. Alternatively, such meetings could be interpreted as evidence that Jefferson was able to overlook party differences and have a friendly dinner with his officers. The most surprising episode in Jefferson’s relationship with Preble came later, when Preble fell ill and offered a letter of resignation. The Jefferson administration declined.

In fact, Jefferson lavished some of his Federalist officers with praise. In a letter to Andrew Sterett, a naval officer who served with valor in the First Barbary War, Jefferson expressed “on behalf of [the United States] the high satisfaction inspired by [Sterett’s] conduct in the late engagement with the Tripolitan cruiser captured by [Sterett].” The letter is suffused with with similar compliments. Jefferson told Sterrett how the Barbary States dared to “trample on the sacred faith of treaties, on the rights & laws of human nature” and went on to laud Sterett as a man of “bravery & skill united.” Jefferson’s commendation of Sterett is particularly remarkable because of Sterett’s background. In a way, Andrew Sterett represented much of what Jefferson had previously railed against: he was born of merchants, a Federalist ideologically, captain of an expensive naval vessel, and sent overseas at great expense in a war of debatable necessity. Yet, Jefferson praised him regardless, revealing not only Jefferson’s pragmatism but also his ability to focus on a central objective, in this case defending freedom of navigation against the Barbary pirates, which required the efforts of Federalist naval officers. Jefferson seems to have concluded that, in this case, the ends justified the means. This ability to focus on his primary objectives while seemingly violating his own principles is a hallmark of Jefferson. It also makes him a difficult and interesting figure to examine, as his views at times seem contradictory.

Thus, Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the fledgeling United States Navy was nuanced. Initially, Jefferson chastised the Federalists for expanding the Navy. He had a number of reasons to do so, including his own ideological concerns and his belief that the naval expansion was politically unpopular. During his presidency, however, Jefferson generally left the finer details of military funding up to Congress instead of taking a decisive stand against naval activities, and his administration tolerated if not supported Federalist naval officers. Thus, Jefferson’s stance on the Navy throughout his career was fluid and adaptable; he strongly opposed the Federalist naval expansion when he had the leisure to do so, but took a more moderate approach in response to the developing First Barbary War, when he knew the Navy would be necessary for defense of free commerce.

About the Author

Alex Hempel
I am the owner of the site and the author of all content. You can reach me at alexhempel2012@gmail.com.

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