During the Revolution America had, to all appearances, three navies. In 1775 the Continental Congress organized a national navy and appointed a committee to regulate its activity. But the committee, like many another at the time, had weak hands, and because of this and an absence of funds, the navy engaged in no fleet action. It did, however, indirectly determine the chief policy of our Navy Department until modern times. For the sea force, which at no point had more than three thousand men and twenty ships, made its objective the attacking of British commerce, while in later wars it was the protection of our commerce from attack which guided naval action. By striking at British merchant ships, the rebels kept up communication with France, thereby helping to obtain an alliance that proved invaluable.
The second type of navy in 1776 was that which the states organized. Except for rendering guard service to merchantmen, it did little more than the continental navy. It took the privateers, the third kind, to accomplish something. With two thousand ships, mostly from Massachusetts, commissioned by Congress, the privateers were almost as essential to the American cause as the French ships at Yorktown. Out of them the Cabots and Eliots made their fortunes, since the owners kept half of all prize money and divided the rest among the captain and crew. Besides being a more lucrative business than fighting in the continental navy, privateering was safer, as the ships were faster and the sailors more efficient. It made British trade routes dangerous to traverse and brought home needed goods, yet for naval operations it was useless.
Poor discipline and short-handedness were usual conditions of Congress's navy, which reached its peak in 1777 and then declined rapidly to seven vessels. Three-masted and square-rigged, the frigates and sloops of war were small and fast, with a gun range as far as one-half mile. Of the three top U. S. commanders, John Paul Jones is the best known in history and balladry. Son of a Scotch gardener, a true corsair and soldier of fortune, he served first under John Barry and Hopkins. When given command of a sloop, he sailed to Brest, seized many sloops of war, and gained world-wide fame.
With the aid of French money he rigged out the "Bonhomme Richard" and captured seventeen merchant ships about the British Isles. In a battle which established American naval tradition he lashed his ship to the British "Scrapis" and sank it. His own was so badly damaged that it sank two days later. Owing to the blockade, the first ship built in America for the continental navy did not get out of harbor until after the Revolution ended. Then Jones took the "America" to Europe, where he served in the Russian navy and died.
At two o'clock this afternoon the Vagabond will splash his way through the Cambridge slush to hear President James Phinney Baxter, 3d of Williams speak on "Some Aspects of American Naval Policy" in the New Lecture Hall.