National Security & Defense

The Naval War of 1812: TR’s Forgotten Masterpiece

Depiction of clash between HMS Endymion (left) and USS President during the War of 1812, by Thomas Buttersworth, c. 1815 (Wikimedia)
His analysis of the Navy’s shortcomings bore fruit nearly a century later.

It has been 99 years since Theodore Roosevelt’s death, yet he still captures Americans’ imaginations as much as any public figure from that era. What is often lost in our memory of Roosevelt is that he was not only a cowboy, a soldier, and a statesman, but also an acclaimed historian. Indeed, his historical scholarship (some of which remains the standard work in its field) is central to his legacy as a statesman.

Roosevelt was only 23 in 1882, when he published his first work of history, The Naval War of 1812. Although the book was well received in its time (every ship in the Navy was required to keep at least one copy on board), it is far more valuable today as a manifesto for American naval power and a clarion call for the modernization of what Roosevelt saw as a woefully ill-equipped fleet.

Roosevelt credits the young United States Navy with achieving several important victories against the British at sea, but this happened despite and not because of the actions of the American politicians who set military policy in the years before the war. During the Quasi-War fought between the United States and France in the late 1790s, President John Adams had ordered the construction of six frigates and created the Department of the Navy to oversee their construction. However, under the succeeding administrations of Jefferson and Madison, those ships fell into disrepair, and naval construction lost the importance it had once had in Washington. One can read the particular indignation Roosevelt has for Jefferson and Madison in the opening chapters of The Naval War of 1812, as he castigates their strategy for prioritizing small gunboats designed for coastal defense over larger frigates, and how this left the United States vulnerable to the much larger and more dangerous Royal Navy. While Roosevelt admires the quality of America’s sailors a great deal, he repeats vigorously that they were dealt a bad hand by inattentive politicians.

The debates over naval construction in the years leading up to the War of 1812 would seem esoteric today, and even in Roosevelt’s time, readers were likely more interested in the Civil War (which had ended less than two decades earlier). But Roosevelt wanted his history not just to tell a story from the past but to raise an alarm in his own time. He does not dwell on the subject, but in the aftermath of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy once again fell into disrepair. The American fleet in 1882 was composed primarily of ships left over from the Civil War, and it compared unfavorably to the behemoth that was the Royal Navy. Indeed, if Roosevelt made any distinction between 1812 and 1882, it was that in 1882 the U.S. Navy was at even more of a disadvantage. Roosevelt still had faith in America’s sailors, but their improbable victory in 1812 appeared as a feat unlikely to be repeated.

Besides becoming required reading on all U.S. Navy ships, Roosevelt’s history impressed the officers of the Royal Navy to such an extent that when an official history of the Royal Navy was published some years later, he was asked to contribute to the section on the War of 1812. More significantly, in 1901 Roosevelt got an opportunity that had never before been awarded to a historian — the opportunity to run the Navy as he saw fit, as president of the United States.

In 1901 Roosevelt got an opportunity that had never before been awarded to a historian — the opportunity to run the Navy as he saw fit, as president of the United States.

By 1901, after America’s annexation of Hawaii and a war with Spain that left the U.S. with possessions stretching from the Caribbean to the Philippines, the Navy had recovered from its post–Civil War nadir, but it was still not at the level that Roosevelt wanted. Roosevelt directed his secretary of the Navy, William Henry Moody, to embark on an ambitious program of naval expansion that by the time of Roosevelt’s departure from office would make the U.S. Navy the world’s second largest, trailing only the Royal Navy. Determined not to make the mistake that Jefferson did, Roosevelt stressed the construction of modern battleships that went well beyond the scope of mere coastal defense. Roosevelt also sought to expand the Navy’s mobillity by establishing a base at Guantanamo Bay and strong-arming the creation of the Panama Canal (a story brilliantly told in David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas), which when completed would allow the Navy to move quickly between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans without having to sail around Cape Horn. Near the end of his term in office, Roosevelt sent 16 battleships, called the Great White Fleet, on a journey around the world, to impress and intimidate America’s rivals.

When the United States went to war with Germany in 1917, Roosevelt did not hesitate to criticize Woodrow Wilson for failing to adequately prepare the nation for war. However, the United States entered that conflict not with the depleted Navy of 1812 or 1882, but with a modern Navy that Roosevelt had made competitive with the navies of Europe. By 1917 the Panama Canal had been completed, the Great White Fleet had sailed, and the United States no longer had to rely on the heroism of its sailors to make up for deficiencies in the size and quality of its fleet.

Theodore Roosevelt’s admirers today credit him with, among other things, the conservation of nature and the regulation of food and drugs, but his contributions to the Navy stand out, representing not only a triumph of strategic foresight but a unique opportunity for a historian to act as a policymaker. The clarion call that he had published nearly two decades before he became president served as his inspiration not only to avoid the errors of the past but to prepare the nation for the future.

Editors’ note: Moshe Wander is currently working on a book about how statesmen have interacted with and learned from history, from which this piece is adapted. His Twitter handle is @MosheWander.

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