In this week’s Constitution Post, we’re looking at the thirteenth clause of Article I — the Navy Clause.
“The Congress shall have Power… To provide and maintain a Navy…“
The necessity of a Navy became abundantly evident during the American War for Independence, when the fledgling United States of America began to throw off the bands of the greatest superpower of their day. In order to compete with the power of Great Britain, our nascent nation had no choice but to pursue naval superiority; without it, the British Navy could obstruct American shipping and essentially isolate the States from the rest of the civilized world without fear of reprisal. During the War, the Continental Navy not being sufficient to combat Great Britain’s naval dominance, this need was supplemented by the use of privateers (for more information on privateering, see here and here).
In terms of constitutional consistency, it would be sensible to delegate the power over the Navy to Congress, given their jurisdiction over trade and war-making ( see “Constitution Post –Article I, Section 8, Part II” and “Constitution Post — Article I, Section 8; Clause 11 ) and the necessity of a Navy to those things.
According to Joseph Story, the necessity of a Navy was unquestioningly recognized at the Constitutional Convention but received much opposition in many of the states’ ratification conventions. Many Anti-Federalists were fearful that competing nations would deem an American Navy a threat and immediately initiate war to subdue it. Mr. Story, in his Commentaries on the Constitution, wrote,
“In the convention, the propriety of granting the power seems not to have been questioned. But it was assailed in the state conventions as dangerous. It was said, that commerce and navigation are the principal sources of the wealth of the maritime powers of Europe; and if we engaged in commerce, we should soon become their rivals. A navy would soon be thought indispensable to protect it. But the attempt on our part to provide a navy would provoke these powers, who would not suffer us to become a naval power. Thus, we should be immediately involved in wars with them. The expenses, too, of maintaining a suitable navy would be enormous; and wholly disproportionate to our resources.”
However, the Founders’ arguments eventually won. It was conceded that, without a Navy, America would be at great risk; an invader would be without any opposition until actually at the Coast and could use that latitude as leverage to obstruct shipping, conduct amphibious assaults, and establish a stronghold in maritime towns and cities. Alexander Hamilton contended that a Navy, “…if it could not vie with those of the great maritime powers, would at least be of respectable weight if thrown into the scale of either of two contending parties.” In The Federalist No. 11, Hamilton further contended that, without a Navy, “…a nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.” Additionally, the cost of a Navy would be offset by the savings its protection would bring. It was thought that the presence of a Navy would allow the Army to erect fewer forts along the coast, thus saving precious resources. The risk of not providing a Navy was certainly much greater than that of providing a Navy.
Additionally, the necessity of a Navy for the safety of trade was recognized. Without a Navy, even in times of peace, American merchant ships could never be safe, even within American maritime jurisdiction.
Consider Joseph Story’s synopsis of America’s development in naval policy from the Revolutionary War to the 1830’s:
“Although these considerations were decisive with the people at large in favour of the power, from its palpable necessity and importance to all the great interests of the country, it is within the memory of all of us, that the same objections for a long time prevailed with a leading party in the country, and nurtured a policy, which was utterly at variance with our duties, as well as our honour. It was not until during the late war with Great Britain, when our little navy, by a gallantry and brilliancy of achievement almost without parallel, had literally fought itself into favour, that the nation at large began to awake from its lethargy on this subject, and to insist upon a policy, which should at once make us respected and formidable abroad, and secure protection and honour at home. It has been proudly said by a learned commentator on the laws of England, that the royal navy of England hath ever been its greatest defence and ornament. It is its ancient and natural strength; the floating bulwark of the island; an army, from which, however strong and powerful, no danger can be apprehended to liberty. Every American citizen ought to cherish the same sentiment, as applicable to the navy of his own country.”
Today, the U.S. Navy is the largest in the world, comprised of 322,421 active-duty members, 107,577 reservists, 276 deployable combat vessels, and more than 3,700 operational aircraft. I think it could well be said that this power has been key in granting us “the privilege of being neutral.” In other words, the size and power of our Navy has played a vital role in preserving domestic peace. We should be most grateful to God for giving the Framer’s the wisdom to include the Navy Clause in the Constitution!
Keep studying; keep fighting!