The Crucible of Naval Enlightenment

By Lieutenant Commander Claude Berube, U.S. Navy Reserve

This was not the first American attempt at a professional military organization. The U.S. Military Philosophical Society (1802–13) was established as the nation engaged in the First Barbary War. Its purpose was to collect and preserve military science from veterans of the American Revolution and share knowledge about warfare, primarily from an army perspective. The society’s members included the sitting president, Thomas Jefferson; Secretary of War Henry Dearborn; elected officials; and Army and Navy officers. 1 The organization disbanded in the middle of the War of 1812. 

The lyceum movement itself—organizations that hosted lectures, dramatic performances, class instructions, and debates—had civilian roots. In the early 19th century, they sought to inform adults through educational public events. The first lyceum was established in Massachusetts in 1826. Others quickly followed throughout New England, then the mid-Atlantic states, and eventually some Southern cities.

Founding of the Naval Lyceum

In December 1833, a few officers stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard announced the founding of the Naval Lyceum to

Elevate and adorn the character of our Navy, by placing within the grasp of its officers the means of acquiring professional and general information . . . to stimulate the members of the profession, by creating a common interest in the result, to new energy in the steady and zealous pursuit of knowledge, as the grand source of moral power, and to bind yet more closely the ties which unite them, by erecting a National Society. 2

The officers alerted the Board of Naval Commissioners to the establishment of the organization. They proposed creating a specimen cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities and building a library that would be funded through membership fees. They hoped to inspire officers to collect and furnish items from abroad. 3 Soon officers and other members began donating books. Josiah Tattnall, who would later be a flag officer in the Confederate Navy, provided a copy of a History of Naval Architecture , while historian James Fenimore Cooper donated some of his own works. By 1835 the library consisted of 1,134 volumes, 141 European periodicals, 148 American periodicals, and 14 books of charts and maps. In addition to military-related topics, the collection spanned the subjects of geography, ancient history, and science.

The Military and Naval Magazine asked its readership on behalf of the Naval Lyceum to “look for collections of antiques—of nautical surveys—for descriptions of foreign people and countries; their manners, commerce, and institutions; their climate, soil and productions.” 4 The Naval Lyceum did the same in the pages of its own periodical, the Naval Magazine . Soon the lyceum was filled with artifacts from around the world: antiquities from Egypt and Greece such as a piece of a mummy case fashioned, respectively,  out of layers of papyrus and pottery excavated from Pompeii; wood sculptures and weapons from South America and the Pacific Islands; and items from East Asia, including a Japanese incense burner. (Additional “curiosities” included a a Moorish jar from Morocco, shells, ancient vases, taxidermied birds, animal pelts, and coins.) Thus it became one of the first such repositories in the United States.

The lyceum’s mission mirrored the burgeoning mindset of the Navy and supportive civilians. Americans were forming an understanding of foreign cultures, histories, and geography. This was particularly beneficial for increasing commerce as merchants traveled to new lands and the U.S. government signed commercial treaties. The Navy was also developing a global naval presence, as evidenced by its Mediterranean, West Indies, Brazil, Pacific, and East Indies squadrons. With a library containing books that covered a multitude of topics and a museum featuring a comprehensive collection of artifacts, the Naval Lyceum laid a solid intellectual foundation for the Navy’s growth.

Prominent Members

According to historian John Schroeder, soon-to-be-captain Matthew Perry was the “driving force behind [the lyceum’s] organization and activities.” 5 While this is largely true, Perry received invaluable support from naval officers who were eager to challenge conventional thinking and embrace new concepts. He served as the first vice president, while Commodore Charles Ridgely was the lyceum’s first president. 

The second vice president was Tunis Craven, a naval storekeeper and son-in-law of Captain Thomas Tingey, the longtime commander of the Washington Navy Yard. Tingey was also a member of the Washington-based Columbian Institute for the Arts & Sciences, which established the U.S. Botanical Gardens on Capitol Hill. It is possible that because of Tingey’s affiliation, Perry and the other officers drew from the mission of the Columbian Institute for the Naval Lyceum. 

Lieutenant William C. Hudson served as the lyceum’s corresponding secretary. In 1838 he was given command of the sloop-of-war Peacock and placed second in overall command of the South Seas Exploring Expedition. Nineteen years later, while captain of the steam frigate Niagara , he became the first commanding officer to attempt to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable. This feat was accomplished the following year, 1858, in cooperation with HMS Agamemnon .

Meetings began in Perry’s office at noon every Monday. In 1834, its first year, the lyceum had 88 members who were New York residents, 83 from out of state, and 52 corresponding members, including four British captains, ornithologist Prince Charles Bonaparte, and ship designer Samuel Humphreys. Honorary members included President Jackson, Vice President Martin Van Buren, former presidents James Madison and John Quincy Adams, and prominent literary figures such as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. 

However, some of the senior-most captains in the Navy, including Commodores James Barron and Charles Stewart, were conspicuously absent. Barron was assigned to Norfolk and Stewart to Washington and Philadelphia, so geographical distance may have been a factor, but both had demonstrated a propensity for naval innovation. In the 1830s, for example, Barron designed a steam-powered ram ship, and during the Barbary War, Stewart proposed modifications to shipboard ordnance.

The Naval Lyceum’s robust membership reflects the great curiosity and dedication to intellectual pursuits characteristic of this generation of naval officers. The near majority of the 267 members it had during its initial six years were junior officers: 117 were lieutenants and another 48 were passed midshipmen. Of the 28 officers who served in the ship-of-the-line Franklin in 1817 and were still on active duty in the 1830s, all were members of the lyceum. Twenty-nine Navy surgeons were also members. Close to half of the serving captains in the Navy were members. 

The lyceum also welcomed nonmembers. Ships’ wardrooms were invited to visit when sailors pulled into New York. 6 As the lyceum’s guestbook reveals, one of its first visitors was Richard Russell Waldron, who later served as purser and Navy agent with the South Seas Exploring Expedition. It also attracted academics such as Spanish professor Miguel Cabrera of the University of the City of New York, mathematics professor George W. Benedict of the University of Vermont, and Professor Benjamin Silliman, the first chemistry professor at Yale University. (Silliman also founded and funded the American Journal of Science and served as its editor until 1838.) Other esteemed visitors included Congressman Robert Livingston, Senator Nathaniel Tallmadge, and British, German, Mexican, and French military officers. Naval constructor John Lenthall, who would be largely responsible for the ship designs used through the Civil War, was another “regular.” 7

The Rise of Periodicals and Critical Thought

In the 1830s, publications began to be increasingly distributed to promote and share ideas. These platforms of free speech were integral to the officers’ reform movement. Until this time, articles about the Navy in journals—particularly by serving officers—appeared infrequently, and were usually simple accounts of naval actions or hagiographic biographical essays of early heroes. 

The rise of military-specific publications would change that. The Naval Lyceum published its own periodical, the Naval Magazine (1836–37), for two years. Others included The Military and Naval Magazine (1833­­–34), Army and Navy Chronicle (1835–44), and The Sailor’s Magazine (1829–1935). These publications would help stimulate intellectual debate about the Navy among officers and interested civilians. Secular journals also published a growing number of articles about the Navy and/or written by naval officers. 

These periodicals featured essays that covered topics as diverse as biography, emerging technologies, officer-penned travel notes about ports and countries, foreign naval capabilities, naval policies, and ideas for improving the Navy.  In the Naval Magazine , for example, article titles included “Comparative Resources of the American Navy,” “A Pilot’s Story of a Shipwreck,” “History of Navigation,” “Hints on the Mineral Wealth of the United States, Suggested by the Recent Discovery of Diamonds,” “Malaria, Produced by Vegetable and Animal Putrefaction, as a Cause in Fever,” “Traits of the Mussulman,” “The Acropolis of Athens,” and “Remarks on Quarantine Systems.” 

Some debates on the subjects covered in these periodicals became extremely contentious, particularly when senior officers began to weigh in. But these conversations weren’t confined to the pages of military-themed periodicals. The Baltimore American newspaper, for example, noted the ongoing discussion in the Army and Navy Chronicle about the creation of the grade of admiral in the U.S. Navy. 8 The most common themes in various magazines involved steam power, a restructuring of naval ranks, founding a naval school, and the capabilities of other navies and countries. 

With analytical texts appearing in the magazines—such as portions of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War in The Military and Naval Magazine —strategic naval thought became more accessible, and officers began to think in terms of the larger picture and the role that individual units played within emerging technological or political trends. They were developing a more nuanced and progressive understanding of naval strategy and war fighting. In The Military and Naval Magazine , a writer opined, “‘In peace, prepare for war,’ is the principle upon which our Navy has been sustained.” 9  

Other articles discussed geopolitical conditions. Although the United States had enjoyed a peaceful relationship with Britain for more than a decade, it simultaneously viewed the empire as its greatest threat and a nation from which it could learn. The same sentiment applied to France. Later issues of The Military and Naval Magazine included the translated article “Naval Tactics for the French Navy,” which described the size, composition, and strength of the French and other navies, and “Improvements in Shipbuilding,” which described British ships. In another issue, an anonymous lieutenant described the causes of Ecuadoran leaders’ failures. 10 

These magazines provided junior officers a valuable opportunity to publicly engage with senior officers and citizens on topics they had begun to write about in their own private correspondence and journals. They typically did so under pen names (as did many civilians). This ensured that in the event of a contentious topic, the author’s privacy would be protected and the debate would be focused on the message rather than the messenger. Essays frequently appeared with the bylines of authors using only a letter: “C,” “D,” “M,” or “X,” for example. Others chose names or phrases such as “Coquille,” “Neptune,” “Candor,” or “A Friend of the Navy.” Had authors published under their own names, their naval careers could have suffered, and the public would have dismissed their concepts as those of inexperienced junior officers. When attributed to nameless, faceless entities, their messages could gain a wider audience. 

Pseudonyms were an effective means of challenging conventional thinking, but not all officers agreed with using them. One officer, ironically identified by the moniker “Writer,” wrote of the “odious system of anonymous communications. Fear of power originated it; fear of detection has continued it. . . . In the warfare of anonymous communications, we pierce the masque, without thought of the wound we inflict on him whom it conceals, but shelters not.” 11

The Lyceum’s Naval Magazine

Of the several professional military magazines that emerged during this period, the most important, albeit short-lived, was the Naval Magazine , which “served as a catalyst for a budding movement seeking to institute a number of reforms and technological advances in the Navy.” 12 It was the first and only magazine specifically devoted to naval issues and thus a definitive source for the intellectual movement among naval officers and supportive civilians. According to the editor, the Reverend Charles S. Stewart, the magazine’s purpose was to solicit from all fellow officers “such original papers . . . on all subjects, directly or collaterally, connected with the elucidation and diffusion of Nautical and General Science, and professional knowledge.” 13 (Stewart was a Navy chaplain, missionary, and well-known diarist whose journals about his round-the-world travels on board Navy ships were published in the 1830s and 1840s.) 

As the pseudonymous “Sinclair” wrote:

The spirit of the times and the necessities of the navy loudly declare that change is requisite. We cannot remain as we are; for things are fast tending to that point, when the prospects of a vast majority of the officers of our navy, will be desperate in the extreme. 14

Junior officers such as Sinclair saw opportunities for naval evolution in terms of personnel, platforms, and policies; the journals provided them an outlet for their frustrations and helped ensure that conventional thinking by senior officials did not impede incoming change. 

A Naval Enthusiast Speaks Up

James Fenimore Cooper applied his considerable knowledge of the Navy to his contributions to the Naval Magazine . A midshipman before the War of 1812, Cooper formed lifelong relationships with officers such as William Shubrick, Isaac Chauncey, and Richard Dale. In the Naval Magazine , Cooper expressed his thoughts on ranks, manning, and ships. He favored raising taxes to increase the size of the Navy by 50 percent. His personal correspondence with Shubrick, specifically about the ship-of-the-line Pennsylvania under construction from 1836 to 1837, demonstrates an intimate knowledge of her lines and potential uses. 

Perhaps because Cooper did not serve during wartime, he became an unabashed navalist and ached for a conflict in the 1830s. In 1836, when war with France seemed probable, he wrote: 

A crisis has arrived . . . . Whether a war with France should be purely maritime, or not, it is certain that our principal means of offence, as well as of defence, are to be looked for in a navy . . . . A war with France, to be effective must be conducted vigorously on the offensive. 15

Although apparently at times he understood the underlying purpose of a navy was to protect its country’s commercial interests, Cooper could also be unrealistic in his expectations for the relatively small U.S. Navy. He suggested that if America went to war with France, a victory like Trafalgar “would be worth a hundred successful combats in frigates.” While that statement was true, it was completely unrealistic to believe that three dozen U.S. ships scattered around the world could be assembled against a superior French force in 1836. Cooper’s intent seems to have been to generate support for increasing the Navy’s size and demonstrable kinetic force. “I know,” he wrote, “that the public mind is not yet prepared for a great demonstration of naval force; that opinion has not kept pace with facts. . . . It is my aim to prove their error.” 16 

Evolution and Disbandment

As a new movement, the Naval Lyceum initially flourished in the 1830s thanks to passionate junior officers. Over the next few decades, it continued to provide a venue for discussion and education for the officer corps. Its members would influence the vision and shape of the U.S. Navy for the next century. In 1838, for example, member Lieutenant Charles Wilkes would command the four-year South Seas Exploring Expedition. Others, like Commodores Robert Field Stockton and John D. Sloat, would go on to command ships and squadrons during the Mexican War; Commodores Samuel DuPont and Louis Goldsborough would do the same in the Civil War. Other lyceum members, like Samuel Pook, the architect of the City-class ironclads, designed ships. Stephen B. Luce became a member in 1854. Thirty years later, he founded and became the first president of the Naval War College. 

In 1880 the Naval Lyceum welcomed Alfred T. Mahan, who would become one of America’s greatest naval thinkers, as a member. But by this decade, the lyceum movement had passed. A new organization, the U.S. Naval Institute, had been founded in 1873. (One of the Institute’s founders, Foxhall Parker Jr., was the son of one of the lyceum’s early members.) Located in Annapolis, Maryland, it had the advantage of proximity to the new generation of naval officers emerging from the U.S. Naval Academy. After the Naval Lyceum disbanded in 1889, its library and 254 specimens from its museum were eventually transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, where several can be viewed today.



1. “United States Military Philosophical Society,” National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser , 4 August 1806, 2.

2. Uncredited, “U.S. Naval Lyceum,” Naval Magazine , January 1836, vol. 1, no. 1, 5.

3. Letter from M. C. Perry, C. O. Handy, and J. Haslett to Board of Naval Commissioners, 10 December 1833. Letterbook of the U.S. Naval Lyceum, 1834–1871, Box 37, collection in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

4. Uncredited, The Military and Naval Magazine , vol. 4 (September 1834 to February 1835), 177.

5. John Schroeder, Matthew Calbraith Perry, Antebellum Sailor and Diplomat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 70.

6. Henry Willett to Jesse D. Elliott, 13 March 1835, Naval Lyceum Records, U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

7. Lists compiled from Record Book: List of Visitors, U.S. Navy Lyceum, 1834–1843 , Box 24, Naval Lyceum Records, U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

8. Untitled article, Baltimore American , reprinted in Army and Navy Chronicle , vol. 2, no. 14, 17 April 1836, 223.

9. “D,” “Thoughts on the Present Condition of the Navy, and Suggestions for its Improvement,” The Military and Naval Magazine , January 1834, 263.

10. “Guyaquil,” “A Lieutenant in the Navy,” Naval Magazine , January 1836, 227–35.

11. Unknown author, The Military and Naval Magazine , September 1834, 177.

12. Schroeder, Matthew Calbraith Perry , 72.

13. Rev. Charles S. Stewart, editor, Naval Magazine , January 1836, 4.

14. “Sinclair,” “The Navy,” Naval Magazine , October 1834, 113–14.

15. James Fenimore Cooper, “Comparative Resources of the American Navy,” Naval Magazine , January 1836, 21–22.

16. Ibid., 24.

 

 
 

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