Yesterday's Lessons, or Yesterday's Legends?

By James R. Holmes

Nor did the United States learn much from the War of 1812, apart from the imperative to maintain a navy in peacetime. It built precisely one first-rate ship-of-the-line after the conflict, along with a token force of 74-gun third-rate ships. This was no battle fleet. 2 If anyone kept the sea free during the 19th century, in fact, it was the erstwhile foe. Great Britain’s Royal Navy kept predatory European empires out of the New World until the 1880s, when the United States laid the keels for a great fleet—and accepted responsibility for North America’s nautical environs at last. 3 The triumphal glow pervading the War of 1812 commemorations obscures the harsh lesson that dire consequences follow when the republic neglects its Navy. That’s a lesson worth reiterating as Americans debate their seaborne future anew.

Debunkers With a Cause

This is not the first time scholars have sought to revise Americans’ understanding of this half-forgotten conflict. It’s also not the first time the historical revisionists’ main goal was to nourish a culture in which sea power could thrive. Two eminent scholar-practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan, wrote histories of the War of 1812 during the fin de siècle age , when America was making its ascent to world power. Both did so in large part to debunk the legends surrounding the war at sea. Roosevelt and Mahan were open and unapologetic about this. They hoped to dispel the popular lore in which indomitable U.S. Navy mariners backed by an improvised “militia” of privateers stood out to sea to battle—successfully—the mighty Royal Navy.

TR and Mahan hoped to help Americans unlearn the war’s false lessons while substituting more accurate—and more politically useful—historical memories. Though naval proponents didn’t say it in so many words, they hoped to revise American culture to support an expansive maritime strategy buoyed by the nation’s first capital-ship navy. Deploying minutemen at sea was no way to wage war. Britain proved as much during the War of 1812, choking off U.S. commerce with its overbearing battle fleet. Navalists hoped to rally support for a U.S. Navy able to forestall or defeat similar threats in the future. If they succeeded, the war would be remembered as a lesson in early America’s feebleness—not strength—on the high seas. 4

Sea-power enthusiasts wanted no less than to convince their countrymen to reimagine the “usable past” bequeathed by historians of the War of 1812. What is a usable past? Societies define themselves by common ideas and historical memories. Historian Henry Steele Commager explained how the founding generations of Americans wrote their own historical narrative. They crafted a heroic past, deliberately stimulating a sense of American nationhood to transcend state and sectional loyalties and bind their brand-new republic together. And they fabricated the new culture with dispatch. “Nothing,” writes Commager, “is more impressive than the speed and the lavishness with which Americans provided themselves with a usable past,” manifest in history, legends, and heroes, not to mention such cultural artifacts as paintings and patriotic ballads. 5 Think about Emanuel Leutze’s painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware—just one example of cultural adhesive among many.

The War of 1812 was a chapter in the national story. For Roosevelt and Mahan, it was a chapter that needed to be rewritten to teach new lessons. They believed that acknowledging the U.S. Navy’s strategic ineffectiveness would have prompted the United States to provide for its seaborne defense. Instead, observes Commager, Americans “persuaded themselves” that the war was a victory—despite its paltry military results. A “great surge of strength and of pride poured through the nation.” Americans gushed with praise of “the little navy that had given such a good account of itself.” 6

This refurbishing of history made some sense in Commager’s view. The War of 1812 made an ideal chapter in the national story. It ended cleanly, leaving “no heritage of unsolved problems or vexatious issues, no aftermath of disillusionment or bitterness, but rewards, satisfactions, heroes and respect.” 7 Liberated from the aftereffects of war, Americans could rejoice in their sailors’ gallantry without asking why their high-seas tactical victories had yielded no meaningful operational or strategic results. Historical forgetfulness set in once the celebratory spirit subsided. Only a residue of half-remembered deeds and names like Isaac Hull and Stephen Decatur endured. 8

Naval enthusiasts like Roosevelt and Mahan saw tall tales as a flimsy basis for maritime strategy. A more accurate rendering of the war’s history, they believed, would serve the republic’s interests better. Roosevelt started compiling his account, The Naval War of 1812 , while still a Harvard undergraduate. It achieved instant fame. Notes Howard K. Beale, the Naval War College and several civilian colleges adopted this “undergraduate labor of love” as a textbook. It quickly ran through multiple editions. 9 Navy regulations ordered a copy placed aboard every warship. In 1888 the treatise earned TR an invitation to lecture at Newport on “True Conditions of the War of 1812.”

There he met Captain Mahan, then the Naval War College president. 10 Mahan later composed his own history of the naval war, presenting it in the final two volumes of a series that began with The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890). His writings earned Mahan such nicknames as the “evangelist,” “Copernicus,” or “prophet” of sea power—testifying to his own influence. 11 Working separately, the two men undertook an ambitious historical and cultural project—to transform a nation’s approach to its future by rewriting the lessons it drew from its past.

Renovating America’s Usable Past

So much for what TR and Mahan meant to prune out of America’s usable seagoing past. What did they hope to implant? Three main themes emerge from their histories. Foremost among them was preparedness. Aspirants to sea power must construct battle fleets in advance of war, not once the fighting breaks out. Preparedness was alien to the Revolutionary tradition predicated on raising militias in times of strife. Modifying that tradition was crucial to transforming America’s maritime culture.

Roosevelt liked to quote Washington’s “forgotten maxim” that “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” 12 Readiness for war, TR fretted, was an axiom of statecraft to which Americans paid “lip loyalty” but sadly had “never sunk deeply into our hearts.” 13 Yet no serious maritime power could improvise a fleet following the outbreak of war. Roosevelt condemned the “ludicrous and painful folly and stupidity of which the government founded by Jefferson, and carried on by Madison, was guilty, both in its preparations for, and in its way of carrying on,” the War of 1812. 14 Such an approach invited catastrophe in TR’s and Mahan’s day, an industrial age when fitting out armored men-of-war consumed years. Thinking ahead about martial matters was essential—albeit difficult for a liberal society whose citizens preferred to devote their energies to trade and commerce.

For his part, Mahan ascribed Americans’ nonchalance toward naval preparation not just to the romanticism of the single-ship duels but also to their habit of colonial dependence, and to the sheer hopelessness of vying with Great Britain for maritime supremacy. “Because America could not possibly put afloat the hundred—or two hundred—ships-of-the-line which Great Britain had in commission,” he lamented, “many argued, as many do to-day, it was vain to have any navy.” 15 Why run an unwinnable race?

But Roosevelt and Mahan denied that it would have proved unwinnable. Geography, the second common denominator between their histories, was one reason why. Mahan pointed out that the United States was so situated that it need not build against hostile fleets in toto. Britain depended on revenue from the West Indies sugar islands to finance its long-running war against Napoleonic France. It thus depended on secure access to the Indies. None other than King George III certified the importance of the Caribbean trade. During the American Revolution, the crown ordered the Royal Navy to keep powerful squadrons on station in the region, even “at the risk of an invasion of this island”—“this island” meaning the British homeland! 16

Few rulers will risk foreign invasion for the sake of foreign commerce. The Caribbean trade was that vital—and merchantmen bound for the sugar islands had to pass through natural U.S. Navy operating grounds. Had the United States constructed a modest battle fleet before the War of 1812, the economics of empire would have let Washington exert leverage on London far disproportionate to the investment.

Mahan extrapolated from his findings. Writing in 1897, he sketched “a broad formula” by which the U.S. Navy must be “great enough to take the sea, and to fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest force likely to be brought against it. . . .” 17 No European great power was likely to send its entire navy to the Americas, lest its interests elsewhere come under assault. Thus the United States didn’t need to run a symmetrical arms race against European navies. Still less did it need a navy second to none. It merely needed a fleet strong enough to tip the local naval balance in its favor. The strategic question now appeared soluble at reasonable cost. The republic could run—and win—such a partial arms race without bankrupting itself.

‘Little Attempted, Nothing Done’

Which leads to the third theme in Mahan’s and TR’s histories of the War of 1812—the battle fleet. TR issued a downcast verdict on the U.S. Navy’s performance. “In summing up the results of the struggle on the ocean,” he wrote, “it is to be noticed that very little was attempted, and nothing done, by the American Navy that could materially affect the result of the war” (his emphasis). 18 Added Mahan, “the United States flooded the seas with privateers.” While commerce raiding hurt British trade, helping “dispose the enemy to liberal terms of peace,” it could not overcome the “grinding efficiency” of the Royal Navy’s blockade. Watchful British squadrons throttled U.S. commerce and exhausted the United States by war’s end. 19

Attacks on merchant shipping, then, were chiefly the prerogative of the strong. The U.S. Navy needed a battle fleet of its own. Only thus could it break blockades and safeguard oceangoing commerce. How should a fleet be configured? Roosevelt was vague on specifics, insisting only that U.S. “ships should be the best of their kind, and there should be plenty of them.” 20 For his part Mahan gazed back to the years before the War of 1812, when the so-called “Penman of the Constitution,” Gouverneur Morris, had argued that the United States could afford a dozen or even 20 ships-of-the-line, along with an entourage of frigates and smaller craft. Standing athwart important sea lanes, such a fleet would have wielded outsized influence vis-à-vis Britain. It could have deterred war and thus, on balance, saved thrifty taxpayers money. 21

Geography again came to bear. Morris, noted Mahan, “certainly did not imagine twenty ships to be equal to a hundred.” But he “accurately estimated the deterrent force” of a U.S. Navy “prepared to act upon an enemy’s communications—or interests—at a great distance from the strategic center of operations.” The strategic center for Great Britain was Europe, commanding the bulk of British resources. The American conflict hovered along the strategic periphery. A “valuable military lesson of the War of 1812,” therefore, was “that a comparatively small force—a few frigates and sloops—placed as the United States Navy was, can exercise an influence utterly disproportionate to its own strength.” More specifically, affirmed Mahan, “Had Morris’s navy existed in 1800, we probably should have had no War of 1812.” 22

TR agreed. Fielding excellent implements of war in adequate but not overbearing numbers was the task before a United States making its ascent to regional sea power. A healthy usable past would alloy naval preparedness, geographic consciousness, and the battle fleet with America’s national identity. No longer would Americans settle for the haphazard approach to naval warfare. They would insist on maintaining a fleet to fulfill their nation’s maritime destiny.

Cultural Management Is Hard

Roosevelt and Mahan discovered that changing an entrenched culture is hard. No matter how persuasive, entreaties from historians changed too few minds. Mahan lamented his inability to sway public sentiment toward sea power until his theories were put to the test of war, when events appeared to vindicate them. 23 Their histories of the War of 1812 represented just one intellectual current among many—the strongest being the Spanish-American War—that converged around the end of the 19th century. The U.S. Navy’s fleet victories at Santiago and Manila Bay displaced the distant War of 1812 from the popular mind at last. 24 Command of the sea was firmly ensconced in America’s usable past after 1898.

The naval establishment ought to reorient its War of 1812 bicentennial commemorations to consolidate the big-navy culture fostered by TR and Mahan. And it ought to borrow their methods.

Far from a rousing tale of victory, the War of 1812 offers a parable for the consequences of apathy toward the sea. Past weakness and failure are teaching tools. Let’s use them as such, rather than spin yarns about perpetual American command of the sea.

1. Naval History and Heritage Command, “Bicentennial of the War of 1812,” .

2. Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775–1991 (New York: Random House, 1991), 10, 128–29.

3. Edward Luttwak, “On the Meaning of Strategy . . . for the United States in the 1980s,” in W. Scott Thompson, ed., National Security in the 1980s: From Weakness to Strength , (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1980), 260–63.

4. Henry Steele Commager, The Search for a Usable Past and Other Essays in Historiography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967).

5. Ibid., 3–27. See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities , rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991).

6. Commager, Search for a Usable Past , 164.

7. Ibid., 158.

8. For an excellent recent account of the naval war, see Kevin McCranie, Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).

9. Howard K. Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956), 4.

10. Edward K. Eckert, “Introduction,” in Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (1882; repr., Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987), xix.

11. Margaret Tuttle Sprout, “Mahan: Evangelist of Sea Power,” in Edward Mead Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1943), 415. Robert Seager II and Doris D. Maguire, eds., Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975), vol. 2, 342. “Armed Forces: A Dim Religious World,” Time , 9 February 1948,,9171,855981,00.html .

12. George Washington, First Annual Message to Congress, New York, 8 January 1790, George Washington Papers, .

13. Theodore Roosevelt, “Washington’s Forgotten Maxim,” in Hermann Hagedorn, ed., Works of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Scribner’s, 1926), vol. 13, American Ideals, and Other Essays, Social and Political , 182–83.

14. Roosevelt, Naval War of 1812 , 14.

15. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 (1903; repr., Boston: Little, Brown, 1919), vol. 1, vi.

16. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: Ashfield, 1976), 109.

17. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (Boston: Little, Brown, 1897), 198.

18. Roosevelt, Naval War of 1812 , 395.

19. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 , vol. 1, 288–89.

20. Theodore Roosevelt, review of Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 , Atlantic Monthly , October 1890, 563, 567.

21. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 , vol. 1, 71–72.

22. Theodore Roosevelt, Gouverneur Morris (Cambridge, MA: Riverside, 1888), 350. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 , vol. 1, 73–75.

23. James R. Holmes, “Mahan, a ‘Place in the Sun,’ and Germany’s Quest for Sea Power,” Comparative Strategy , vol. 23, no. 1 (2004), 34–37.

24. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Retrospect & Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political (Boston: Little, Brown, 1902), 3–38.

Dr. Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. He is a regular contributor to Proceedings and coauthor (with Toshi Yoshihara) of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Naval Institute Press, 2010).


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