Wednesday, August 11, 2010

George Washington's Navy

In late 1775, as the fires of revolution and war were becoming hotter with each passing day, General George Washington commissioned two small schooners (named "Lynch" and "Franklin"), to patrol in and around Boston Harbor. Their mission: to harass the British whenever possible. Obviously this was no small task, being that the British had sent over 200 fully equipped warships to America. Obviously 2 small boats weren't going to present any major threat to the mighty British navy!

Yet despite this obvious disadvantage, Washington insisted on creating and maintaining this puny armada. The small "fleet" of ships, which eventually grew to include four additional boats, were officially commissioned by General Washington as the first "armed Vessels" of the "United Colonies of North America." In essence, this small fleet of ships became America's first Navy.

Washington himself financed the six-ship fleet out of his own pocket. Knowing that this small rabble of a Navy could never stand up to the mighty arm of the British, Washington requested that a unique banner be flown by each of these six ships. At the General's request, his navy adopted a "white flag, with a green pine tree, and the inscription, 'An Appeal to Heaven.'" In addition, Washington ordered that all crewmen of these ships be dressed in a green and white uniform.

Interestingly enough, this fleet lasted throughout the duration of the Revolutionary War, carrying out a diverse number of assignments and playing a number of different roles in the process. In addition, the "Washington Navy" became a symbol of pride for those who favored the revolution. The "Appeal To Heaven" served as a powerful rallying cry that embodied the sentiments of many who supported the "cause of liberty." In a very real sense, "An Appeal to Heaven" was every bit as important to the rhetoric of the American Revolution as was, "No taxation without representation" or "Don't Tread on Me." No wonder why Washington chose to use it for his navy!


Tom Van Dyke said...

I was thinking about this old post of yours just yesterday, Brad, when I ran across the phrase:

"Appeal to Heaven" comes directly from Locke's Second Treatise. Three times!:

"The people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no judge on earth, but to appeal to heaven: for the rulers, in such attempts, exercising a power the people never put into their hands, (who can never be supposed to consent that any body should rule over them for their harm) do that which they have not a right to do. And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment.

And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven. And this judgment they cannot part with, it being out of a man's power so to submit himself to another, as to give him a liberty to destroy him; God and nature never allowing a man so to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation: and since he cannot take away his own life, neither can he give another power to take it."

Liberty, under God. Perhaps he takes it from somewhere else, but there it is!

J. L. Bell said...

I happen to be studying the latest book on Washington’s schooners now: James T. Nelson’s George Washington’s Secret Navy.

It disagrees with this summary on a couple of important points. First, Washington didn’t finance these ships “out of his own pocket.” Rather, he used the Continental Army funds that he controlled.

Second, this small navy was eventually absorbed into the one authorized by the Continental Congress. Some captains gained seniority for their service in Washington’s fleet, showing that bureaucratically it was a forerunner of the U.S. Navy.

The “Appeal to Heaven” phrase does indeed come from John Locke, and shows up in other political pamphlets of the time. It was basically a euphemism for settling political differences by arms—what some of today’s politicians might call a “Second Amendment solution.”

Brad Hart said...

VERY interesting, Mr. Bell. Thanks. And good catch on the John Locke, Tom. All good stuff.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Brad & JL. I find the ideas of most interest.

The "appeal to heaven," in my view, is not claiming "God is on our side." I find this theological modesty appealing, and a window into the Founding-era mind:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States...

I believe this was added to Jefferson's draft by the "General Congress, Assembled." By the We the People, the Continental Congress duly elected or appointed to speak for Us.

We appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions. To me this is damned religious.

And in juxtaposition, and why the French Revolution differed from the American, the French Rights of Man [1789]:

Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

Note that they note the "presence" of the Supreme Being; also note that they claim his "auspices."

The Americans didn't go about business that way. They appealed to heaven; the French were far more immodest.

This is something I've been meaning for us to explore. I prefer to try out ideas in AC's comments section before taking the floor on our mainpage. Anything you see from me in the comments section is to open discussion, not to close it.