Winston Churchill once said that “A love of tradition has never weakened a nation; indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril”. Traditions remind us of who we are and from whence we have come. They are our link to the past, often embodying the best memories of the greatness of our ancestors. However, traditions should never trump truth. Only by understanding the truth behind the traditions can the importance of maintaining those same traditions be evident.
A good example of the importance of tradition of what date the US Navy uses as its birthday. They trace their history all the way back to the first colonial Continental Navy, founded on October 13, 1775 by resolution of the Continental Congress. The Continental Navy consisted of ordinary men who stepped up, using simple merchant ships outfitted to engage the British Royal Navy in our war for independence. Although they were no match for such an armada (of the original 65 that served at one time or another during the Revolutionary War only 11 survived) , these young men cut their first teeth on what it meant to fight a war on the seas, and laid the eventual foundation for what would eventually become the United States Navy.
Although the US Navy traditionally uses 1775 as the year of their beginning, that was not the actual date the United States Navy was officially established. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the Continental Navy was disbanded, with the last frigate being sold in 1785 due the inability of our young country to afford its maintenance. From then until 1797, America’s only armed maritime service was the Revenue Marine (later known as the US Coast Guard), founded in 1790 in order to enforce tariffs and reduce smuggling. Other than the general lack of funds for maintaining a military force and navy, the Articles of Confederation (ratified in 1781) did not even allow our new loosely organized government
to maintain a centralized military force unless an official declaration of war was made, and even then, the land and naval forces were to be provided by the States. Plus, the Congress at the time had different priorities to look to, such as paying down the war debt, focusing on domestic rather than foreign issues, and seeking a respite of peace after a long war. It was not until the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787 that the government was even given the power to “provide and maintain a navy” (Article 1, Section 8). Still, little was done to create one until it became more apparent that it was needed.
The catalyst of change came when our merchants began to be regularly attacked by the Barbary pirates, who confiscated their ships, stole their cargo and either killed or enslaved the passengers and crew. Congress finally realized that their desire for peace made no account for the fact that not all countries were so equally inclined. They knew that a real navy was needed in order to protect both their citizens and commerce from foreign attack on the seas, and therefore passed the Naval Act of 1794. It commissioned the
construction of six frigates: The United States (launched May 10th, 1797), The Constellation (launched September 7, 1797), The Constitution (otherwise known as “Old Ironsides”, launched October 21, 1797), The Congress (launched August 15, 1799), The Chesapeake (launched December 2, 1799), & The President (launched April 10, 1800). Between 1794 and 1798 the administration of naval affairs was the responsibility of the Department of War. Then, on April 30th, 1798, by an act of Congress, the official Department of the United States Navy was founded.
Traditions begin with history, but there is always truth behind those same traditions. Understanding the truth of history can teach us not only how to face our future, but can give us the wisdom on how to best do so. The more we understand what drove our ancestors to act the way they did, the better prepared we can be to both avoid their mistakes and use their successes to strengthen our resolve. Traditions play an important part in helping us to remember who we are. Does it matter that the US Navy chooses to use the first seeds of our nation’s naval history to be the date of its birth instead
of the actual official date of its birth? Not really. After all, both dates reveal the consistent resolve of our citizens to defend their freedom and liberty. Both dates had as their catalyst a desire to resist tyranny and oppression. While traditions reveal much about our past, understanding the history behind them can reveal so much more.
True history has no agenda; it just is.
“We find few historians who have been diligent enough in their search for truth; it is their common method to take on trust what they help distribute to the public; by which means a falsehood once received from a famed writer becomes traditional to posterity”. John Dryden (1631-1700), British poet, literary critic and playwright.