Benjamin Stoddert's Quasi-Navy
Benjamin Stoddert was the first United States Secretary of the Navy.
In addition to building the Navy and playing a major role in the Quasi-War with France, Stoddert served in the Revolutionary War, receiving a vicious injury.
Furthermore, he was one of a handful of men tasked with purchasing the land which became the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C.
Benjamin Stoddert was a 30-something merchant when he joined the Continental Army.
As a Captain of Cavalry, he was gravely wounded at the Battle of the Brandywine and was forced to withdraw from military life.
Although he would suffer disabling effects from his injury for the rest of his life, Captain Stoddert’s days as an American Founder were far from over.
Board of War
Stoddert moved to a desk job, working as Secretary to the Board of War.
In this position, he helped spur communications between the Continental Congress and the Continental Army.
Benjamin remained in the administrative branch of the Revolutionary War until after the Victory at Yorktown.
Selling Washington to Washington
Returning to private life, Stoddert continued his successful merchant business.
He developed a partnership with Uriah Forrest and the two men became some of the wealthiest men in Maryland.
When President George Washington was in the market for land on which to build the nation’s capital, Stoddert and Forrest were two of the three men tasked with purchasing the land.
Interestingly, they were instructed to buy the property half-secretly, as making it known that public funds were being used may have swayed sellers to drastically increase the price on their lands.
Secretary of the Navy
In 1798, President John Adams found himself entering a Quasi-War with France.
Though war was never declared, battles on the high seas broke out and the threat of a full scale confrontation was in the back of his mind.
It was in this situation that Adams created a new cabinet position...Secretary of the Navy.
Although there was a Secretary of the Marine during the Revolutionary War (Robert Morris), President Washington seemingly never had a reason to create this office.
When looking for a candidate to run the Navy, Adams went with a Washington insider who had experience overseeing the ships travelling internationally and who had previously worked in administering the Continental Army: Benjamin Stoddert.
Stoddert became one of Adams’ most trusted advisers.
Recognizing that the French had a superior naval force, Benjamin decided the best course of action was to go on the offensive. He instructed the few ships he had under his command to aggressively attack French ships in the Caribbean, slowing their trade and putting the United States at an advantage.
Stoddert’s work kept the Quasi-War from exploding into a major engagement with the French, however, a large amount of credit needs to be given to the individual ship Captains.
Though these individual Founders will be saved for another time (to get their own day), we must remember that communication at this time was done by written letters and it was next to impossible to reach these men out on the ocean.
The sailors were forced to make decisions on their own and therefore deserve a mention here for carrying out Stoddert’s vision.
The Navy Department Library
Perhaps Benjamin Stoddert’s most lasting achievement was his creation of the Navy Department Library.
Ordered to organize this collection by President Adams, Stoddert build the foundations of what is today’s most respectable naval libraries, notable for everything from tactics to shipbuilding to maritime history.
Stoddert’s long career, both in public and private service covered such an important array of aspects of the American Founding, from winning the Revolution to building the Navy to literally purchasing Washington D.C. leaves him as an invaluable, though much forgotten, Founder.
Here are some other Founders involved with the Quasi-War:
Benjamin Stoddert’s involvement in America’s first naval war is truly hard to overstate.
‘Stoddert’s War’ is considered a classic text on the subject and should surely be read if you are a fan of naval warfare.
If you’d like a copy you can get one through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).