Article 1, Section 8, Clause 13

Document 4

Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention

14 June 1788Elliot 3:428--30

Mr. Grayson. Mr. Chairman, I conceive that the power of providing and maintaining a navy is at present dangerous, however warmly it may be urged by gentlemen that America ought to become a maritime power. If we once give such power, we put it in the hands of men whose interest it will be to oppress us. It will also irritate the nations of Europe against us. Let us consider the situation of the maritime powers of Europe: they are separated from us by the Atlantic Ocean. The riches of all those countries come by sea. Commerce and navigation are the principal sources of their wealth. If we become a maritime power, we shall be able to participate in their most beneficial business. Will they suffer us to put ourselves in a condition to rival them? I believe the first step of any consequence, which will be made towards it, will bring war upon us. Their ambition and avarice most powerfully impel them to prevent our becoming a naval nation. We should, on this occasion, consult our ability. Is there any gentleman here who can say that America can support a navy? The riches of America are not sufficient to bear the enormous expense it must certainly occasion. I may be supposed to exaggerate, but I leave it to the committee to judge whether my information be right or not.

It is said that shipwrights can be had on better terms in America than in Europe; but necessary materials are so much dearer in America than in Europe, that the aggregate sum would be greater. A seventy-four gun ship will cost you ninety-eight thousand pounds, including guns, tackle, &c. According to the usual calculation in England, it will cost you the further sum of forty-eight thousand pounds to man it, furnish provisions, and pay officers and men. You must pay men more here than in Europe, because, their governments being arbitrary, they can command the services of their subjects without an adequate compensation; so that, in all, the expenses of such a vessel would be one hundred and forty thousand pounds in one year. Let gentlemen consider, then, the extreme difficulty of supporting a navy, and they will concur with me, that America cannot do it. I have no objection to such a navy as will not excite the jealousy of the European countries. But I would have the Constitution to say, that no greater number of ships should be had than would be sufficient to protect our trade. Such a fleet would not, probably, offend the Europeans. I am not of a jealous disposition; but when I consider that the welfare and happiness of my country are in danger, I beg to be excused for expressing my apprehensions. Let us consider how this navy shall be raised. What would be the consequence under those general words, "to provide and maintain a navy"? All the vessels of the intended fleet would be built and equipped in the Northern States, where they have every necessary material and convenience for the purpose. Will any gentleman say that any ship of war can be raised to the south of Cape Charles? The consequence will be that the Southern States will be in the power of the Northern States.

We should be called upon for our share of the expenses, without having equal emoluments. Can it be supposed, when this question comes to be agitated in Congress, that the Northern States will not take such measures as will throw as much circulating money among them as possible, without any consideration as to the other states? If I know the nature of man, (and I believe I do,) they will have no consideration for us. But, supposing it were not so, America has nothing at all to do with a fleet. Let us remain for some time in obscurity, and rise by degrees. Let us not precipitately provoke the resentment of the maritime powers of Europe. A well-regulated militia ought to be the defence of this country. In some of our constitutions it is said so. This Constitution should have inculcated the principle. Congress ought to be under some restraint in this respect. Mr. Grayson then added, that the Northern States would be principally benefited by having a fleet; that a majority of the states could vote the raising a great navy, or enter into any commercial regulation very detrimental to the other states. In the United Netherlands there was much greater security, as the commercial interest of no state could be sacrificed without its own consent. The raising a fleet was the daily and favorite subject of conversation in the Northern States. He apprehended that, if attempted, it would draw us into a war with Great Britain or France. As the American fleet would not be competent to the defence of all the states, the Southern States would be most exposed. He referred to the experience of the late war, as a proof of what he said. At the period the Southern States were most distressed, the Northern States, he said, were most happy. They had privateers in abundance, whereas we had but few. Upon the whole, he thought we should depend on our troops on shore, and that it was very impolitic to give this power to Congress without any limitation.

Mr. Nicholas remarked that the gentleman last up had made two observations--the one, that we ought not to give Congress power to raise a navy; and the other, that we had not the means of supporting it. Mr. Nicholas thought it a false doctrine. Congress, says he, has a discretionary power to do it when necessary. They are not bound to do it in five or ten years, or at any particular time. It is presumable, therefore, that they will postpone it until it be proper.

Mr. Grayson had no objection to giving Congress the power of raising such a fleet as suited the circumstances of the country. But he could not agree to give that unlimited power which was delineated in that paper.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 13, Document 4
The University of Chicago Press

Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.

Easy to print version.