Article 1, Section 8, Clause 13

Document 8

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 3:§§ 1189--91


§ 1189. Under the confederation congress possessed the power "to build and equip a navy." The same language was adopted in the original draft of the constitution; and it was amended by substituting the present words, apparently without objection, as more broad and appropriate. In the convention, the propriety of granting the power seems not to have been questioned. But it was assailed in the state conventions as dangerous. It was said, that commerce and navigation are the principal sources of the wealth of the maritime powers of Europe; and if we engaged in commerce, we should soon become their rivals. A navy would soon be thought indispensable to protect it. But the attempt on our part to provide a navy would provoke these powers, who would not suffer us to become a naval power. Thus, we should be immediately involved in wars with them. The expenses, too, of maintaining a suitable navy would be enormous; and wholly disproportionate to our resources. If a navy should be provided at all, it ought to be limited to the mere protection of our trade. It was further urged, that the Southern states would share a large portion of the burthens of maintaining a navy, without any corresponding advantages.

§ 1190. With the nation at large these objections were not deemed of any validity. The necessity of a navy for the protection of commerce and navigation was not only admitted, but made a strong ground for the grant of the power. One of the great objects of the constitution was the encouragement and protection of navigation and trade. Without a navy, it would be utterly impossible to maintain our right to the fisheries, and our trade and navigation on the lakes, and the Mississippi, as well as our foreign commerce. It was one of the blessings of the Union, that it would be able to provide an adequate support and protection for all these important objects. Besides; a navy would be absolutely indispensable to protect our whole Atlantic frontier, in case of a war with a foreign maritime power. We should otherwise be liable, not only to the invasion of strong regular forces of the enemy; but to the attacks and incursions of every predatory adventurer. Our maritime towns might all be put under contribution; and even the entrance and departure from our own ports be interdicted at the caprice, or the hostility of a foreign power. It would also be our cheapest, as well as our best defence; as it would save us the expense of numerous forts and garrisons upon the sea-coast, which, though not effectual for all, would still be required for some purposes. In short, in a maritime warfare without this means of defence, our commerce would be driven from the ocean, our ports would be blockaded, our sea-coast infested with plunderers, and our vital interests put at hazard.

§ 1191. Although these considerations were decisive with the people at large in favour of the power, from its palpable necessity and importance to all the great interests of the country, it is within the memory of all of us, that the same objections for a long time prevailed with a leading party in the country, and nurtured a policy, which was utterly at variance with our duties, as well as our honour. It was not until during the late war with Great Britain, when our little navy, by a gallantry and brilliancy of achievement almost without parallel, had literally fought itself into favour, that the nation at large began to awake from its lethargy on this subject, and to insist upon a policy, which should at once make us respected and formidable abroad, and secure protection and honour at home. It has been proudly said by a learned commentator on the laws of England, that the royal navy of England hath ever been its greatest defence and ornament. It is its ancient and natural strength; the floating bulwark of the island; an army, from which, however strong and powerful, no danger can be apprehended to liberty. Every American citizen ought to cherish the same sentiment, as applicable to the navy of his own country.

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

Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.

Easy to print version.