U.S. Naval Academy – The Genesis of –

After America won its independence, the Continental Congress decided the new nation did not need its Continental Navy.

A Navy, they assumed, would only lure young men to open seas and new adventures. To alleviate any temptation, Congress sold the Navy’s only ships, leaving the Merchant Marines to tackle any problems with unwelcome intruders. Only when the country’s export merchants began to be hijacked by pirates did the Continental Congress realize how naive they were in their belief that the new republic’s principles would be enough to ensure democracy. So in 1794, President George Washington authorized the building of six ships which would be supplied with presidential appointees desiring a naval career.

Based on the British theory of “catching them young” and letting the youngsters learn through experience, the new nation began its training of naval officers, assigning schoolmasters to teach the youngsters the principles of writing, math and navigation. Unfortunately, the schoolmaster, who by law was a chaplain, wasn’t the most knowledgeable in nautical theories. In addition, an education was secondary to the shipboard duties, and classroom attendance wasn’t enforced.

The French, on the other hand, combined academics in classrooms on land and at sea. Naval hero John Paul Jones was so impressed with this system, that in 1783, he proposed Congress establish such a system to train naval officers in mathematics and mechanics. Unfortunately, the idea of training Sailors on anything other than a ship received little support. After all, the French had few victories at sea to validate their method of training.

From 1814 to 1844, the push to establish a naval academy was proposed by seven secretaries of the Navy and one president. There were also more than 20 bills introduced in the Senate. Of those 20, two passed the Senate, but died in the House.

In an indirect way, the change in opinion can be attributed to Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer who, using his political clout in 1842, managed to get a presidential appointment for his trouble-maker son on board the Naval ship Somers. Commanded by CDR Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Somers was a 103 foot brig which served as a training ship to educate midshipmen in the art of seamanship in the hopes the youngsters would pursue a naval career.


Unfortunately, Spencer’s son had alternate plans. Midshipman Philip Spencer and his two-co-conspirators were planning to embark on a career of piracy in the West Indies. In order to accomplish this goal, the conspirators would have to murder Somers‘ loyal officers and crew members to seize control of the ship. When evidence was uncovered indicating that a mutiny was imminent and the ship was becoming unmanageable, the skipper decided to take matters into his own hands – he tried, convicted and hung Spencer and his cohorts.

This, along with the introduction of steam-powered ships that required engineering and technical expertise, began to shift opinions in a positive direction towards establishing a naval academy.

The genesis had begun and so, in 1845, President James K. Polk appointed George Bancroft as Secretary of the Navy. His task: study the feasibility of establishing a naval school. Three months later, Bacroft not only had a plan, but also had managed to obtain an obsolete Army fort in Annapolis, MD., where the new school would be located and now stands.

Source: Surface Warfare Magazine – March/April – 1995

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