Overview of the Continental Navy
On the eve of the American Revolution, the colossal British Empire was still growing, with extensive possessions and trading networks throughout the world. Despite some restrictions, American colonists benefited from Britain's mercantilist system, which provided Royal Navy protection and a steady market in Britain. While most colonists remained subsistence farmers, more and more became connected in one way or another with maritime commerce. By the eve of the American Revolution, maritime commerce had become a major factor in the economic, social, political, and cultural development of the American colonies.
It is impossible to trace the beginnings of an American navy to a single event, date, or person. Rather, the navy emerged by fits and starts in the midst of war. American naval forces in the War for Independence took many forms, most of them designed to meet a specific need at a particular moment. Ironically, the most ambitious effort, the Continental Navy, was the least successful.
On the whole, the history of American naval forces in the Revolution is a tale of innovation and perseverance rather than strategic insight or applied doctrine. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the American navy managed to exist at all. At that time, Britain's Royal Navy was the most powerful naval force in the world. For two hundred years before Lexington and Concord, Britain had engaged in nearly continuous naval wars with Spain, Holland, and France, and had emerged as the dominant political and military power in Europe. The Royal Navy, with its fleets of ships of the line, was Britain's premiere instrument of war.