The Algerine Pirates and the Creation of the Navy
Following the end of the Revolutionary War, the newly independent United States began to expand its maritime commerce through the exchange of worldwide trade. However, with the disbanding of the Continental Navy, American ships sailed the seas with no protection from the intervention of foreign powers. The first serious threat to American shipping came from the pirates of the North African state of Algiers.
The Algerine pirates had long preyed on merchant ships passing through the Mediterranean. The only insurance of a safe passage through Algerine waters was the payment of tribute to the Dey of Algiers. While America was a colony of Great Britain, her ships enjoyed the protection of both the Royal Navy and the treaties between England and Algiers. However, as an independent nation, the United States had lost its immunity to pirate attacks.
By 1793, the loss of American ships to the Algerine pirates had grown at an alarming rate. The following year, President George Washington asked Congress to approve a bill authorizing the creation of a naval force to protect American merchant vessels from the North African pirates. Congress complied in March 1794 with An Act to Provide for a Naval Armament, which authorized the creation of a fleet of six ships. This act marked the beginning of the United States Navy. Interestingly, the act did not provide for a navy department, but rather placed the navy's ships under the direction of the secretary of war. Further, the act did not create a long-term standing navy. It merely authorized the creation of a navy for use against Algiers, and stated that should a peaceful resolution to the conflict develop, the building of the American ships would cease. Clearly, Congress was not yet convinced that a standing navy was essential to the peace and security of the new nation.