No place conveys the power of the presidency more than the Oval Office. When a president puts a portrait of a predecessor on the wall next to his desk, it is to signify to the public and the world that the person serves as a role model for him. Soon after his inauguration, Donald Trump selected Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, as that role model. Numerous articles and statements drew positive and negative comparisons between the new president and Jackson and between the national moods that the two men inherited. For example, in his latest book, “Earning the Rockies,” Robert Kaplan suggests that Americans are the heirs of Jackson’s foreign policy, sharing a “[belief] in honor, literal faith in God, and military institutions.” But no commentary thus far has addressed how Jackson employed his navy. If the president is to take Jackson as his role model, then the 1830s hold important lessons for the modern era in how to prepare and use the Navy for its multi-mission role. As it seeks to address changing threats around the world and specifically on the high seas, the administration may have the right role model when it comes to Andrew Jackson’s navy.
A Maritime Strategy
Jackson’s inaugural address – admittedly only 1,100 words — briefly referred to a “gradual increase of our navy.” By the time of his farewell address in 1837, he was extolling the virtues of the navy as the country’s “natural means of defense,” saying it must be expanded even during a time of peace. He advised the country that the navy would not only protect commerce but also “enable you to reach and annoy the enemy” and “give to defense its greatest efficiency by meeting danger at a distance from home.” He understood that the navy was not a coastal defensive force. Rather, it needed to display the flag in foreign waters – if not as a global power, then as a force with a global mission and an imperative to patrol distant waters.
Jackson continued to build on the naval expectations of his three predecessors, who supported permanent overseas squadrons in the post-War of 1812 environment. In the Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy oversaw the aftermath of the Greek War for Independence and western European instability – the July Revolution in France, the First Carlist War in Spain, the Miguelite War in Portugal, etc. Piracy continued to threaten shipping in the Caribbean. South American conflicts threatened peaceful commerce protected by the Brazil and Pacific Squadrons.
Jackson’s maritime strategy can be distilled into three components. First, he expanded trade and opened new markets wherever he could through new shipping routes, thus creating favorable trade conditions for U.S. merchant ships. Arguably, the nation benefitted from the Pax Britannica and the safety of the open seas protected by the Royal Navy. Yet this did not mean global peace. Civil wars and other conflicts and threats during Jackson’s administration meant assessing the implications for American’s national – and commercial – security. This required engaging with traditional European trading partners, but also establishing new markets in the Black Sea with the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the Middle East, and southeast Asia.
The second part of his maritime strategy was the continued provision and expansion of squadrons at key geographical locations to protect merchant ships. The navy, Jackson said, provided the country with the best standing security against foreign aggression. It was also the only way to ensure that the lawful transaction of maritime commerce continued unabated. Without security, American merchant ships were a target of pirates and other threats, such as when some were seized during the internal Portuguese conflict between the Miguelites and the Liberals. Jackson understood that threats to American merchant ships meant insurance rates would rise, thus driving up the cost of conducting business.
Several permanent stations had been established after the War of 1812: the Mediterranean, Pacific, and West Indies Squadrons. But Jackson would give his imprimatur to a new one. Asia appealed to Jackson as part of his effort to expand American trade routes. Like the merchants of the northeast, Jackson understood that America’s economic future lay not only with its traditional European trading partners but also with new partners in the East. Simply having Navy ships in the eastern Pacific was insufficient. Consequently, Jackson established the East Indies Squadron. One ship carried the nation’s first Envoy to the East, Edmund Roberts, to the Arabian peninsula in 1835, where he made a trade agreement with Muscat before moving on to Siam (modern-day Thailand) for another trade agreement. The Pacific Ocean lay between the American markets and Jackson’s new Asian partners. Those merchant ships had to understand their environment. This was why – when the federal budget allowed — he endorsed the Exploring Expedition in May 1836 to survey the Pacific. Arguably, no previous president had envisioned the extent of naval service the way Jackson did, as his efforts in Asia illustrate.
The third part of Jackson’s maritime strategy allowed for punitive strikes only if necessary. Jackson has been viewed during his own time and today as having an erratic temperament. While this may have been true of domestic politics, it was not the case in national security or diplomatic relations. Indeed, Jackson did not use the navy without significant thought on the options, approaches, and consequences. The third pillar was always a last resort, and first strikes in naval matters were contrary to his philosophy. “Our country,” he told Congress, “is not in a situation to invite aggression, and it will be our fault if she ever becomes so.” Out of four cases (discussed below) in which merchant ships were seized and their crews attacked, Jackson responded by sending warships only twice. Both times, he provided clear guidance for the judicious use of kinetic response and de-escalated the situation as potential conflicts with European powers began to loom.
Some of the better indicators of Jackson’s priorities for the navy were his annual budgets. Between 1829 and 1837, the navy’s budget increased 270 percent. By 1835, because of Jackson’s economic policies, the president balanced the budget and eliminated the federal debt. This enabled Jackson to focus on new budget priorities such as the navy.
A total of 91 ocean-going warships were built for the U.S. Navy from 1798 to 1837. One of the construction spikes was during Jackson’s administration. In 1831, his administration built or acquired eight ocean-going warships, more than any other single year since 1814 when James Madison built nine. Jackson also understood the value of smaller ships, which were less expensive to build, less costly to man, and deployed at a far higher rate than ships-of-the-line or frigates.
The navy built the largest ship of the line under Jackson. Congress debated whether or not to build the USS Pennsylvania – some believed it should be sent around the world to display the flag and demonstrate American shipbuilding skills (most of those members were either from or near Philadelphia, where the ship would be built). Opponents argued that it would cost too much in money and manpower (1,000 sailors were needed to man the ship) and that it would be better to use the money to purchase five or six sloops of war. In reality, the Pennsylvania enabled continued shipyard work and prevented the loss of skilled labor.
Jackson endorsed the advancement of steam technology for warships despite resistance from some of the senior captains on the Board of Navy Commissioners. He also supported a steam-powered tri-hulled ram ship designed by Commodore James Barron. Although that particular class wasn’t built (steam rams would proliferate during the Civil War,) he later personally ordered steamboats to Florida for logistics support and riverine operations during the Second Seminole War.
Jackson wasn’t only interested in raw ship numbers. Before building additional ships, he first invested in maintenance and repair of the existing, aging fleet. In his first two years, maintenance and repair funding increased by 40 percent, and by 1837 it had tripled. The administration also showed a mature understanding of national needs for the fleet and the types of ships that best supported the various missions required. Jackson displayed a remarkable ability to balance investments in three competing priorities: the highly-deployed sloops and schooners, the prestige offered by one of the world’s largest ships-of-the-line, and the advancement associated with supporting new steam technology. In addition, he authorized the construction of the first armed supply ship, a radical departure from the first six presidents. While it was only one ship, it sent a clear message that the U.S. navy would be expected to sail to any distant station and support itself if necessary.
Judicious Use of Force
During the Jacksonian era, Europe was stressed with civil conflict in France, Spain, Portugal and the War for Greek Independence. Jackson understood that global challenges threatened U.S. commerce and economic growth.
But he came close to naval operations against only two European empires. The first was France because of long-standing debt and reparations. While some in Congress considered a trade embargo to force France’s hand, Jackson advised a more restrained approach. Embarrassing France by cutting off trade would likely mean U.S. exports being cut off or another form of retaliation. The clarion call for war was not initiated by Jackson, but rather by members of Congress and early naval supporters like author James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote: “I know that the public mind is not yet prepared for a great demonstration of naval force; that opinion has not kept pace with facts … it is my aim to prove their error.” The second, less imminent case involved Portuguese forces threatening American commerce in the internal Miguelite War.
Despite preconceptions about Jackson’s inclination toward military force, punitive measures to respond to attacks on American commerce were rare. One of the few examples of such a measure was his first order as commander-in-chief a week after his inauguration, when Jackson instructed the navy to respond to piracy attacks off Cuba.
Perhaps the two best-known cases of Jackson using the navy to respond to an attack on U.S. shipping were the Sumatra expedition and the Falkland Islands. As Jackson biographer Robert Remini told me in a 2009 interview: “This is Andrew Jackson acting as Andrew Jackson. He sees an offense against his country and he’s the president, commander in chief of the army and navy and he takes action.” But in neither case did he act rashly. Both decisions were deliberative.
Jackson first learned of the attack on the Salem-based merchant ship Friendship in Quallah Batoo, Sumatra through northern newspapers. Jackson did not seek to attack Quallah Battoo – it was the merchants of Salem, Massachusetts, who appealed to him for retribution. Sumatra was the center of the pepper trade, which had created the country’s first millionaires in that city. Jackson ordered the USS Potomac to head to Sumatra for retribution and to only use force if other efforts failed. Captain John Downes was criticized for exceeding his orders after his Potomac attacked Quallah Battoo, but Jackson still commended the operation, noting in his annual address to Congress that the atrocity had been met with an appropriate response to deter like-minded pirates.
In the Falklands, U.S. whaling and sealing interests were challenged when local privateers attacked American ships. Jackson had been assessing the situation for months. He deployed ships to the region but also appealed to Congress “to the end that they may clothe the Executive with such authority and means as they may deem necessary.” In his statements and correspondence, Jackson clearly portrayed this crisis as a localized threat to legitimate commerce. In no correspondence did he lay the blame on Buenos Aires, which would have given him cause to blockade Argentina’s coast and demand reparations. The administration was perceptive in its assessment of the situation, measured in its response, and effective in resolving the crisis.
There were other incidents of U.S. merchant ships attacked in the Pacific on a Samoan island and Namorik atoll, but Jackson never responded likely for the simple reason that there was no benefit. The island populations were too small and had no resources – they did not have the level of economic importance that Sumatra and the Falklands did.
A decade before the term “manifest destiny” pushed the country to the Pacific coast, Jackson was pursuing his own vision of the nation’s maritime destiny. One of the decade’s novelists, Joseph C. Hart, wrote that the country was “informed by a strident maritime nationalism. Supremacy on the ocean is America’s great national destiny.” Jackson had an inherited a young, but experienced navy, continuing global challenges with responsibilities to protect America’s commerce. It and its missions have grown exponentially, thus fulfilling Hart’s prediction. But the fundamental approach and priorities Jackson’s presidency adopted with regards to the navy remain as necessary today as they were in the 1830s.
First, the nation needs a clear maritime strategy that includes the navy conducting global operations to deter potential threats, responding to crises caused by increasing global instability, and guaranteeing the flow of legitimate commerce. Second, that navy cannot meet those needs unless the navy is maintained and has an appropriate number of platforms that are varied in size, complexity, and usage. Third, those platforms will remain only platforms unless there is an accompanying trained force of personnel – an issue that also emerged during the Jackson presidency, when new thinking and professionalization flourished. Finally, the first three issues were overshadowed by Jackson’s commitment to a land-war in 1835. It would drag on for seven years as one of America’s most costly and deadly land wars.
Claude Berube is a contributor to War on the Rocks. An intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, he deployed with Expeditionary Strike Group Five in 2004-05. Since then, he has taught in the political science and history departments at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the author or co-author of five books and has written his doctoral dissertation on the Navy during the Jackson presidency. The views expressed are his own and not those of the Naval Academy or Navy.