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Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U. S. Navy

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How "a handful of bastards and outlaws fighting under a piece of striped bunting" humbled the omnipotent British Navy. Before the ink was dry on the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of a permanent military had become the most divisive issue facing the new government. Would a standing army be the thin end of dictatorship? Would a navy protect American commerce against th How "a handful of bastards and outlaws fighting under a piece of striped bunting" humbled the omnipotent British Navy. Before the ink was dry on the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of a permanent military had become the most divisive issue facing the new government. Would a standing army be the thin end of dictatorship? Would a navy protect American commerce against the Mediterranean pirates, or drain the treasury and provoke hostilities with the great powers? The foundersparticularly Jefferson, Madison, and Adamsdebated these questions fiercely and switched sides more than once. How much of a navy would suffice? Britain alone had hundreds of powerful warships. From the decision to build six heavy frigates, through the cliffhanger campaign against Tripoli, to the war that shook the world in 1812, Ian W. Toll tells this grand tale with the political insight of Founding Brothers and a narrative flair worthy of Patrick O'Brian. According to Henry Adams, the 1812 encounter between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere "raised the United States in one half hour to the rank of a first class power in the world." 16 pages of illustrations; 8 pages of color.


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How "a handful of bastards and outlaws fighting under a piece of striped bunting" humbled the omnipotent British Navy. Before the ink was dry on the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of a permanent military had become the most divisive issue facing the new government. Would a standing army be the thin end of dictatorship? Would a navy protect American commerce against th How "a handful of bastards and outlaws fighting under a piece of striped bunting" humbled the omnipotent British Navy. Before the ink was dry on the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of a permanent military had become the most divisive issue facing the new government. Would a standing army be the thin end of dictatorship? Would a navy protect American commerce against the Mediterranean pirates, or drain the treasury and provoke hostilities with the great powers? The foundersparticularly Jefferson, Madison, and Adamsdebated these questions fiercely and switched sides more than once. How much of a navy would suffice? Britain alone had hundreds of powerful warships. From the decision to build six heavy frigates, through the cliffhanger campaign against Tripoli, to the war that shook the world in 1812, Ian W. Toll tells this grand tale with the political insight of Founding Brothers and a narrative flair worthy of Patrick O'Brian. According to Henry Adams, the 1812 encounter between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere "raised the United States in one half hour to the rank of a first class power in the world." 16 pages of illustrations; 8 pages of color.

30 review for Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U. S. Navy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Magnificent! Reading this vivid, riveting 5 Star account of the US Navy’s birth was often like having a movie playing in my head. The battle scenes are just perfectly done. Even the 3 day escape of the Constitution from a squadron of British warships was tense and spellbinding, although no significant battle occurred. While the main focus is the US Navy, the performance of the British Navy is recounted in detail in the final third of the book, making this a very good reference for historians of Magnificent! Reading this vivid, riveting 5 Star account of the US Navy’s birth was often like having a movie playing in my head. The battle scenes are just perfectly done. Even the 3 day escape of the Constitution from a squadron of British warships was tense and spellbinding, although no significant battle occurred. While the main focus is the US Navy, the performance of the British Navy is recounted in detail in the final third of the book, making this a very good reference for historians of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. I can’t recommend this book enough. One mark of a great history book is the ability to teach and reveal the real truth, vs. what you thought was true. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy succeeds here at every turn. The birth of the USN is not in the Revolutionary War but in the period after, when the weak nation faced its former ally, France, in the Quasi War. Against a background of political machinations between the Federalists and the Republicans, six frigates are authorized to be built-and what follows is a perfect example of early pork barrel politics as the Congress determines each ship will be built in a different city, spreading the “pork” to multiple shipbuilders. What also follows is a great example of technological innovation as the American ship designer comes up with a superior frigate design, which will pay great benefits in the future. The impetus for a permanent navy comes in 1793 when US merchant ships are taken in the Mediterranean and shipping insurance rises. The French revolution is taking a nasty turn and some see the need for a US naval force to protect our ships. The politics of the time are fascinating and the opponents of the Navy eventually become advocates and vice versa. The first test of the USN comes against France, ruled first by Jacobins, then the Directiore and finally, Napoleon. France was intent on treating the neutral US as aiding its’ enemy, Great Britain, and allowed privateers to take American ships. One of the first frigates is deployed to the Caribbean and meets up with the French frigate L’Insurgente. The battle follows with Constellation victorious: L’Insurgente’s decks were littered with dead and dying men, and her officers seemed to be losing control of the remaining crew. Many of them ran from their guns, some even rushing into the captain’s cabin. Barreaut, perhaps sensing that his vessel was outgunned, called for boarders and ordered the helmsman to run aboard the Constellation. But his ship was losing way, and the maneuver failed. It was a costly failure, for it allowed the Constellation to range ahead, cross the Frenchman’s bows, and fire a ferocious, double-shotted, raking broadside. The Constellation passed to windward of the traumatized L’Insurgente and wore round on a parallel course. The gun crews of both ships ran across their respective decks to serve the guns on the other side. Constellation’s larboard gunports swung open, the muzzles ran out, blazed, roared, and vanished behind a curtain of smoke. L’Insurgente’s starboard battery answered, and now the two frigates hauled close to the wind and fought a running battle, trading ball for ball. The next test of the US Navy comes when it is deployed to the Mediterranean in the early 1800’s to deal with the Barbary States. US shipping is being ravaged by the Barbary pirates and the new upstart nation is not inclined to pay tribute and ransom to the rulers of Tripoli and Algeria. Ordered to blockade the ports and protect the American traders, the fledgling Navy struggles to succeed. Out of this adventure will come some embarrassing defeats and missteps as well as some daring successes. A line: “to the shores of Tripoli” will be added to the Marine hymn. In the end reality takes over and we come to an understanding with the Barbary rulers will include our annual tribute. We will come back later and deal with them in 1815. The final third of the book and some of the most exciting action is the fighting in the War of 1812. The British Navy is the most powerful force ever seen on the seas, unmatched anywhere and winning massive victories in the Mediterranean and at Trafalgar. With 85 ships of the line against only 19 American ships, Britain expects to make short work of the “colonials”. After 5 straight victories by the Americans, capturing British frigates of equal power, and almost 500 British trading vessels captured by US privateers, the UK is in an uproar. The battles between the US Navy and the British Navy are just fascinating. The honorable challenges and surrenders, the bloody results, the tactics, the less than honorable reprisals, just great stories. While much of the book covers the US Navy in action, this is also a great history of the US and the world at the time. Napoleon’s France has a major impact at the start and at the end. The War of 1812 was definitely a war of choice, declared by the US against the major power in the world. The result of this conflict was respect for the US Navy and the nation. It almost resulted in the breakup of the United States.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Max

    Six Frigates shows us how the interplay of politics and wars led to the establishment of a permanent US Navy. Toll, often in graphic detail, describes the Quasi-War against the French, the war against the Barbary Pirates and the War of 1812. Beyond these battles Toll also takes us to those between the Federalists and the Republicans, between Adams and Jefferson, and between a seafaring internationally focused New England and an agrarian locally focused South. The political arguments sound famili Six Frigates shows us how the interplay of politics and wars led to the establishment of a permanent US Navy. Toll, often in graphic detail, describes the Quasi-War against the French, the war against the Barbary Pirates and the War of 1812. Beyond these battles Toll also takes us to those between the Federalists and the Republicans, between Adams and Jefferson, and between a seafaring internationally focused New England and an agrarian locally focused South. The political arguments sound familiar: The role of the states versus that of the federal government, the need to invest in the Navy to protect shipping and merchants from the Northeast versus the need to balance the budget and keep taxes low for the rest of the country. The result was often reactionary to the last perceived threat or incident and the US Navy was funded in fits and starts. In response to the capture of American merchant vessels and imprisonment of their crews by Algeria in 1793, the Congress authorized building six frigates: the Constitution, Constellation, President, United States, Chesapeake and the Congress. The vote was along party lines, Adams and the Federalists for and Jefferson, Madison and the Republicans staunchly against in their devotion to small government. The design assignment went to Philadelphia shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys who came up with a unique design that made the American frigates stronger and more heavily armed than British frigates which they could defeat one on one and sleeker and faster than British battleships which they could sail away from. Then George Washington led the US into the Algerian treaty of 1795 agreeing to pay a million dollar (1/6 the entire US budget) ransom and tribute to Algeria for peace. In the first of what would be a pattern of start then stop regarding an ocean going navy, only three of the frigates would now be completed: The Constellation, Constitution and the United States. Events however soon dictated another reversal of course; the Quasi-War with the revolutionary French government began. John Jay executed a treaty with Britain in 1794. When it became effective in 1796, the French at war with Britain, declared open season on American merchant ships. French privateers began capturing hundreds of American ships. President Adams sent a delegation to Paris to negotiate peace. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand requested a bribe through agents called X, Y and Z in US documents. The incident known as the XYZ affair, resulted in Congress authorizing 12 more ships including the completion of the last three frigates and establishing the Department of the Navy in 1798. The off again on again Navy was on again. A stunning first victory for the new frigates ensued in 1799 when the Constellation under Captain Truxton captured the French frigate L’Insurgente and crippled the French frigate La Vengeance. Later that year Napoleon came to power as First Consul. He wanted to focus on Europe and to end the war with America. In 1800 an agreement ending hostilities with the US was reached. Next for the young Navy came the Tripolitan War. In 1801, Jefferson refused to pay tribute demanded by the Bashaw of Tripoli. The Bashaw began capturing American merchant ships and making slaves of their crews. The most famous incident in the war followed the grounding and capture of the Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor by the pirates. In what Admiral Nelson called “the most bold and daring act of the age”, Stephen Decatur attacked, overpowering the Tripolitans in a bloody fight. Taking over the ship he set it on fire destroying it. The US Navy showed it would stand up to the pirates. In 1805 US Marines leading a band of mercenaries landed near Tripoli (immortalized in the Marine’s Hymn) posing enough of a threat for the Bashaw to agree to a settlement and the exchange of prisoners thus ending the war. Britain frequently boarded American merchant ships to look for British deserters and anyone suspected of being British born who they would impress into the Royal Navy. In 1807, in a significant escalation of this policy, the British ship Leopard fired upon and boarded the American frigate Chesapeake. In response, Jefferson tried an embargo which turned out to be a disastrous failure. While it severely depressed the US economy and was troublesome for Britain, it did nothing to stop the British from continuing to impress American seaman. Jefferson then embarked on another ill thought out approach, the gunboat strategy. Believing he could buy defense on the cheap rather than build frigates for an ocean going navy, he decided to spend millions on small gunboats to be stationed on rivers and harbors. This proved to be a total waste. Few signed up for the unglamorous duty leaving crews shorthanded and poorly trained and the boats not maintained. It also did nothing to stop impressment or protect the US merchant fleet. Suffering at the hands of penny pinchers and budget balancers and strong anti-tax sentiment, the country was totally unprepared for war. Yet in 1812 Madison signed a US declaration of war against Britain. National outrage from the Chesapeake incident exacerbated by continued British impressment and British prohibitions on trade with France led to the declaration. Britain was at war with France. It needed every able bodied seaman it could get and wanted to prevent any supplies getting to Napoleon. The French acted similarly when they could but lacking a navy, the French could do little. Admiral Nelson had taken out the French Navy at Trafalgar in 1805. Given the miserable US showing in its invasion of Canada and other land war failures, US efforts at sea gave the nation the only victories its citizens could cheer about. The Constitution’s 24 pounders decimated the British frigate Guerriere, and earned the nickname Old Ironsides as the Guerriere’s 18 pounders bounced off its live oak sides. The United States captured the Macedonian, a second British frigate beaten one on one thanks again to live oak construction and heavier guns. The Macedonian was refitted to be part of the US fleet. The Constitution captured and destroyed the Java off the coast of South America. After this loss of a third British frigate and mounting merchant shipping losses to the Americans, the British bolstered their American blockade using 74 gun battleships and frigates along with marines to do coastal raids. The British trapped the Constellation in Norfolk where British troops were repulsed trying to take the town and ship. The United States was pinned down at New London, Connecticut after it and the refitted Macedonian turned back trying to escape to sea off Montauk Point Long Island. The Constitution and the President did manage to elude the British blockade in Boston and make it to the open sea to hunt merchant vessels. Captain Lawrence in the Chesapeake against policy engaged in a one on one with the British frigate Shannon outside of Boston and the Chesapeake became the first American frigate to lose such an engagement. After this the Navy department doubled down on orders not to engage British warships. Britain had many hundreds of warships, the US but a few and any loss, especially the frigates, hurt deeply. The point was to interdict British commerce. US warships and the privateers especially were inflicting much economic pain on Britain. After Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba, the British again strengthened their American war effort. Troops were sent directly from the Continent along with naval reinforcements. Up and down the American coast the British conducted raids culminating in the sacking of Washington. The only bright spot for America was again in the water, this time its victories on the lakes. Commodore Perry eliminated the British fleet on the Great Lakes and Captain Macdonough scored an important victory on Lake Champlain foiling an invasion of New York from Canada. The war ended with the treaty of Ghent In 1814. The last battle for the Constitution took out two smaller British ships and the victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans put an exclamation point on a war that was already over when the battle was fought. Britain was happy to rid itself of American attacks on its shipping and reestablish trade with America. The US desperately needed peace. It was suffering badly from the war; the treasury was broke and New England near secession. Fortunately the US economy quickly recovered and with wisdom gained from hard experience the politicians recognized the need for a permanent US Navy. The first 74 gun battleship, the Independence was built. Decatur led a flotilla against Algeria and the Barbary Coast, this time ending their attacks without the payment of any tribute or ransom money. Here Toll ends his story. It was a well-proportioned mix of political and military history and Toll shows clearly how each influenced the other. Readers interested in politics will find positions and arguments familiar throughout US history to the present day and the same disjointed approach to policy. Readers interested in the Navy will find fearless heroes fighting numbingly bloody battles at sea. Toll’s battle narratives certainly support the saying, “when ships were wood and men were steel”. The politicians however seemed to have been made of something much more malleable, but eventually they too got it right.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    Imagine if you will the US Navy at the height of the Reagan Administration. The US Navy rules the world's oceans with 600 ships-of-war. There are no serious challengers either in numbers or expertise. Now further imagine another nation that shares the same language, same culture and similar values challenging the supremacy of the US Navy by declaring war. This nation has 14 ships of war. This nation's pip squeak navy bests the US Navy in six consecutive ship-to-ship encounters. It changes nothing Imagine if you will the US Navy at the height of the Reagan Administration. The US Navy rules the world's oceans with 600 ships-of-war. There are no serious challengers either in numbers or expertise. Now further imagine another nation that shares the same language, same culture and similar values challenging the supremacy of the US Navy by declaring war. This nation has 14 ships of war. This nation's pip squeak navy bests the US Navy in six consecutive ship-to-ship encounters. It changes nothing world-wide except to get the US Navy to stop fighting one-to-one engagements with the pip queak navy and at the same time swells the pip squeak navy with confidence and begins a tradition that would last the next 200 years. It's an imperfect analogy but it gives the general idea of what the US Navy faced at the beginning of the War of 1812-a war with Great Britain that few really wanted. Six Frigates is a book by Ian W. Toll. It documents the start of the US Navy in the 1790's through the War of 1812 with Britain. The incentive to have a navy at all came from trouble with the Barbary Pirates, four Muslim, nominally Ottoman, North African countries that made their way by pirating merchant ships, mostly from second-rate naval powers that could do little about it. Prior to the Revolutionary War American merchant ships had little to fear from the Barbary Pirates because American ships were British ships and protected by the Royal Navy who had undisputed naval supremacy just about everywhere. This obviously changed after the Revolutionary War when the British adopted the common sense attitude that since the US was now an independent nation they should either pay off the Barbary Pirates or protect their shipping with a navy of their own. Neither option was too attractive to the Americans. The US did not like the idea of paying protection money especially when the four nations that promoted piracy kept changing the rules. But the US really didn't want to build a navy either for the simple reason that navies were and are expensive. The US had a significant war debt following the Revolution and many thought it irresponsible to spend tax money on a navy when there was a such a debt. The argument is not dissimilar to what's going on now in the US except it's the not the navy that is the issue. It's run-away government spending while carrying a 15 trillion-dollar debt. But I digress. And so Congress dithers about for a number of years trying to solve the problem of the Barbary Pirates. Finally, an ocean-going fleet of six frigates is authorized to be used more or less as a police force against the pesky pirates. Toll does a superb job of detailing the process and the politics that were involved and the book is filled with interesting tidbits that I found fascinating. For example, most Americans at least from my generation know that the USS Constitution, one of the six frigates was called "Old Ironsides" because the ship's hull was made of oak and during an engagement with a British frigate cannon balls seemed to bounce off the Constitution's oak hull. A sailor remarked that the Constitution was made of iron and the nickname stuck. What was interesting to learn is that the oak that was used in the construction of the Constitution, the President and the United States (three of the six frigates) was a type of live oak found only on some swampy island off the coast of Georgia! The expedition to harvest the oak and get it back to the ship builders in New England is a story in and of itself. Another interesting side story had to do with the design of the frigates. The same three frigates mentioned above were super frigates. They were bigger than a British frigate and more heavily armed and the live oak used made them harder to sink from hull shots. (After the British lost three frigates in ship-to-ship combat with the Americans they began to complain that American ships were not really frigates but closer to ships-of the -line. The British knew full well what the Americans were up to and cocky enough to think they could better a nominally larger frigate and so they took up the challenge with typical British bravado and Nelsonian courage. Complaining afterwards about the disparity between the ships is a bit like a boxer bragging he can take down a larger opponent and when he loses explaining it away by saying, well, he was bigger. Yeah, duh.) Another great sub-story was the controversy that surrounded the decision to build those three frigates with the larger dimensions and heavier broadsides. I'll have my frigate super-sized thank you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) The British who had naval warfare down to a science believed that had the perfect balance between ship size, armament, masts and whatever else factored into building an efficient frigate. They made the argument as did many experienced American sea captains that building American frigates with larger dimensions and heavier guns would upset the apple cart of common knowledge and be a maritime disaster. Oddly, the main designer of the super-frigates had never been to sea but somehow his design and specifications were adopted despite the fact that almost everyone "in the know" hated the idea. Toll's book is full of interesting details like that. I learned much about early American politics (yikes, you think it's contentious now), the construction of sailing ships from a by gone age, what it would take to make a six-month cruise, what it was like to captain a frigate, dueling and what a ship-to-ship combat looked like in the early 1800's (often bloody but usually fought with a code-of-honor sort of like a knightly joust but with heavy cannon broadsides). In other words it would be wrong to assume that Six Frigates majors in the ship-to-ship encounters with the Royal Navy. To be sure these engagements are covered and covered well, but it's the other details that make the book a magnificent read if a person has any interest at all in the age of sail and the early history of the American Navy. I rate the book with 5 stars.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rick Riordan

    I devoured Ian Toll’s first two books about the naval war in the Pacific during World War II, so I thought I’d try his earlier book about the earliest days of the United States Navy. I don’t know if you have any interest in early American history or in naval warfare, but if you do, this is a great read. Toll is one of those historians who can bring history to life like a good novel, and that is no easy task. He covers the era made famous by the musical Hamilton, but adds some layers to the story I devoured Ian Toll’s first two books about the naval war in the Pacific during World War II, so I thought I’d try his earlier book about the earliest days of the United States Navy. I don’t know if you have any interest in early American history or in naval warfare, but if you do, this is a great read. Toll is one of those historians who can bring history to life like a good novel, and that is no easy task. He covers the era made famous by the musical Hamilton, but adds some layers to the story that the musical missed. (There are, for instance, zero cabinet rap battles). He also covers the early naval war against the Barbary pirates and several thrilling accounts of early naval battles against the French and the British. What I found most interesting and helpful was the early and vicious rancor between the political parties of the day, Federalists and Republicans (not related to today’s Republicans). We live in such a polarized time right now, we tend to think that surely it has never been this bad. Wrong! Party politics has been threatening to tear our country apart since its inception, and has done so on at least one occasion (the Civil War, obvs.) Adams, Jefferson and Madison faced every bit as much bitter in-fighting, partisan hyperbole, and talk of certain doom as we see today. Fist fists in Congress. Duels. Name-calling. Cries of fake news. They had it all. I guess that’s . . . reassuring? Either that, or it just makes me wonder how we ever made it this far as a nation. At any rate, this is a fascinating look at how the U.S. Navy started from very humble beginnings — just six frigates, one of which is docked right down the street from my house in Boston: the U.S.S. Constitution. And now I know all about her story!

  5. 4 out of 5

    David Eppenstein

    Excellent history of the origins of the U.S. Navy. It also gives a glimpse of the political friction between the Washington/Adams Federalists and Jefferson's Democrats.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Gary Brecht

    Scholarly, yet written in an expressive style, Ian Toll’s narrative of the nascent U.S. Navy focuses on the construction and history of the six frigates authorized by Congress in 1794. The political division over the need for warships is thoroughly examined; Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and the Federalists were pro-navy while Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the Republicans were opposed to both a navy and a standing army. In his build up to the looming War of 1812 Toll praises the efficienc Scholarly, yet written in an expressive style, Ian Toll’s narrative of the nascent U.S. Navy focuses on the construction and history of the six frigates authorized by Congress in 1794. The political division over the need for warships is thoroughly examined; Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and the Federalists were pro-navy while Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the Republicans were opposed to both a navy and a standing army. In his build up to the looming War of 1812 Toll praises the efficiency and power of the British Navy. Lord Nelson’s success over Bonaparte’s navy and allies are vividly described, all of which paints a picture of England’s maritime dominance. This makes the U.S. naval victories in the “second war of independence” all the more impressive. Toll’s recounting of the nation’s early naval history is replete with biographical sketches of the shipbuilders, naval commanders, and politicians who played important roles in its establishment. For military history buffs this book is a must read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lisa (Harmonybites)

    The subtitle, "The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy" is a misnomer. The Continental Navy established during the American Revolution gets short shrift. Toll in a few lines disposes of sad tale of 13 frigates, 11 of which were destroyed or captured by the British in the course of the Revolutionary War. American Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones ("I have not yet begun to fight!") gets 19 lines--British Napoleonic War admiral Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar gets much m The subtitle, "The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy" is a misnomer. The Continental Navy established during the American Revolution gets short shrift. Toll in a few lines disposes of sad tale of 13 frigates, 11 of which were destroyed or captured by the British in the course of the Revolutionary War. American Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones ("I have not yet begun to fight!") gets 19 lines--British Napoleonic War admiral Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar gets much more space. Rather, the "six frigates" of the title refer to the ships authorized by a 1794 bill to fight the Barbary pirates that would form the nucleus of the infant navy. The United States, the "Old Wagon" was the first--Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame would serve on it. The Constellation won distinction in the "Quasi-War" against France. The Constitution, the celebrated "Old Ironsides," is the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy today. The "unlucky" Chesapeake, the "runt of the litter," would have its own storied history. The President was the speediest, and the Congress would serve as a teaching ship--in essence the first American naval academy. It was in focusing closely on the stories of these ships and their men that Toll was at his best. Judging from his biography Toll can't boast a military or maritime background, nor can he sport credentials as a historian. He had worked as a financial analyst on Wall Street and as a political operative. He is good at detailing some of the economic and political forces that form the context for the story of the United States Navy, but those parts of his tale come across as rather superficial. Many people split contemporary histories into the "popular" versus the "scholarly" but I don't think Toll embodies the strengths of either side of the divide. He doesn't have the kind of evocative prose nor narrative drive of the popular David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose. Nor is there the kind of close analysis or sweeping themes of academic historians David Hackett Fischer or Bernard Bailyn. His acknowledgements,"Debt of Gratitude" implies Toll relied heavily on secondary sources; (he mentions McCullough's John Adams in particular) and Six Frigates reads that way. It doesn't have the depth of something written by someone who has immersed himself in primary material and has thought through and argued the issues. Much of the framing material struck me as dull, because I'd read so much of that story before. But ah, it was a different case when he focused on the ships, men and battles of the young United States Navy from 1794 to 1815 from "the shores of Tripoli" to the "perilous fight" of the War of 1812. Maybe it's been told better somewhere else. I don't know. I picked up this book because it was recommended in The Ultimate Reading List. But those parts did sparkle. How could I, Star Trek fan that I am, not be entertained reading of dashing naval hero Stephen Decauter, commander of the USS Enterprise, who would cause women to swoon by entering a room? How could I not be enthralled by the story of his fellow officers who when not killing each other in duels would indulge in "single-ship" duels between them and the British in the War of 1812? Toll's accounts of naval battles read like something out of CS Forester or Patrick O'Brien and indeed at one point he quotes from Fortune of War O'Brien's fictionalized account of a battle between a British ship and the USS Constitution. Really, if I hadn't been spoiled by some outstanding works of history these past months by the likes of Bernard Bailyn, David Hackett Fisher, David McCullough and Nathaniel Philbrick, I would have rated this higher. Because yes, I was very much entertained while getting an eduction about naval warfare, American style, in the Age of Sail.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Phrodrick

    In giving Ian Toll’s Six Frigates 4 stars I am rounding up. Compared with his excellent Two volumes covering the Naval War in the Pacific, Frigates is cluttered. This is a well-researched book, particularly good at relating the politics that had to happen before military action; it is almost conventional in relating the elsewhere told stories of ship to ship action in the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Ian Toll covers too many topics. The strictly military ones are covered well, bu In giving Ian Toll’s Six Frigates 4 stars I am rounding up. Compared with his excellent Two volumes covering the Naval War in the Pacific, Frigates is cluttered. This is a well-researched book, particularly good at relating the politics that had to happen before military action; it is almost conventional in relating the elsewhere told stories of ship to ship action in the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Ian Toll covers too many topics. The strictly military ones are covered well, but many of these are covered elsewhere. At its best Six Frigates is well written, accessible history, it is not often enough at its best. Toll has done well in covering the internal personal politics of seniority and command. Dueling among officers was clearly a problem, but did we need so many paragraphs about the code duello? Do we understand the issues behind founding a national navy by knowing which version of the code was more popular among the young men (midshipmen) of the US Navy? As for the national politics. Toll does well describing the amounts of and sources for funding a Navy. There could have been more discussion of the comparative cost benefits ratio in terms of enemy shipping seized and sold versus the lost revenue from lost markets and the seizure of domestic shipping. The result is a murky sense of the relative cash value of even limited military power verses protected freedom of the seas. Beyond the scope of this book is analysis of the begging question: Do these calculations carry forward into the 21st century? The national level debate over funding a Navy mirrored other national debates. Sectionalism ruled. The politicians of the day argued the case for free trade and the maritime industry of the mostly north east states against the agricultural interests of the interior and southern states. Against the two some discussion of the costs of having or not having overseas markets for agricultural goods might have helped an analytical reader adjudicate between the two. After so many unnecessary pages about the muddy incomplete capital of the US; one can almost feel that the other- wise humiliating burning of the public buildings in Washington, by what was basically an amphibious demonstration, could have been been taken as a favor. Beyond this, Toll has too much on general political topics not directly related to the questions of should the new nation have any professional military and if so; should it be primarily seaborne or land based. If there is a theme to Six Frigates, the obvious one is around the facts of who did what to create the USN, and how with its initial few frigates, built a reputation above its relative “hitting weight”. The larger question, not as well answered was: can any nation afford a weak military in a world ready to seize humans, cargo, ships or land from a nation perceived to be weaker. Further can a nation with a strong military establishment keep itself from committing the same kinds of aggression. Six Frigates ends with the War of 1812. There is a short summary of what happens next. There is a need for good naval history books to cover the period from 1812 to 1861. The USN would build and commission ships of the line. These ships were rarely in battles like those won by the earlier heavy frigates of this book. So perhaps it is thought these stories lack action. In the same period, steam, predecessors of modern artillery and other nascent technologies would change ship design, classification, logistics and national policies. This history needs more attention. Perhaps Toll will choose to move across the years that take the USN into the Great White Fleet.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    Six Frigates is an engaging narrative of the early years of the United States Navy. For a popular history, it is richly detailed, with descriptions of the military & political actors of the era, and the extricates of the naval warfare at the height of the age of sail, in the early 19th century. Ian Toll, a popular historian with a background in financial services has written a broad history, split into three parts: preparation and early US Navy planning, the fight against the Barbary pirates and Six Frigates is an engaging narrative of the early years of the United States Navy. For a popular history, it is richly detailed, with descriptions of the military & political actors of the era, and the extricates of the naval warfare at the height of the age of sail, in the early 19th century. Ian Toll, a popular historian with a background in financial services has written a broad history, split into three parts: preparation and early US Navy planning, the fight against the Barbary pirates and finally the rise of the US Navy in its fight against Great Britain during the War of 1812. By focusing his story on the first six frigates (the largest, most economical ship that the young nation could afford), he is able to focus clearly on the interesting personalities and battles and the political actions back home, of a nation that was at times largely indifferent to a vigorous national defense. The six ships: Constitution, President, Congress, United States, Chesapeake, and Constellation, and their construction and action make up the base of this narrative. What is remarkable is how Toll is able to write effectively of the different political and cultural views in the United States on the different uses and strategies for sea power. The Federalists wanted a strong Navy. The Jeffersonian Democrats were quite happy to just have coastal defenses, until they reversed course and advocate a stronger national defense (and expenditure than even the Federalists did). It is not uncommon to have popular histories of this period of naval history, but what sets Toll's work apart is his ability to quickly shift from the action of battle, in say, Tripoli harbor or the open Atlantic, and then back again to the halls of Congress or the ship architects offices. The personalities of the young navy, who wanted to fight and make a name for themselves at sea in defense of their nation is shown very well. The general reader should really enjoy this history of the early years of American sea defense.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Don

    Nelson’s band of brothers, bumping hulls fierce, rate of fire 3 to 2, neutrality boom for shipping, 11 ships in Rev, Algiers money and fear vs Jefferson justice honor respect, live oak challenge, France was issue that differed Adams from Jefferson/Madison, 36th ballot to elect Jefferson 1800 after Hamilton, Constitution’s 3 days escape from 5 British ships, United States over Macedonia, Philadelphia ran aground captured and destroyed by friendly converted Intrepid, relationships demand attention Nelson’s band of brothers, bumping hulls fierce, rate of fire 3 to 2, neutrality boom for shipping, 11 ships in Rev, Algiers money and fear vs Jefferson justice honor respect, live oak challenge, France was issue that differed Adams from Jefferson/Madison, 36th ballot to elect Jefferson 1800 after Hamilton, Constitution’s 3 days escape from 5 British ships, United States over Macedonia, Philadelphia ran aground captured and destroyed by friendly converted Intrepid, relationships demand attention, Brits with 20x more ships in 1812, rush to war with close vote, overwhelmed on Atlantic loss of Chesapeake then to Great Lake victories and Lake Champlain, Nov 13 hurricane of Brit fleet, impractical to barricade east coast, Baltimore’s star spangled banner, New Orleans victory 2 months after Ghent treaty of Dec 1814, Federalists against war and party death in 1816, mini Navy routed great Navy, end of Barbary pirates with 2 squadrons by Madison, Results of peace solid and enduring said Winston.

  11. 4 out of 5

    John Boyne

    Ian Toll provides us with an easily readable history of the founding and early history of the U.S. Navy. I immensely enjoyed this work and I have discovered a love of naval history. Toll dives deep into the politics and economics of the beginning of the U.S. debate around the formation of the navy. How the need to defend the merchant fleet to assist in the economic development of the nation became paramount for such a little isolated nation that the U.S. was at its founding. I particularly enjoy Ian Toll provides us with an easily readable history of the founding and early history of the U.S. Navy. I immensely enjoyed this work and I have discovered a love of naval history. Toll dives deep into the politics and economics of the beginning of the U.S. debate around the formation of the navy. How the need to defend the merchant fleet to assist in the economic development of the nation became paramount for such a little isolated nation that the U.S. was at its founding. I particularly enjoyed the debate over the design of the first six frigates, which was the focus of the book. Toll describes well the debate over the size, shape and material that was used in constructing the ships and how providence provided the natural resources that were unique to America that made those ships stronger and faster than their competitors. The narrative of the book tracks the founding of the navy during the Revolution to its early conflicts against the French in the Quasi War, the Barbary Pirates and Great Britain in the War of 1812. Toll combines detailed descriptions of the battles that the frigates engaged in against merchant vessels and ships of war while also connecting the political debate, issues of supply and funding and public support that was necessary to maintain this little navy. Through the actions of the brave founders of the navy, the U.S. fleet grew from 6 frigates to the largest fleet in the world capable of covering the entire planet that has not been matched by any other nation in over 80 years. I highly recommend this book for early U.S. history buffs and naval history readers.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Marian Willeke

    Sitting in the waiting area to board the Constitution in Boston, I overheard a man comment that he read Ian Toll's "Six Frigates" and found it extremely insightful as to how the US Navy began and impacted the early development of the United States. Knowing little to nothing about the early Navy, the Barbary Wars, or why the War of 1812 even occurred, let alone what happened during the war, I took this indirect recommendation to heart and purchased it in the harbor's bookstore. While it took a lo Sitting in the waiting area to board the Constitution in Boston, I overheard a man comment that he read Ian Toll's "Six Frigates" and found it extremely insightful as to how the US Navy began and impacted the early development of the United States. Knowing little to nothing about the early Navy, the Barbary Wars, or why the War of 1812 even occurred, let alone what happened during the war, I took this indirect recommendation to heart and purchased it in the harbor's bookstore. While it took a long time to get through given it's attention to detail through a very complicated tapestry of politics within the Adams, Jefferson, and Madison administrations, it was well worth the read. Toll recommended "Splintering the Wooden Wall" for more on the War of 1812 and I look forward to completing that read as well. Toll did a tremendous job balancing the details of personality of our leaders with the overall political environment of both Europe and the United States. The end of the book is a quote from a British newspaper noting the United States demonstrating of a growing giant...as proven through the pages of Toll's story through so many credible sources compiled for a well rounded knowledge of our amazing beginning.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jack

    Well written and a grand story of the beginnings of the United States Navy. Focusing on the first six frigates, the author discusses the Barbary War and the War of 1812. I have read many books on the US Navy, but I found this one very entertaining since the focus is exclusively on the first frigates. I also found interesting how the frigates were designed to challenge the then invincible Royal Navy. I only found one point of dissatisfaction and that is only a minor point. I thought a bit more wo Well written and a grand story of the beginnings of the United States Navy. Focusing on the first six frigates, the author discusses the Barbary War and the War of 1812. I have read many books on the US Navy, but I found this one very entertaining since the focus is exclusively on the first frigates. I also found interesting how the frigates were designed to challenge the then invincible Royal Navy. I only found one point of dissatisfaction and that is only a minor point. I thought a bit more would be need after the War of 1812, but the author chose to finish at that point even though the ships served for many decades later. I still remember fondly the day I first walked aboard the USS CONSTITUTION (aka Old Ironsides). I hope someday to do that again since I will have much more appreciation of her history.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dave Dentel

    Summary: Toll's history offers a detailed and comprehensive look at how the early American navy embodied the U.S. Constitution's defense of common rights. In the campaign to ratify the U.S. Constitution, one argument advanced by proponents of the document is that it would create a stronger federal government better equipped to defend the nascent republic from foreign belligerents. The prescience of this thesis is borne out in Ian W. Toll’s book, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Foundation of Summary: Toll's history offers a detailed and comprehensive look at how the early American navy embodied the U.S. Constitution's defense of common rights. In the campaign to ratify the U.S. Constitution, one argument advanced by proponents of the document is that it would create a stronger federal government better equipped to defend the nascent republic from foreign belligerents. The prescience of this thesis is borne out in Ian W. Toll’s book, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Foundation of the U.S. Navy. Though the tome was published in the mid-2000s, I read it only recently at the suggestion of a friend. He thought it might inspire us to revisit another work that examines the age of fighting sail in a very different way—the classic boardgame Wooden Ships and Iron Men. Powder and Shot And Toll certainly does serve up gripping accounts of duels between ships whose names have passed into legend. He offers vivid detail, drawing from a broad range of sources including older histories, personal journals, government records, and even fiction. To sketch the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Java, for instance, Toll cites a passage from one of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels. But Six Frigates is much more than an account of combat. Toll takes great care to place the story of America’s first great warships within a broader context of political, economic and social issues. Bigger Picture For example, I found it fascinating to learn how the party that resisted President John Adams’ initial call to form a navy—Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Republicans—eventually went on to expand the force in order to prosecute wars against the Barbary states and England. It was also dispiriting to read how the bloody and costly War of 1812 could have been avoided had the timing of diplomatic exchanges been slightly more propitious. And though the war appeared to end in a stalemate, time showed how it indeed delivered protection for America’s common sailors, who before the conflict had been habitually dragooned off Yankee vessels at sea and forced to serve in the British navy. The issue, of course, was complex. The British claimed they were simply repatriating sailors who had deserted the war against Napoleon; Americans cried foul but were also guilty of enticing British tars to abandon their posts. Toll sorts through the complexity by pointing out that though the War of 1812 was fought in part to defend common rights, just as in other conflicts it was the common folk who suffered most. Caught in the Middle For example, if an American sailor was forced into the British navy, his options were to serve and earn wages or be thrown in the brig, flogged, or worse. And if by chance he ended up fighting his fellow Yankees, even if repatriated he faced the possibility of being charged with treason. Toll’s fondness for detail, however, does not deter him from crafting a broader narrative. He ends his history by relating how the legacy of America’s famous frigates laid the foundation for the modern navy that defeated fascism and then defended democracy during the Cold War. It’s a legacy that visitors can connect with tangibly aboard the Constitution, still afloat in Boston Harbor, where she was launched more than two centuries ago.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rick

    Thoroughly entertaining narrative of the founding of the U.S. Navy and its early adventures leading up to and through the War of 1812. The book uses the six frigates built by the nascent U.S. Navy as its touchstone, and develops all the personalities and politics involved in the day around that central theme. You'll hear from Washington, Madison, Adams (both), Monroe, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others. Very interesting. So what kept it from that last star...two things. First the writing and the ta Thoroughly entertaining narrative of the founding of the U.S. Navy and its early adventures leading up to and through the War of 1812. The book uses the six frigates built by the nascent U.S. Navy as its touchstone, and develops all the personalities and politics involved in the day around that central theme. You'll hear from Washington, Madison, Adams (both), Monroe, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others. Very interesting. So what kept it from that last star...two things. First the writing and the tale seem very much like those written by Patrick O'Brian in his 21 book historical novel series of Master and Commander - tall ships in the age of Napoleon; while Toll uses the frigates as his centerpiece, O'Brian used his Aubrey/Maturin characters but the overall feel is very similar. Second, the book screams for maps and an explanation of the seafaring terms ... you might recognize some terms if you have read of this period before, but if not you'll miss much of the scene setting. Still and all a wonderful period piece story.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    I had recently finished reading Mr. Toll's two excellent books on the war in the Pacific during World War II, and , and decided to read this book as it was his first. Though Mr. Toll does make some narrative mistakes here that he mostly avoided in his more recent books, I am happy to say that the quality of this book is equal to his others. Covering the Early Republic era of American history (1789-1815), Mr. Toll details the history of the founding of the U.S. Navy, starting with the ti I had recently finished reading Mr. Toll's two excellent books on the war in the Pacific during World War II, and , and decided to read this book as it was his first. Though Mr. Toll does make some narrative mistakes here that he mostly avoided in his more recent books, I am happy to say that the quality of this book is equal to his others. Covering the Early Republic era of American history (1789-1815), Mr. Toll details the history of the founding of the U.S. Navy, starting with the title's six frigates and then recounting its triumphs and failings in the Quasi-War with France, the Tripolitan War with the Barbary pirates, and the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Mr. Toll gives great details about the key officers in the early days of the Navy, like Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge, the construction of the American frigates, which made them so superior to other frigates in the world at the time, and the back and forth arguments in Congress between the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republicans (not to be confused with today's Republican party) about whether or not the U.S. needed a navy and, if so, what ships could comprise it. The naval battles in particular are excellent and, oftentimes, heart-pounding affairs. The only problem with this book, particularly in the beginning, is Mr. Toll's over reliance on sea terminology throughout. This is especially true of one of the earliest battles depicted in the book between the American frigate Constellation and the French Frigate L'Insurgente. While it doesn't affect the overall enjoyment of this book too much, it can make for a confusing read at times for those who don't sea terminology. On the plus side though, this book has made me rethink the War of 1812. In the past, I felt that the U.S. was just lucky to get out of that war without losing any territory, or worse. This was based on my knowledge of the U.S Army's embarrassing defeats in Michigan and Virginia. But now, having read about how the U.S. Navy's raids against Britain's commerce and even its shocking victories against a few British frigates, I am now forced to reassess my prior views about that war. All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this period of American history in general, and the U.S. Navy in particular.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mark Roth

    This book covers the early days of the U.S. Navy, from its founding to its actions in the War of 1812. The story begins with the bill that Congress passed to construct six frigates to deal with the Barbary pirates, and the book follows the ships' design, construction, and notable actions throughout their careers, which included the Quasi-War with France, the war against the Barbary pirates, and the War of 1812. The book also covers related historical events to provide interesting context, such a This book covers the early days of the U.S. Navy, from its founding to its actions in the War of 1812. The story begins with the bill that Congress passed to construct six frigates to deal with the Barbary pirates, and the book follows the ships' design, construction, and notable actions throughout their careers, which included the Quasi-War with France, the war against the Barbary pirates, and the War of 1812. The book also covers related historical events to provide interesting context, such as explaining the causes of the shifts in public opinion that governed naval spending at various times. The first six frigates became iconic names in American service. There were three 44-gun ships, USS Constitution, USS President, and USS United States, and three slightly smaller frigates, USS Constellation, USS Congress, and USS Chesapeake. They were captained by brave men that set the tone for the fledgling American navy, including Steven Decatur, Isaac Hull, and William Bainbridge. The frigates were designed by a man named Joshua Humphreys, who proposed a rather unconventional design for the day, in two primary ways. First, the design was larger and had more armament than most existing frigates. Although only three of the frigates were actually built to this design -- the other three were smaller -- it allowed the ships to defeat several British frigates in single-ship engagements during the War or 1812 (which was unheard of, since the British were the rulers of the sea at that time). And second, all of the ships were constructed using live oak, which was an extremely tough type of wood. This led to USS Constitution's famous nickname, "Old Ironsides", bestowed during her battle with HMS Guerriere, when a cannonball from the British ship bounced off of Constitution's hull. As someone who is interested in both American history and naval history, this book was extremely interesting to me. I already knew a bit about this topic, but the book provided a lot of interesting detail that I didn't already know. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the early history of the U.S. Navy.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

    A very readable and well-written history of the founding of the US Navy and its involvement in the quasi-war with France, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812. Much of the story will be familiar to those who have read up on these conflicts: the opposition by Jefferson and Republicans to a powerful navy, the construction of the frigates by Joshua Humphreys, and all of the relevant political and technological developments. Inevitably, Toll includes much age-of-sail nautical terminology that you ma A very readable and well-written history of the founding of the US Navy and its involvement in the quasi-war with France, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812. Much of the story will be familiar to those who have read up on these conflicts: the opposition by Jefferson and Republicans to a powerful navy, the construction of the frigates by Joshua Humphreys, and all of the relevant political and technological developments. Inevitably, Toll includes much age-of-sail nautical terminology that you may or may not be familiar with, and some more maps would have helped. But, in all, this was an impressive achievement, especially for a first-time author (at the time of the book’s writing) with little real background. His description of battles is vivid and unsentimental, and he perfectly captures the human dimension of the Navy’s history and the many aspects of the Navy’s officer culture. Still, there are a few minor quibbles like Toll’s claim that British forces in Maryland marched “east” after landing at Benedict, calling Philadelphia an “Atlantic seaport,” references to “Savanna,” Georgia, and writing that a certain Melville tale takes place on a US warship (“Billy Budd”). Rich, well-written, engaging and well-researched.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michael Burnam-Fink

    There is something in all of us that thrills to the sea. The vast oceans cover 70% of Earth's surface, eternal and everchanging. They are the highways of the world's commerce, the source of a great power's strength and prosperity, and a site where desperate battles fought, and heroic deeds done. In a swift and deeply sourced history, Toll brings alive the character of the period, and the role of the American Navy at the dawn of this country. The Navy is specified in the constitution, but a naval There is something in all of us that thrills to the sea. The vast oceans cover 70% of Earth's surface, eternal and everchanging. They are the highways of the world's commerce, the source of a great power's strength and prosperity, and a site where desperate battles fought, and heroic deeds done. In a swift and deeply sourced history, Toll brings alive the character of the period, and the role of the American Navy at the dawn of this country. The Navy is specified in the constitution, but a naval build-up was controversial from the get-go. While Federalists saw a navy as a key protector of trade and defender of national honor, the agrarian Jeffersonian Republican party saw the navy as a useless expense that would incur ruinous debts, entangle America in European wars and benefit New England merchants at the expense of the common man. As Barbary corsairs began to prey on unescorted American traders, the Washington administration ordered the construction of six frigates to serve as the capital ships of the American Navy. The six frigates, designed by renegade Quaker shipwright Joshua Humpfrey, proved controversial from the start. Humpfrey's design was larger than European frigates, with exceptionally heavy framing of southern live oak. Finely cut and powerfully armed, the frigates were intended to outrun lumbering ships of the line and overpower lesser frigates and brigs. Philadelphia, then the capitol and commercial center of North America, was the logical place to build the ships, but in an early example of pork barrel defense procurement, the actual job of construction was split to separate cities up and down the Atlantic sea coast, increasing cost and complexity. The ships served with both success and catastrophe in the quasi-war with France and the initial retaliatory raids against Tripoli. The USS Philadelphia ran hard around outside Tripoli and was forced to strike her colors, before being destroyed in a daring raid. Ships were only one part of the American navy. The officers and sailors were even more important, and Tolls describes an alien martial culture of dueling and high honor. The key conflict of the era was over impressment of American sailors. The British Navy faced a personnel problem of epic proportions as it waged war against Napoleon, and the burgeoning American merchant fleet was full of sailors, some deserters from the British Navy, but many Americans. The British were cavalier in stopping American ships and topping up their crews, no matter the legalities. British merchantile interests resented the Americans, who were prospering on trade with embargoed France as Britain bled. Through 1811, diplomacy failed and bellicosity increased, with the Chesapeake incident, where British ships attacked, boarded, and impressed sailors from an American man-of-war, tilting the balance towards outright war. The six frigates earned their place in the history in the war, with a series of sharp single-ship actions against British frigates that showed that the Americans could fight and defeat the seemingly invincible British Navy. These battles had little strategic impact, the loss of four ships was a pin-prick, but the battles had an outsized effect on morale. American spirits soared, the British despaired, and large and expensive forces were used to tie the frigates down in port, while hundreds of American privateers sallied from smaller ports and devastated British merchants worldwide. The war ended two years later in exhaustion, with Washington DC burnt and the status quo ante restored. But the six frigates proved their worth, and laid a tradition of victory. Toll closes with a historiographic review, discussing hooary 19th century American myth-making, an influential but libelous British account that was the standard work, and finally a young Theodore Roosevelt's The Naval War of 1812, which put seapower in a proper historical context. Roosevelt of course saw the birth of the American Navy as major power, with the Great White Fleet and the Panama Canal. Six Frigates lives up to every accolade as one of the finest general histories and military histories I have ever read!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    Ian Toll describes the first foreign challenges of the United States government which prompted the construction of a group of ships that would constitute the beginning of the United States Navy. The book contains a wealth of details of sailing-era ship construction and the excitement of early American-history sea battles. Toll adeptly describes the nation's early political picture, and clarifies which forces were for building a navy and which opposed it. Many interesting personal stories are tol Ian Toll describes the first foreign challenges of the United States government which prompted the construction of a group of ships that would constitute the beginning of the United States Navy. The book contains a wealth of details of sailing-era ship construction and the excitement of early American-history sea battles. Toll adeptly describes the nation's early political picture, and clarifies which forces were for building a navy and which opposed it. Many interesting personal stories are told, including those of the naval officers who set the standards for the emerging Navy (William Bainbridge, Steven Decatur, Thomas Truxton et al) and the Federalist and (Jeffersonian) Republican politicians who staked their careers on differing interpretations of the powers that should be conferred on the United States government. The new United States of America in the latter eighteenth century appeared to be in the position of not needing a naval force. The British Navy no longer threatened, after the American War of Independence, and Atlantic coastal communities were thriving from the resumption of trade with European countries. Even after Great Britain and France started warring during the French Revolution, there were profits to be made by trading with each belligerent as a neutral. There was not any argument within the government, therefore, when the decision was made to sell the meager naval assets left over from the Revolutionary War and release Continental Naval personnel from duty. Several storm clouds appeared on the horizon and caused a revaluation of this policy. One problem involved the Barbary rogue states of Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers and Morocco, which had been running an extortion racket in the Mediterranean for many years. American merchant vessels entering the Sea had been protected from this activity by the Royal Navy during Colonial times, but the American government now was forced to submit to paying tribute after the Barbary pirates hijacked merchant ships and sold their crews into slavery in North Africa. This pirate activity became the primary impetus for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation for the building of warships. An Act passed March 27th, 1794 called for provision for a naval armament, which translated into authorization to build six frigates. This type of naval ship was smaller than the heaviest warships of European nations but still a powerful ocean-going vessel suited for long, solitary cruises while seeking combat with enemy warships or merchant vessels. Joshua Humphries, the naval architect selected to design the new vessels, made a decision, controversial at the time, that some of the new ships would be built as "large frigates," more heavily armed and larger than British frigates. The large, or heavy frigate would be described, in the parlance of the times, as a 44-gun frigate, as opposed to the common 28 or 38-gun frigate. The difference was more than a few cannons. The large frigate size would push the frigate ship design to its outer limits, causing some critics to predict that the ships would be un-seaworthy (later disproven in actual practice). The great advantage of the large frigate was that it could be armed with the cannon used on much larger warships, known as 24-pounder guns. Toll describes their destructive power (p. 49) as "...known to drive a ball through two feet of solid oak planking at a range of 1,000 yards"; British frigates were not equipped with anything of this size. The 44-gun ships (named Constitution, President and United States) and the other three ships, to be built as 36-gun frigates (Chesapeake, Constellation and Congress) would be constructed at six different shipyards, per instructions from President Washington. Another of Humphries' forward-thinking decisions was the requirement that each ship's key frame pieces be made from southern live oak, an extremely hard wood obtainable with great difficulty from a limited southern coastal zone. This framing would give the ships strength to meet the additional demands of their size and weight, and would add to their longevity. The construction of these ships in the last years of the eighteenth century would constitute America's first great governmental building project, thus becoming pawns in the hostilities between the two emerging political parties. The Federalists wanted a strong central government capable of paying for a military to protect the country from foreign threats, while the Republicans saw American as an agrarian country with no involvement in foreign conflicts. A supreme irony arose from the vehement opposition of Republican James Madison to funding construction of the ships; a little over a dozen years later, President Madison would be relying on these same ships to do battle with the Royal Navy. These six ships would form the nucleus of a naval service which would be supplemented by acquisition of other, smaller vessels (armed sloops and brigs) and eventually other frigates. This military force was pressed into action when Revolutionary France became dubious of American neutrality during France's war with Great Britain. Armed naval conflict occurred over a period of more than one year during this "Quasi War." American warships captured numerous French warships and privateers (privately-owned ships fitted out with guns and authorized by a government to seize enemy shipping),mostly in the Caribbean. The then-38-gun USS Constellation won distinction by defeating two French frigates, capturing one, in 1799 and 1800 respectively. Shifting attitudes in France about conflict with America, and President Adams' refusal to give in to pressure to declare war with France, de-escalated the threat of a wider conflict. Meanwhile, the American navy was called to action in the first Tripolitan War of 1801 to 1805. The Pacha of Tripoli demanded much more exorbitant tribute payment, which the United States refused to pay, and the Pacha declared war. Eventually the Pacha was forced to scale back his payment demands after squadrons of the new naval service, including frigates Constitution, Constellation and United States bombarded Tripoli harbor, and unleashed a U.S. Marine force against the pirate fortress of Derna. Diplomatic friction built up between the United States and Great Britain during the first decade of the nineteenth century. The main causes were Britain's growing distrust of America's commitment to honor the naval blockade of France, and the disrespect of American sovereignty through the use of impressment. Britain believed the Royal Navy could board any American ship at sea and remove any sailors believed to be British. The most egregious incident occurred in June, 1807 when the H.M.S. Leopard confronted the U.S.S. frigate Chesapeake off Hampton Roads, Virginia and demanded surrender of Royal Navy deserters who were believed to be on board. When the American captain refused, the Leopard blasted into the Chesapeake three times with its cannons; this happened when the two nations were at peace with each other. The Cheaspeake was boarded and four of its crewmen were carried off. Diplomatic relations between the two nations were poisoned from that point. Eventually, the three-year War of 1812 resulted in a naval blockade of American ports that would severely damage the American economy while diverting valuable British military forces from service against Napoleonic France. Both sides would claim important naval victories. The H.M.S. Shannon would batter and capture the hapless USS Chesapeake off the Massachusetts coast. Two of the large American frigates, United States and Constitution, would prove the wisdom of their designer by out-gunning and defeating ships of the formerly invincible Royal Navy in three successive duels at sea. The Constitution's victories against H.M.S. Guerriere and Java would be the stuff of American and British naval legend. Huge embarrassment would be incurred by the British government over these defeats since these naval engagements were widely covered by the press and followed by the public. The public can connect with this glorious history today by visiting the USS Constitution at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. The story of the Constitution's survival for over two centuries is fascinating. Most recently, extensive renovations since 1995 have given the ship the ability to once again sail under its own power. Just as important, the ship is now restored to its exact configuration as it appeared in 1812.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Joe Rodeck

    *Six Frigates* is the story of the building of the US Navy starting from scratch to the controversial War of 1812. Correspondingly, it is the story of how the United States became a first world country. Presidencies covered: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison. This is fairly heavy--politics, economics, shipbuilding--but it uncovers lots of lesser history: Caribbean actions against France, the Barbary Coast War ("To the shores of Tripoli"). The battle scenes are exciting and Toll doesn' *Six Frigates* is the story of the building of the US Navy starting from scratch to the controversial War of 1812. Correspondingly, it is the story of how the United States became a first world country. Presidencies covered: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison. This is fairly heavy--politics, economics, shipbuilding--but it uncovers lots of lesser history: Caribbean actions against France, the Barbary Coast War ("To the shores of Tripoli"). The battle scenes are exciting and Toll doesn't hold back on the graphic violence. The escape of the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) is suspenseful fun. He also gives the big frigates their own personality: the leader, the daredevil, the lumberer . . . . "Don't give up the ship!" It's hard not to feel a rush of patriotism when he gets to the War of 1812. Never has a country been more unprepared to declare war. "America's tiny fleet had shocked and humbled the mightiest navy the world had ever known."

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    The early history of the US navy's frigates, and their successes against the French, the British and especially the Barbary pirates were a staple of history classes when I was in public schools. This is an unabashedly US-centric view of those events. It's a history, though, not a celebration and makes no bones about how mixed the record was in the end. The most interesting parts to me were not the battles (which I generally remembered) but the logistics--the political, financial and engineering The early history of the US navy's frigates, and their successes against the French, the British and especially the Barbary pirates were a staple of history classes when I was in public schools. This is an unabashedly US-centric view of those events. It's a history, though, not a celebration and makes no bones about how mixed the record was in the end. The most interesting parts to me were not the battles (which I generally remembered) but the logistics--the political, financial and engineering challenges facing the US. I had thought the generally solid "super frigates" came into being out of the maritime tradition of the northeast, but in fact the American pots were relatively new to shipbuilding, and brand new to building warships, and the problems showed at times.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Pasfendis

    I give this one 3.75 stars. An engaging early history of the US Navy, great for those who enjoy battles fought by sailing ships in the 18th and 19th centuries (fans of Patrick O’Brian will enjoy references to O’Brian’s accurate portrayal of the battle of the USS Constitution v HMS Java). Over a few hundred lively pages, we see the US Navy evolve from a minuscule laughingstock in the 1790s to the badass fighting force that won more naval battles than it lost against the greatest naval power in th I give this one 3.75 stars. An engaging early history of the US Navy, great for those who enjoy battles fought by sailing ships in the 18th and 19th centuries (fans of Patrick O’Brian will enjoy references to O’Brian’s accurate portrayal of the battle of the USS Constitution v HMS Java). Over a few hundred lively pages, we see the US Navy evolve from a minuscule laughingstock in the 1790s to the badass fighting force that won more naval battles than it lost against the greatest naval power in the world in the War of 1812. After that, there was no stopping us, and the rest is history. A good read.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Marnie

    4.5 stars (I could probably be talked into 5) This book was awesome. It wasn't just a book about 6 ships; it was American history thru that lens. It is exciting and kept me engaged the whole time. Well written and researched. The only deduction (if there is one) is something Toll explains in the beginning. He can't spend the whole book describing nautical terms so he doesn't unless it's really important. So a lot of the time I didn't quite know what he was talking about. I still don't know what a 4.5 stars (I could probably be talked into 5) This book was awesome. It wasn't just a book about 6 ships; it was American history thru that lens. It is exciting and kept me engaged the whole time. Well written and researched. The only deduction (if there is one) is something Toll explains in the beginning. He can't spend the whole book describing nautical terms so he doesn't unless it's really important. So a lot of the time I didn't quite know what he was talking about. I still don't know what a mizzenmast is or where the yardarm is or the exact definition of "in the offing" but I got enough of the idea that it didn't bother me at all. Well worth the time. I may come back later and give it 5 stars.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Chang

    I wholeheartedly recommend this book to someone interested in the subject and for those with only a passing fancy. It more than serves, thanks to Ian W. Toll's expertise being devoted to making sure his readers have a frame of reference to really grok this thing. Because Six Frigates doesn't just chronicle the history of the U.S. navy's first warships, it recounts the political, fiscal, economical, technological, diplomatic, military, and institutional context of that history. From the fiscal fi I wholeheartedly recommend this book to someone interested in the subject and for those with only a passing fancy. It more than serves, thanks to Ian W. Toll's expertise being devoted to making sure his readers have a frame of reference to really grok this thing. Because Six Frigates doesn't just chronicle the history of the U.S. navy's first warships, it recounts the political, fiscal, economical, technological, diplomatic, military, and institutional context of that history. From the fiscal fights over the navy's budget stemming from the ideological differences of the Federalists and Republicans, to the geopolitics behind Britain and France's strategic interests and actions during their wars with the U.S., Ian Toll excels at building a context for these ships that is comprehensive without being tedious (except for the nautical terms; for those not reading the ebook, make sure to have a dictionary at hand). I really enjoyed this book and I hope you will, too.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Wes Robertson

    A fantastic read. I really felt the agony and urgency our newborn country was going through during this time to establish itself as a legitimate trade partner around the world and its need to get itself from under the British shadow.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    Disappointed that I encountered the abridged. Can't wait to read the full version!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    Magnificent.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Miller

    This was an important book for me to read, and the attention with which I did does not do the book justice, but I simply had to get through it after attempting Six Frigates six times. The second half is far more interesting than the first--I love a good naval battle.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Disco Earl

    An awesome book -- and so great to read it right after Hamilton. The battle scenes are intense. Suspenseful and very violent. My favorite battle, however, was when the Constitution stumbled into four British men of war and then spent three windless days evading them and ultimately escaped unharmed. Good, also, to learn more about the War of 1812. Have to visit the Constitution again!

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