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Commentary On The United States of Europe

The Naval War of 1812: TR’s Forgotten Masterpiece

His analysis of the Navy’s shortcomings bore fruit nearly a century later.

Depiction of clash between HMS Endymion (left) and USS President during the War of 1812, by Thomas Buttersworth, c. 1815 (Wikimedia)

It has been 99 years since Theodore Roosevelt’s death, yet he still captures Americans’ imaginations as much as any public figure from that era. What is often lost in our memory of Roosevelt is that he was not only a cowboy, a soldier, and a statesman, but also an acclaimed historian. Indeed, his historical scholarship (some of which remains the standard work in its field) is central to his legacy as a statesman.

Roosevelt was only 23 in 1882, when he published his first work of history, The Naval War of 1812. Although the book was well received in its time (every ship in the Navy was required to keep at least one copy on board), it is far more valuable today as a manifesto for American naval power and a clarion call for the modernization of what Roosevelt saw as a woefully ill-equipped fleet.

Roosevelt credits the young United States Navy with achieving several important victories against the British at sea, but this happened despite and not because of the actions of the American politicians who set military policy in the years before the war. During the Quasi-War fought between the United States and France in the late 1790s, President John Adams had ordered the construction of six frigates and created the Department of the Navy to oversee their construction. However, under the succeeding administrations of Jefferson and Madison, those ships fell into disrepair, and naval construction lost the importance it had once had in Washington. One can read the particular indignation Roosevelt has for Jefferson and Madison in the opening chapters of The Naval War of 1812, as he castigates their strategy for prioritizing small gunboats designed for coastal defense over larger frigates, and how this left the United States vulnerable to the much larger and more dangerous Royal Navy. While Roosevelt admires the quality of America’s sailors a great deal, he repeats vigorously that they were dealt a bad hand by inattentive politicians.   MORE