Navy Clause

The Congress shall have Power To ...provide and maintain a Navy....

Article I, Section 8, Clause 13

Because the Founding generation considered navies to be less dangerous to republican liberty than standing armies, the Navy Clause did not elicit the same level of debate as did the Army Clause (see Article I, Section 8, Clause 12). Their experience taught them that armies, not navies, were the preferred tools of tyrants. Readers of Thucydides could view a navy as particularly compatible with democratic institutions. They were also aware of how much the economic prosperity and even the survival of the country depended upon sea-going trade. Consequently, the Framers of the Constitution imposed no time limit on naval appropriations as they did in the case of the army.

Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists believed that maritime trade was necessary if the United States was to maintain its independence of action, but they disagreed over how to protect this trade. After the Revolution, the United States possessed one of the principal merchant fleets in the world, but it was largely defenseless. In June 1785 Congress voted to sell the one remaining ship of the Continental Navy, a frigate, leaving the fledgling nation with only a fleet of small Treasury Department revenue cutters for defense.

Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton argued for a federal navy, which "if it could not vie with those of the great maritime powers, would at least be of respectable weight if thrown into the scale of either of two contending parties." Hamilton argued that without a navy, "a nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral." The Federalist No. 11.

Anti-Federalists argued that instead of defending American commerce and guaranteeing American neutrality, creating a navy would provoke the European powers and invite war. They were also concerned about the expense of maintaining a navy and the distribution of that expense. During the Virginia ratifying convention, William Grayson argued that, despite the fact that a navy would not appreciably reduce the vulnerability of southern ports, the South would bear the main burden of naval appropriations.

The wisdom of granting Congress the power to provide and maintain a navy became evident during the two decades after the framing and ratification of the Constitution. As Europe once again erupted in war, American merchantmen increasingly found themselves at the mercy of British and French warships and the corsairs of the Barbary States. Only the rapid creation of a navy permitted the United States to hold its own in the Quasi War with France (1798–1800) and the War of 1812 with the British.

The Navy Clause has changed little, if at all, in practice. Neither have the arguments for and against naval power. Indeed, many of the major debates over foreign policy that have taken place since the middle of the nineteenth century were adumbrated by those between Federalists and Anti-Federalists during the framing of the Constitution.

Similarly, despite vast technological changes, the character of the Navy as a service, in contrast to the Army, has also changed very little. While the "citizen soldier" envisioned by the Founders has virtually disappeared from the Army of today, today's sailor, both officer and enlisted, has much in common with his predecessor who manned the Navy of the Constitution, technical expertise of course excepted. Although service reforms beginning in the latter decades of the nineteenth century created a powerful Navy, the foundation of this Navy was laid by the likes of Hamilton, Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy, and other Federalists who recognized the shortcomings of a navy limited to coastal defense alone.

The main changes affecting the Navy, if not the Navy Clause, have to do with defense organization, primarily the National Security Act of 1947 (and subsequent modifications). These include downgrading the Department of the Navy from a Cabinet department and the creation of the Air Force as a separate branch of the armed forces.

Profile photo of Mackubin Owens
Mackubin Owens
Professor of National Security Affairs
Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute
National Security Affairs (NSA) Department
United States Naval War College