Navy Clause

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Navy Clause

Article I, Section 8, Clause 13

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

In 1641, an act of Parliament firmly over-ruled King Charles’s assertion that he had a right under royal prerogative to appropriate funds to develop a navy. The Framers of the Constitution followed Parliament’s example and lodged the power to provide a navy in the legislative branch. But 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. As Robert Delahunty has noted, the Framers were extremely well informed, not only about the politics and constitutions of the ancient world, but also about those of modern European history. Thus, they were well aware that the Venetian navy underpinned that city’s republican institutions, much as the Athenian navy had protected rather than threatened the city’s democracy; that the same was true of the navies of republican Holland; and that Britain, though in form a monarchy, was in truth a commercial republic whose liberty and prosperity depended on its fleet. It would not be going too far to say that the Founders came close to the insight of later students of history that the United States, like Britain, Holland, Venice, and Athens before it, is geopolitically an island, and that its insulation from land warfare which this afforded was an important factor in the emergence and survival of its liberal institutions.

The Framers were also aware of how much the economic prosperity and even the survival of the country depended upon seagoing trade. Consequently, the Framers imposed no time limit on naval appropriations as they did in the case of the army.

John Adams deserves credit as the great patron of the United States Navy. In October 1775 in the Second Continental Congress, Adams successfully overcame opposition and convinced Congress to begin outfitting ships to defend American interests in the war with Britain. In the 1780s, 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.

During the contest over the Constitution, 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. 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 maintained in The Federalist No. 11 that without a navy, “[a] nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.” 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. In 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 under John Adams’s brilliant Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, permitted the United States to hold its own in the Quasi-War with France (1798–1800) and the War of 1812 with the British.

Though Adams and Hamilton disagreed vehemently on the need to raise an army during the Quasi-War with France, they were fully in accord on the value of a strong navy. Adams had long argued that the army was less necessary than the navy, for he believed that the United States was best protected by the “wooden walls” of a well-funded navy. Thomas Jefferson believed differently, however, and under his administration the navy floundered and remained largely unfunded. It was because of the War of 1812 and the extraordinary feats of older American frigates like the U.S.S. Constitution that the country came around, beginning with the administration of James Monroe, to an unbroken consensus that a strong navy was essential to preserving American liberty.

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 not altered much. 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 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, Adams, Benjamin Stoddert, 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.

Mackubin Owens

Professor of National Security Affairs, United States Naval War College

George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power (1994)

Demetrios Caraley, The Politics of Military Unification: A Study of Conflict and the Policy Process (1966)

Robert J. Delahunty, Structuralism and the War Powers: The Army, Navy, and Militia Clauses, 19 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 1021 (2003)


MARSHALL SMELSER, THE CONGRESS FOUNDS THE NAVY, 1787–1798 (1959, reprint 1973)