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Jan 18 1812 Speech of Adam Seybert

On January 18, 1812, Adam Seybert of Pennyslvania spoke in the House of Representatives against the establishment of a navy. Seybert gave the following speech:
The gentleman from South Carolina [Landon Cheves] has told us that when the war which we are about to wage shall be over our army will leave us. Sir, I am happy to hear that on such an event the military will be readily disbanded--a dread of the contrary gave much uneasiness to many a few days since--this is just what we wish should take place. On the other hand, said he, "your proud navy" will remain. It is for this, with many other reasons, that I am opposed to a navy. I wish he could have proved to us that with the end of the war the navy would also leave us; perhaps I should then agree with him in favor of its establishment: though the "proud navy" will remain with us, he has neglected to tell us at what rate of expense.

I will ask him, if it is to remain with us in times of peace with its numerous train of officers, may it not become a powerful engine in the hands of an ambitious Executive?

Sir, I deem it inexpedient to commence a permanent naval establishment at this time. We are quite unprepared for it-- we are in want of all the necessary materials; though we have been told that our forests abound in all the necessary timber, it was said little of this material was to be found in our dockyards. The gentleman from South Carolina has told us that a sufficiency of seasoned timber to build four seventy-fours was now on hand, and that the proper authority deemed it advisable to be used for frigates. Sir, this timber is a portion of that which was purchased some years since for the purpose of building six seventy-fours. It now appears that of this timber as much as was sufficient for two of these vessels has been employed to build smaller vessels, or gunboats, I presume. This is all of a piece with our pretended economy. This mode of proceeding will not answer, sir. We are in the wrong from the commencement of our navy. I do not wish it to be understood that I have decided a navy will never be a proper mode of defense for this nation--but whenever it shall be determined on we should begin right; this can only be done by following those nations who have had most experience on the subject. Our first step should be to store away the proper timber. This should be done in times when we can best afford it--in times when our market is glutted--in times when labor can be commanded at fair prices-- at a period when we enjoy peace, and surely not when we are about to engage in a war. We have heretofore paid the highest price for every article; we have given double wages for labor; and instances might be mentioned when the workmen were transported in stage coaches, at an enormous expense, from our large seaport towns to the navy yard of this city. Contracts for timber were made in haste and at a very advanced price As soon as it was obtained it was put together, and in a few months we saw it floating in the form of a ship of war--rotten ships, I may say, sir, for I believe, without exception, in the frigates which were built by the United States the more important parts decayed and were rotten in two, three, or four years. In many instances the expense for repairs was equal to the original cost. A single frigate, the Constitution, has cost for repairs, from October, 1802, to March, 1809, the enormous sum of $302,582.21, or upward of $43,000 per annum for seven years in succession.

Let us view this subject in a more extended sense--I mean as regards our commerce generally--we shall still have cause to entertain the opinion which we first adopted. We cannot protect our commerce on the ocean. Our ships have vexed every sea--we trade to all parts of the world; of course, to protect our commerce our ships of war must abandon our coasts and encounter all the force of the enemy or those of Europe. The ports we have in view are European. If your frigates, for convenience and safety, are to cruise only on your coasts, what will be the fate of the millions which are embarked beyond the (tape of Good Hope? By this management surely you cannot afford it protection. France, Spain, and Holland, when combined and backed by an armed neutrality in the north of Europe, could not secure their commerce. The fleets of Great Britain now sail triumphant over every wave of the deep. The Russians have a navy far superior to that which it is proposed we shall establish, and they cannot protect their trade in the confined limits of the Baltic. They count fifty or sixty sail-of-the-line, besides many frigates and smaller vessels.

Sir, the expenses which are incurred by a naval establishment far exceed the profits which arise from the commerce which it is intended to protect. This proposition is warranted by the experience of Great Britain, the most commercial nation of modern times. In the year 1798 the expenditure for her navy amounted to £13,654,013. In the year 1799 Mr. Pitt computed the profits on the commerce of Great Britain at £12,000,000, or one and a half millions less than the expenses for her navy the preceding year!

Sir, I further object to a navy because it will be the means of exciting many wars, which, without the establishment, may be honorably avoided. It is said nations are involved in war in proportion to the extent of their navies; and some assert (Lord Brougham) that a perpetual war is one of the two modes which are necessary to support a powerful naval establishment. Sir, a naval establishment will create a new and a dangerous interest in our country. Nothing is more common than to be told that such are the wishes of the naval interest of Great Britain, and that this or that war must be entered into to gratify them. For my part, sir, I shall be very sorry indeed if ever the period arrives in the United States when any particular interest or community shall direct the Government, whether it be naval, agricultural, manufacturing, or commercial. The general welfare should be the sole great ruling principle in the national councils.

Sir, I am deterred when I consider the fate of all those nations who at different periods have been famous for their navies The naval strength of the Hanseatic League was such, two centuries past, as to excite terror on the part of England. These, sir, distant free cities, are now the appendages of mighty Prance, and have no political existence. Who has not heard of the once formidable fleets of Venice and Genoa? lit one time England was indebted to the latter for officers to command her ships of war--alas; these republics are now consigned to oblivion. Denmark was at one time the mistress of the ocean; by means of her fleets she often invaded England, and held her in a state of subjection. The Danes heretofore burned London, Paris, and other great cities--they are now controlled by France, and they have had their Copenhagen defeat. Holland, with her Van Tromps and De Ruyters, occupied the British Channel at pleasure; this power defeated the navies of England and France. Where is Holland now? Incorporated as a part of the French empire. Spain boasted her invincible armadas; Elizabeth of England, by nature haughty, proud, and ambitious, trembled at the very mention of them, until they were dispersed and destroyed by storms at sea; Spain is now the vassal of France. Not very long since the navy of France sailed triumphant along the British coast, looked into Portsmouth harbor, and taunted British spirit. I ask you, sir, where is the strength of which these nations formerly boasted? All are inoperative, and dread the gigantic power of the British navy--they are in part sick in dry docks, or are blockaded in their ports.

Mr. Chairman, Great Britain, though at this time triumphant in every sea, if she persists in her expensive naval establishment, with her present debt of £800,000,000, which was chiefly created for her navy--Great Britain, sir, I say, with all this, must sink under the heavy pressure. She will hereafter derive very little satisfaction from her brilliant victories on the 1st of June off Cape St. Vincent, Camperdown, Aboukir, and Trafalgar.

Shall I be pardoned, sir, when I fear our vessels will only tend to swell the present catalog of the British navy? Of the 1,042 vessels which she possessed in July, 1811, one hundred and nine were captured from the French, forty-six from the Danes, twenty-five from the Spaniards, twenty-four from the Dutch, and three from the Italians; making a total of two hundred and seven captured ships, or one-fifth of her whole navy.
Small ships are proper for the service of the United States-- by their agency we shall be able to annoy the convoys of an enemy. The privateers which were fitted out in every port during our revolutionary war destroyed much of the British commerce, even in the British and Irish Channels, while the frigates which were built by the Government did little or nothing--but two of them remained at the conclusion of the contest. The enemy will not watch your small vessels; they may enter all your small inlets, where heavy vessels cannot venture to approach them; and, at the conclusion of the war, they may be sold for the merchant service.

I shall vote against the bill, though it is my present intention to appropriate the sums requisite for the repairing and equipping our present ships of war. I will go no further. I tell you, sir, naval victories in the end would prove fatal to the United States; the consequences which have uniformly followed in other countries must take place here. If the United States shall determine to augment their navy, so as to rival those of Europe, the public debt will become permanent; direct taxes will be perpetual; the paupers of the country will be increased; the nation will be bankrupt; and, I fear, the tragedy will end in a revolution.

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