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January 21 1812: Speech of Richard Johnson*


On January 21, 1812, Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky also rose in the House of Representatives against the establishment of a navy. Johnson, usually a War Hawk, was vehemently opposed to the bill introduced by Langdon Cheves to establish a navy. His speech can be found below.
Johnson was later elected as Vice President (1837-1841) under President Martin Van Buren. As an aside, Time Magazine named him as one of the worst Vice Presidents ever. He came in fourth only being outdone by Aaron Burr, John Calhoun and Gerry Elbridge. I do not have a problem with Burr and Calhoun being at the top of this list, but it seems a tad harsh to add Gerry Elbridge primarily because he had the misfortunate to die in office, serving only twenty months under Madison, after he suffered a hemorrhage of the lungs while riding in a carriage. (See my earlier post on Elbridge here.)
Time's entry for Johnson reads as follows:
Johnson captured the nation's attention after he killed Shawnee chief Tecumseh during the Battle of Thames in 1813 (he later campaigned for vice president on this achievement with the campaign slogan "Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson Killed Tecumseh"). The country's adoration did not last. Later dubbed "the most vulgar man of all vulgar men" by a Senate aide, Johnson scandalized his colleagues by taking one of his slaves as his common-law wife; as a result, he barely garnered enough support to serve in Martin van Buren's administration. While in office, he proposed an expedition to the North Pole so Americans could drill to the center of the Earth, believing the planet was hollow (his resolution was defeated). Evidently van Buren's experience with Johnson soured him on vice presidents altogether — when he ran for re-election he dropped Johnson from his ticket and didn't bother replacing him.
In 1812, Johnson gave the following speech:
I will not vote one cent for a system of naval force which is destined to keep foreign nations in check in distant seas, and destined to entail upon this happy Government perpetual taxes and a perpetually increasing national debt. The people will not support such a naval establishment--they have the corrective in their hands; and build this fleet of twenty seventy-fours and forty frigates, and the people will in their turn put them down. But, sir, we are told that we are a commercial people, and that you cannot restrain a spirit of enterprise in our citizens which is limited only by the polar snows to the north and the icy mountains to the south. No person has attempted to damp that gallant spirit, that mercantile enterprise --such adventurous voyages have been fostered and cherished by every means in the power of the Government. But, sir, has this unparalleled enterprise, this gallant spirit, been carried on by a navy? Such a thing has never been thought of, which proves that this question of a navy has no connection with this commercial enterprise; and the existence of one without the other is positive proof of the fact. I am not prepared to give up our rights, whether upon the ocean or upon land, whether commercial or personal; but I may differ in the means of avenging these wrongs, and vindicating those rights, and I shall ever differ from those who wish a navy to ride triumphant in distant seas, and, under a pretext of protection to commerce, doom the nation to galling burdens too intolerable to be borne. But we are told, sir, that this question partakes of the character of a self-evident proposition. Indeed, sir, and in what respect is it entitled to this definition of self-evident? Unless, indeed, from every consideration of history, experience, and reason, it is evident that a navy is an engine of power and ambition, calculated to embroil a nation in quarrels and wars, and to fix permanent wretchedness upon the industrious class of the people. When we look to the delegation from each State we find a difference in sentiment upon this subject, whether lying on the seaboard or distant from it.
I defy history for an example of a single great naval power which confined its naval strength to the legitimate object of protecting commerce in distant seas. I will refer to Tyre and Sidon, Crete and Rhodes, to Athens and to Carthage. No sooner had these nations ceased to confine their naval strength to their maritime defense at home, to the protection of their-seacoast, than they were engaged in plunder, piracy, depredations upon other nations, or involved in wars which certainly accelerated, if it did not produce, the downfall and destruction of those governments. Peace and tranquillity are not the natural state of great naval power. A disregard of public law, sacred treaties, and bloodshed, would suit it better; it has been and ever will be the consequence of such force. These nations furnish another example and instructive lesson to the present generation--that, while their commerce and navy furnished a small part of the people with the luxuries of every country at that time known, the great mass of citizens at home were miserable and oppressed, their rights neglected, their burdens increased, and their happiness destroyed, while their fleets and external grandeur carried astonishment and terror to distant nations. When a nation puts forth her strength upon the ocean, the interior of the country will be neglected and oppressed with contributions. Ancient history does not furnish a solitary instance of any permanent good or long continuance of peace arising from a great naval supremacy; such overgrown power, such unnatural strength, must feed upon plunder at home and abroad.
Admit that Great Britain, with her thousand vessels, could protect her lawful commerce, let me ask wehterer a navy has ever been confined to that object; whether it is confined to that object at this time; whether her navy has not fattened upon the spoils of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, and the commerce of neutral nations, making war equally upon friends and enemies. Her navy, triumphant in every sea, is employed in a system of plunder against the world, and, notwithstanding this supremacy, we see her citizens groaning under a national debt of eight hundred millions of pounds sterling, more than all the nations of the universe could pay. We see her upon the precipice of bankruptcy--we see her people, her numerous subjects, loaded with taxes that would astonish any man who did not know the fact--notwithstanding this, the public debt is daily increasing, and it is now acknowledged by all the world that she is fighting for her existence--victorious at sea and safe at home from invasion, and still her very existence is at stake. Sir, I never wish to see the liberties of my country afloat upon the ocean and staked upon the strength of a navy. Look at France, separated from her enemy by a narrow channel, without vessels to meet the fleets of England on the water, and still she is unable to burn the seaport towns of France or invade the French territories, or in any way to make an impression upon her. Populous and powerful upon land, nothing but the imperial despotism that exists throughout that vast empire prevents the country from being the most enviable residence upon the globe, except our own favored land. Let not the Congress of the United States therefore stake their existence upon navies, let us not withdraw the protecting hand of government from the soil; let us not increase the burdens of the people, and weigh them down with a public debt to support external grandeur. 

Do not by this system destroy the affections and attachments of the solid and honest part of the community who support the government of the country.

But, I am asked, how will you contend with a maritime nation without a navy? Sir, that question is as easily answered as the first. I will ask how we succeeded in the Revolutionary War? We were without any security upon our seacoast and still we succeeded. But, to be more specific, I would grant letters of marque and reprisal, and authorize privateering. Give scope to individual enterprise to destroy the commerce of the enemy--which can be done effectually. I would fortify our seaport towns; station our gunboats and frigates along our coast to protect us at home. And, in this way, I would in war avenge the infractions of our neutral rights.
*(Earlier version of this post and tweets referred in error o the speech being given on January 18, 1812.)



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