New Classics- Book Review

Toll, Ian, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, Norton Publishing, New York, 2007- ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5


Ian Toll has written that rare book… that provides a fresh look at a little studied historical period, while remaining true to research pioneers in the field.  Other studies, like Teddy Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, have examined the history of the fledgling US Navy, but Toll’s work fills the obvious gaps in historiography.  Writers such as Roosevelt, Christopher McKee, Henry Adams, and even CS Forester have all studied the characters, battles, and politics of the Age of Sail, Toll’s book serves as an authoritative compendium to the previous histories.


“Joshua Humphreys proposed, in short, to build exceptionally large, heavily armed, fast-sailing frigates…”     Toll is at his best when describing the intrigue surrounding the formation and construction of our first fleet.  The same radicalism that had separated us from European monarchy and aristocracy was driving our chief shipwright to challenge ship building norms.  America’s first warships were going to be exceptional- Humphreys is Toll’s unlikely hero.    Just as America  was designed to be unconventional, so would our Navy.  Politics proved ruinous from the start, and Toll does the research required to show how second-guessing and patronage nearly ruined Humphreys’ exceptional fleet.  On far too many occasions, the young US government allowed partisanship to risk our national security interests-  Toll’s analysis fits into debate over current events as well.


Toll’s ability to focus his writing… on the original six frigates shows commendable restraint and prevents this study from deteriorating into muddled mass of dates, places, and names.  Utilizing prior studies, Toll’s historical recounting of the Golden Age of Sail is both gripping and realistic.  The narrative effortlessly guides the reader from the Quasi-War in the Caribbean to the Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean.  Stephen Decatur and John Rodgers figure prominently in Toll’s story, but so do oft overlooked figures like Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, and Jesse Eliot.  The founding of the American Navy was a difficult and sometimes bloody affair- Toll astutely points out how dueling nearly brought the officer corps of the Navy to it’s knees by the mid-19th century.  And this is the essence of Ian Toll’s study– more than just battles and larger than life heroes– founding the US Navy was about blood, sweat, and good strong oak.

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