On Wide Seas: The US Navy in the Jacksonian Era
By Claude Berube
While much has been said about the presidency and times of Andrew Jackson, Claude Berube finds a serious gap regarding the question of the Navy and naval policy under a man who rose to note on the shoulders of his militia service in the War of 1812. He contends that the eight-year period under Jackson saw the beginnings of what would become the modern United States Navy. In particular, with the creation of the Naval Academy, he argues that an increasingly professionalized officer pool emerged. This pool brought ideas and innovativeness, which would serve them well in two wars (the Mexican-American and American Civil Wars) and produce thinkers like Alfred Thayer Mahan. This professionalization was crucial for several reasons, the most important being that the Age of Sail was rapidly transitioning into the Age of Steam. While many still held a deep traditional affection for the stately ships of the line, the increasing reliability of steam made its rise to primacy inevitable. With this new technology came a need for well-trained and knowledgeable commanders, and while not touched on by Berube, an equal need for skilled enlisted engineers. To Berube, Jackson was a man who was not generally overly fond of the Navy, almost certainly in part because of the lack of significant direct control that he could exert on far-flung commanders. Yet, he recognized the significance of waterborne trade in promoting the nation's well-being and the need for a strong navy to protect and promote it. Thus, he worked to strengthen the national navy, albeit without increasing the debt.
Berube has made rich use of many sources, the two most significant of which are the records of the Congressional and Senate Naval Committees and the court-martial records of the period. This allows him to show how there was ongoing serious debate around the Navy and how to supply and expand it- some of which never made it into the broader Congressional chambers- but also demonstrates how the Navy was moving towards being a more formalized and standardized service. In particular, by increasingly standardizing punishments for various infractions, the Navy was, in a sense coming into maturity as a modern professional military service where all persons could have a generally shared experience regarding how things were supposed to work.
In stepping away from the overt land focus of typical Age of Jackson research, Berube has ensured that his contribution to the field will not soon be overshadowed. Future historians will almost certainly refer to the paths of inquiry that it has opened up. Further, by placing the origins of the professionalized Navy in this period, he also brings the navy into the broader military history discussion, which often overlooks the contributions and importance of maritime events, particularly in the Early Republic. Long known for his land-based military accomplishments, Jackson now might be seen as possessing some Live Oak in his grove of Hickory.
- Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 2021
- 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xiii + 234 pages
- Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $54.95
- ISBN: 9780817321079
Reviewed by: Michael Toth, Texas Christian University