Saudi Connection; Better Angels; America Sets Sail

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Good morning, it’s Tuesday, June 18, 2019.  On this day, a U.S. president finally got fed up with depredations at sea by a haughty regional power with more pride than sense. In response, the American commander-in-chief signed a declaration of war. Not Donald Trump and the Iranians, of course. The events I’m describing occurred 207 years ago, when James Madison was president.

Iran (then called Persia) had no real navy at the time and its army was nothing to brag out: The Persians were losing a land war with Russia. The tsar’s armies were also battling Napoleon, as was Great Britain. You’d think that would have been enough to occupy all the king’s men, but no. Our British cousins were also waging a trade war against their former colonies (trade wars being so easy to win) and fomenting Indian raids along the U.S.-Canadian border, all while busily seizing American merchant sailors on the high seas and pressing them into service in the Royal Navy.

President Madison responded by requesting a declaration of war from Congress, which complied. The ensuing conflict would cost Madison his government housing -- the British would torch the White House and other federal buildings -- while bringing back feelings of nostalgia on these shores for George Washington.

Ultimately, though, the War of 1812 also instilled deep American pride in our new nation’s martial capacities and put the United States on a course of internationalism that -- for better or for worse -- set the stage for two centuries’ worth of military interventions. Doing so, many future presidents would find, didn’t usually require a formal declaration of war from Congress.

It did, however, usually require a navy, a topic I’ll return to in a moment. First, I’d steer you to  RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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Single-Payer Health Care Will Increase Fraud, Corruption. Chris Jacobs writes that Democratic presidential candidates should be pressed on how they would guard against losses.

The Heavy Hand of a Public Option. In RealClearPolicy, Joseph Antos argues that the Democratic alternative to Medicare for All would have a similar outcome -- the withering of private health insurance. 

Sex Predator or MeToo Prey? In RealClearInvestigations, Stuart Taylor Jr. examines the case of an ostracized California legislator accused of sexual misconduct who's taking the rare step of suing his celebrated accuser.

Trump Learned Wrong Lessons From Mexico “Win.” In RealClearMarkets, Daniel Savickas asserts that tariffs are not a good negotiating tactic.

Beware Russia’s Hybrid Warfare Strategy. Adam Cabot has this warning in RealClearDefense.

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Generally, Friday, October 13, 1775, is considered the day when the United States Navy was born. Meeting in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress voted to fit out two ocean-going ships, each armed with 10 cannons and manned by a crew of 80 sailors. Their mission was to interdict British ships transporting men and munitions to resupply British garrisons as the Revolutionary War was joined.

In a way, however, the U.S. Navy traces its permanence in the American imagination to the declaration of war issued 207 years ago today. Just as the attack on Pearl Harbor would galvanize America’s factories into a frenzy of tank and warplane construction, the June 18, 1812 declaration sparked a spate of domestic shipbuilding. Things moved more slowly in the 19th century, however, and most of those ships of war were not completed in time to see action in the War of 1812.

The superiority of the Royal Navy during most of that war gave the British easy access to American ports, and it was a relatively small landing force of redcoats that burned Washington, D.C., in 1814. (As seething American civilians watched helplessly while the invaders torched the White House, one colonist shouted to British Adm. George Cockburn, “If George Washington had been alive, you would not have gotten into this city so easily!”

“No, sir,” the British commanding officer conceded readily. “If General Washington had been president, we should never have thought of coming here.”)

But it was the burning of another federal facility in the capital -- the Navy Yard -- that symbolized the larger problem. Although American sailors and sea captains acquitted themselves well with victories on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, it was a defeat on Lake Ontario that so discouraged Secretary of the Navy William Jones.

His fears proved premature. Despite their victory at Ontario, the British had lost their appetite for war in the New World, and even before being routed at the Battle of New Orleans, England had agreed to a peace treaty.

Although technological changes in shipbuilding would render most of the vessels of war constructed at that time obsolete, a perception had taken hold in the American consciousness. To maintain its place in the world, a sprawling and wealthy nation surrounded by two vast oceans needed a strong navy. It was a lesson that would have to be learned and relearned. Some had known it from the start.

“And without a respectable navy,” John Paul Jones opined in 1776, “alas America!”

Five years later, George Washington himself, in a letter to Marquis de Lafayette, put it this way: “It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.”

These words would be echoed by future presidents. “A powerful Navy we have always regarded as our proper and natural means of defense,” Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in a 1914 speech to a joint session of Congress. “Our ships are our natural bulwarks.”

John F. Kennedy made the same point aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in June of 1963, in reference to the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis the preceding October.

In a mid-summer speech that same year at the U.S. Naval Academy, President Kennedy added the following sentiment: “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think, can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’” 

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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