Military Book Reviews

Commanding Petty Despots: The American Navy in the New Republic

Commanding Petty Despots: The American Navy in the New Republic, by Thomas Sheppard (Naval Institute Press, 2022, 240p)

Commanding Petty Despots: The American Navy in the New Republic tells the story of the creation of the American Navy. Rather than focus on the well-known frigate duels and fleet engagements, Thomas Sheppard emphasizes the overlooked story of the institutional formation of the Navy. Sheppard looks at civilian control of the military, and how this concept evolved in the early American republic. For naval officers obsessed with honor and reputation, being willing to put themselves in harm’s way was never a problem, but they were far less enthusiastic about taking orders from a civilian Secretary of the Navy. Accustomed to giving orders and receiving absolute obedience at sea, captains were quick to engage in blatantly insubordinate behavior towards their superiors in Washington. The civilian government did not always discourage such thinking. The new American nation needed leaders who were zealous for their honor and quick to engage in heroic acts on behalf of their nation. The most troublesome officers could also be the most effective during the Revolution and the Quasi and Barbary Wars. First Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert tolerated insubordination from “spirited” officers who secured respect for the American republic from European powers. However, by the end of the War of 1812, the culture of the Navy’s officer corps had grown considerably when it came to civil-military strains. A new generation of naval officers, far more attuned to duty and subordination, had risen to prominence, and Stoddert’s successors increasingly demanded recognition of civilian supremacy from the officer corps. Although the creation of the Board of Navy Commissioners in 1815 gave the officer corps a greater role in managing the Navy, by that time the authority of the Secretary of the Navy–as an extension of the president–was firmly entrenched.


Overview

Commanding Petty Despots: The American Navy in the New Republic is a superbly researched volume by Dr. Thomas Sheppard, assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Marine Corps University Command and Staff College. Dr. Sheppard examines the early days of the American navy, focusing on the complex relationship between the first naval captains and the civilian leadership of the new republic.

The term “petty despot” reflects naval captains as rulers of their own small domain onboard their ships. Once a ship has sailed from its home port, the captain is without supervision or additional orders for months or years at a time. A captain ruled like a dictator running a small country which follows the British model of shipboard leadership. This model did not align well with the military values established for the young United States as written in the Constitution. 

Naval captains were glory seekers, primarily focused on their honor and reputation. Their duty to the country was an important consideration, but not at the expense of their relative seniority to other captains. They also believed they could reject any orders that did not provide them with sufficient opportunity to attain more honor, glory, and the chance to capture enemy ships as prizes.

Secretary of the War Department, and later the Secretary of the Navy, provided the earliest civilian leadership of the navy. U.S. presidents appointed secretaries who had maritime experience, but who also were effective administrators. Most naval captains had no desire to subordinate themselves to these secretaries. As a result, there was infighting between the captains and the secretaries who led the early navy.

The captains displayed courage, daring, and a willingness to go into harm’s way. The navy needed these qualities to be successful, but they also made the captains reluctant to accept civilian leadership. Early Secretaries of the Navy often allowed some disobedience to soothe the egos of these spirited men who were needed on the high seas.

The tide turned among the officer corps after the War of 1812 with the establishment of a board of Naval Commissioners. This board included three senior captains as members who believed they were equal to the Secretary. Congress clarified the Secretary was in charge. The captains reluctantly agreed, and the culture among the navy’s senior members started accepting civilian leadership at its helm.  

Presidents started appointing Secretaries of the Navy who had no maritime experience but were efficient administrators, which set a pattern. They showed the captains they valued their naval experience and knowledge of the sea, which contributed to running the service effectively. This pattern developed over time, becoming more efficient and practical.

Takeaway

Dr. Sheppard’s book is an excellent resource for students of naval history and leaders within the service who are interested in how the civil-military relationship began in the early days of our nation. The foundation established by those first civilian secretaries and the captains that served under them continues to this day. The U.S. Navy has a rich heritage of maritime tradition and is well-founded, with the ideal of civilian leadership at the helm of the military branches.


Matt Long is a contributing reviewer to DODReads.  He is an active-duty Naval officer and real estate investor.  An advocate for life-long learning, in his free time he can be found reading or hiking.  Matt can be reached through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/longmatthewm/.

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