17th Congress.] 

No. 207. 

[1st Session.



Mr. McLane, from the Committee on Naval Affairs, who were instructed, on the 3d of January and 5th of February last, to inquire into the expediency of building an additional number of small vessels of war, and of adopting other and more efficient measures for the protection of the commerce of the United States in the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico, made the following report, in part:

That they have made the investigation which the importance of the subject demands, and have kept in view the general object of protecting the persons and property of the. citizens of the United States, and of guarding the laws of the United States from violation, upon terms the least embarrassing to the public finances.

The extent, however, to which the system of plunder upon the ocean is carried on in the West India seas and Gulf of Mexico is truly alarming, and calls imperiously for the prompt and efficient interposition of the General Government. Some fresh instance of the atrocity with which the pirates infesting those seas carry on their depredations, accompanied, too, by the indiscriminate massacre of the defenceless and unoffending, is brought by almost every mail, so that the intercourse between the northern and southern sections of the Union by sea is almost cut off.

The committee are induced to believe that this system of piracy is now spreading itself to a vast extent, attracting to it the idle, vicious, and desperate of all nations, and more particularly those who have heretofore been engaged in the slave trade, from which the, vigilance of the American cruisers has driven them; and that, if they are not winked at by the authorities in the island of Cuba, they are in no respect restrained by their interference.

The committee are also of opinion that, extended as the American coast has now become, the danger of smuggling has considerably increased, and that both these considerations recommend the employment of an ample naval force, which, by scouring those seas, shall have the effect of driving the present freebooters from the ocean; and of preventing others from resorting to similar practices. Depredations of this description can be effectually broken up only by keeping up such a force as will render the hazard of engaging in them greater than the emolument to be derived from success.

Under this view of the subject, the committee have inquired into the situation of the vessels now belonging to the navy of the United States, to ascertain what portion of them may be advantageously employed for the purposes embraced in the above resolutions.

That of those actually employed they find that the ship Franklin of seventy-four guns is in the Pacific ocean for the protection of our commerce and whale trade in that quarter; and that the Constellation frigate of thirty-six guns is in the same ocean, but ordered to return to the United States upon the arrival of the Franklin; that the schooner Dolphin of twelve guns accompanies the Franklin as absolutely necessary upon so long a cruise.

That the frigate Constitution of forty-four guns, sloop of war Ontario of eighteen guns, and schooner Nonesuch of ten guns, are cruising in the Mediterranean to keep the Barbary Powers in awe and protect our commerce in that sea; and it is believed that a less force would be inadequate for these objects. 

That the sloop of war Hornet of eighteen guns, the brigs Enterprise and Spark of twelve guns each, and the schooners Porpoise, Grampus, Shark, and Alligator , of twelve guns each, are already cruising in the West India seas and Gulf of Mexico for the protection of trade, the suppression of piracy, and traffic in slaves; and that two gunboats, Nos. 158 and 168 , are also cruising along the coasts of Georgia and Florida for the same purposes.

That the frigate Macedonian is now equipping at Boston, and will soon sail on a cruise for the same object; and that it will be necessary to keep at least one vessel of war, either a corvette or schooner, on the coast of Africa, as the roost efficient means for the suppression of the slave trade.

The committee are of opinion that no part of the foregoing enumerated force could be withdrawn from the service in which it is employed without detriment to the public interest, and that the force now in the West India seas and Gulf of Mexico is inadequate for the objects specified in the resolutions above referred to.

That the rest of the force belonging to the navy, consisting of the Java of forty-four guns, and now unworthy of repairs, the Erie of eighteen guns, the Peacock of eighteen guns, Congress of thirty-six guns, Guerriere of forty-four guns, John Adams of twenty-four guns, United States of forty-four guns, and Cyane of twenty-four guns, are in ordinary at the different navy yards at Boston, New York, Washington, and Norfolk.

But the committee do not hesitate to pronounce sloops of war to be better adapted to the purposes contemplated by the resolutions than frigates or smaller vessels. They are superior to frigates, because, being in relation to the service equally efficient, and costing no more than half the sum, they will enable us to multiply the chances of success, by increasing the number of vessels, and doubling the efficiency for the same expense. They are superior to smaller vessels, because they are decidedly of a greater force than any of the piratical cruisers, or even the vessels employed in the slave trade, many of which are now, or soon would be, more than a match for schooners. The number of men on board sloops of war would also give these vessels the advantage, by enabling them to man their prizes more securely; to man and send their boats in force into waters too shallow for schooners, where the pirates seek shelter; and for many other objects necessarily incident to such a service. Nor do the committee suppose that the consideration of promoting and preserving a proper discipline among the officers of the navy is altogether to be overlooked in deciding upon the species of force to be employed in a particular service.

The committee are of opinion, therefore, that, to afford immediate and effectual protection to our commerce in the West India seas and the Gulf of Mexico, the most expeditious and advisable course, in the first instance, would be to fit out the corvettes Cyane and John Adams, and the sloops of war Peacock and Erie, which can be accomplished within a short time, and with little expense; that the Erie can be fitted for the sea in the course of five months, the Peacock within two months, the John Adams within six weeks, and the Cyane within five weeks; and that the Constellation frigate, should it be thought necessary, may be directed, on her return from the Pacific, to cruise in the West India seas, though if is believed it would be more expensive than to build additional sloops of war for that purpose.

The four first named vessels are now undergoing repairs, and the amount necessary for this purpose is already embraced in the estimate for the present year; so that, if they should now be directed to be put in service, it will be necessary to increase the estimates for the service of the current year not more than one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. And the committee are authorized to state that this appropriation will not materially vary the state of the Treasury, as disclosed by the Secretary's report, because, since the date of that report, there has been transferred to the surplus fund an amount of unexpended balances of appropriations for the naval service sufficient to meet the increased expenditure. But the committee" cannot suppose that, where the safety of the commerce and citizens of the United States calls imperiously for the exertion of the national force, so small an expenditure can be a matter of any moment. If the protection be necessary, it must be yielded; and the only consideration connected with the cost should be, that the money necessary to make it effectual should not be wastefully expended.

The committee further report that, in their opinion, it would be inexpedient for the United States to employ, arm, and equip private vessels for this purpose. If the force already indicated be insufficient for the purpose, the committee would prefer recommending the building of additional sloops of war, rather than to purchase private vessels; which are always of inferior composition and of unsuitable construction, and requiring repairs, and an unprofitable expense, to alter and make them at all fit for public vessels.


The committee are also of opinion that it would be inexpedient "to authorize the destruction of persons and vessels found at sea, or in uninhabited places, making war upon the commerce of the United States without any regular commission;" and that it would be inconsistent with public law or general usage to give any authority to destroy pirates and piratical vessels found at sea or in Uninhabited places."

The committee are of opinion that it would be dangerous, and productive of great evil, to vest in the commanders of our public vessels an authority to treat as pirates, and punish without trial, even such persons as above described. It is not necessary for the accomplishment of the object in view that such an authority should be given, and it is essentially due to the rights of all, and the principles of "public law and general usage," that the consequences and punishment of piracy should follow only a legal adjudication of the fact.

On the whole, the committee are of opinion that the employment of a sufficient number of vessels in the West India seas and the Gulf of Mexico, authorized to make captures under the existing laws and regulations, if the officers are properly industrious and enterprising, would afford all the protection required; and the committee therefore recommend the adoption of the following resolution: 

Resolved, That it is expedient forthwith to fit out and put in service the corvettes Cyane and John Adams, and the sloops of war Peacock and Erie, for the protection of commerce and the suppression of piracy in the West India seas and the Gulf of Mexico, and also to employ the frigate Constellation , should the President of the United States deem the employment of a frigate necessary for the purposes aforesaid.