US Commercial Maritime Strength in 1836

Patricia Roberts-Miller's picture

For a book about pro-war rhetoric, I'm writing a short section about Churchill Cambreleng's May 7, 1836 speech about the controversy with France. I'm interested in it because it shows how the rhetorical needs of a bargaining situation (which Jackson was in) are in tension with the rhetorical practices that best serve deliberation (what Congress is supposed to do). Cambreleng decided to reply to someone (Archer, from Virginia, an anti-Jacksonian) who had shown the relative sizes of the French v. US navy in service of the argument that the US would have great difficulty winning a war with France (since it would be, presumably, a naval conflict). Part of Cambreleng's reply involves his claim that, while the US Navy was smaller, the US would be able to call on its "commercial marine." He said, "No nation so possesses so powerful and effective a commercial marine as the United States, animated and invigorated, as it is, by the spirit of freedom" and that the US would be able to call upon "the ten thousand mariners whom we have now engaged in the whale trade" and "we could put afloat in twelve months a naval force with which no nation could successfully contend."

This smells like hyperbole to me, especially since Cambreleng was a Jacksonian, but I don't want to make that claim without some hard numbers (which, of course, Cambreleng doesn't supply). I've tried to find data on what the US commercial maritime strength was in 1836, but that isn't an era that seems to interest anyone. What little I've found skims over the 30s. I can imagine the number of commercial fleets was huge, but I have trouble imagining 1) it was bigger than the UK's, and 2) those ships could easily (and willingly) have been converted into warships useful against the French.

I'd appreciate thoughts, guesses, or references on either of those two questions.


That ten thousand seafarers were engaged in whaling might be fairly close. Winthrop L. Marvin, The American Merchant Marine: Its History and Romance from 1620 to 1902 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902) has some tables for the 1830s. The whaling chapter indicates that the typical whaling ship was of some 300-400 tons burthen, and it has annual tonnage totals for each year from 1801 to 1902. For 1836, the number is 146,254. So that's about 400 whaling ships. Elsewhere in the chapter, Marvin reports that a whaler crew numbered about 35, and states that it is three times what a merchant ship in the carrying trade would have had for a crew. 400 times 35 yields 14,000, so 10,000 does look fairly good for an off the cuff speech in Congress. Marvin identifies the "official report of the United States Bureau of Navigation" as the source for the table. But he doesn't say where that report can be found.

There are also chapters on the general merchant marine, which tonnage tables at the end of them. No sources are given, and I don't find a hint if they come from that report or a similar one. The 1836 total is 753,094. Tables in Robert G. Albion, The Rise of New York Port, 1815-1860 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939) indicate that for that period, a typical ship or bark was of 400+ tons burthen. Doing that arithmetic suggests 22,000 to 25,000 seafarers.

Just for comparison, a naval sloop of war carried a crew of 200, and a frigate like the Constitution, about twice that many. The prospect of war was taken seriously, and perhaps hopefully, within the U.S. Navy, if Master Commandant John D. Sloat's December 1835 letter to Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson is any indication. I got the crew figures from American State Papers-Naval Affairs, and Sloat's letter from RG45 in the national archives. The citations are more easily found in my Knickerbocker Commodore: The Life and Times of John Drake Sloat, 1781-1867 (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), with apologies for the egregiously shameless self promotion.

I hope this helps somewhat.

Bruce Castleman

You might also find the appendices in The Way of the Ship by Alex Roland et al. useful.  There aren't a lot of figures for the 1830s, but in 1850 the US merchant fleet was over 75% the size of the British merchant fleet (and this probably doesn't include brown-water vessels, and maybe Cambreleng believes they made up for the difference). [pg 419]. If you're looking for the comparative "effectiveness" of the merchant fleet, James Fichter’s So Great a Proffit argues that the flexibility of the American merchant marine allowed them to outcompete the British East India Company--so there is at least some truth to Cambreleng’s claim. The idea of the commercial fleet as a "nursery for seamen" was a common idea in the Royal Navy even before the Napoleonic Wars, so the plan to repurpose those sailors for war also isn't unfounded.

As to whether merchant ships could be converted: A great many civilian vessels were converted for military use in the Civil War, though how many of these were truly capable of fighting a fort or a purpose-built enemy warship is another question. Still, they could perform blockade duties, river patrols, etc. to free up ships better-suited to combat. Ships were also purchased and converted in the Mexican-American War and War of 1812. (See, for example K. Bauer, Surfboats and Horse Marines, 66.)

It's also possible Cambreleng actually envisioned building much of this fleet. The American shipbuilding industry was booming in the 1830s, and he might be remembering the frantic flotilla-building projects on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812. But 12 months for a fleet of seagoing warships still seems extremely optimistic.

1. I'm not sure if this helps but I have a book on the Navy during the 1830s which will be published in August by Univ. of Alabama Press. One item: In 1828, the gross tonnage of American merchant ships engaged in whaling was 54,000 gross tons (whalers were generally a few hundred tuns). By 1837, that had increased to 129,000 gross tons. It would finally peak in 1857 when the gross tonnage was 195,000. The total tonnage of U.S. vessels cleared to leave port in 1828 was 897,000 (six times the number of cleared foreign vessels). In 1836, more than 1.3 million tons of U.S. vessels were cleared to leave port (twice the number of foreign vessels). Sources: Series K 94-104, ‘Documented Merchant Vessels – Composition of the Merchant Marine: 1789 to 1945,’ Historical Statistics of the United States, Department of Commerce (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1949), p. 207.
Series Q 506-517. ‘Net Tonnage Capacity of Vessels Entered and Cleared: 1789 to 1970,’ Historical Statistics of the United States, Department of Commerce (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1949), p. 760.

2. Regarding rhetoric on war with France, I'd like to suggest you also look at James Fenimore Cooper who was writing in the Naval Magazine. ‘Everybody here is talking of war,’ James Kirke Paulding wrote to Martin van Buren, ‘and my old friend Fennimore [sic] Cooper is in a most belligerent attitude every day in Wall Street’. source: James Kirke Paulding to Martin van Buren, 6 December 1834, The Letters of James Kirke Paulding, ed Ralph M. Aderman, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1962), p.153-5. Check Cooper also in ‘Comparative Resources of the American Navy’, Naval Magazine, January 1836

3. Jackson would not have seriously entertained a conflict with France in 1836. France, for example, had more steam warships (23) than England (21). He'd have been aware of it with Alexander Slidell Mackenzie's 1835 in-country report. My assessment of Jackson in my dissertation and the book is that Jackson only used naval force when necessary and never against a larger force.

4. Regarding the above: "the ten thousand mariners whom we have now engaged in the whale trade" and "we could put afloat in twelve months a naval force with which no nation could successfully contend." I agree with you. Pure hyperbole for several reasons: 1) it was contrary to Jackson's primary economic goals and given the financial importance of the whaling industry, he would not have pulled those ships out of the Pacific; 2) it was impractical. Those ships that were operating in the Pacific were out for two or three years. To get messages to them and have them return to the USwould have taken too long; 3) by 1836 these ships could not have been quickly converted and outfitted with weapons into fighting vessels or commerce raiders; 4) the commercial interests of New England would not have supported this.

I hope this helps.