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Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy Hardcover – October 2, 2006

4.8 out of 5 stars 566 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Toll, a former financial analyst and political speechwriter, makes an auspicious debut with this rousing, exhaustively researched history of the founding of the U.S. Navy. The author chronicles the late 18th- and early 19th-century process of building a fleet that could project American power beyond her shores. The ragtag Continental Navy created during the Revolution was promptly dismantled after the war, and it wasn't until 1794—in the face of threats to U.S. shipping from England, France and the Barbary states of North Africa—that Congress authorized the construction of six frigates and laid the foundation for a permanent navy. A cabinet-level Department of the Navy followed in 1798. The fledgling navy quickly proved its worth in the Quasi War against France in the Caribbean, the Tripolitan War with Tripoli and the War of 1812 against the English. In holding its own against the British, the U.S. fleet broke the British navy's "sacred spell of invincibility," sparked a "new enthusiasm for naval power" in the U.S. and marked the maturation of the American navy. Toll provides perspective by seamlessly incorporating the era's political and diplomatic history into his superlative single-volume narrative—a must-read for fans of naval history and the early American Republic. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Not confined to sea battles, Toll's history of the U.S. Navy's formative decades, from the mid-1790s to the War of 1812, rounds out affairs by anchoring the nascent navy to its financial supports. Navies are not inexpensive, and the costs of building and maintaining ships appear lightly but persistently in Toll's narrative. It centers on the first vessels purpose-built for the navy, the half-dozen frigates of which the USSConstitution moored in Boston today is the last survivor. Besides money, their construction involved politics; the Federalists favored the naval program (creating the Department of the Navy in 1798), while Jefferson's parsimonious Republicans were more diffident. Toll is as insightful about the essential domestic and diplomatic background as he is with his dramatizations of the naval engagements of the new navy, which produced a crop of national heroes such as Stephen Decatur. The maritime strategy and the highly developed sense of officers' honor, which influenced where particular battles occurred, emerge clearly in this fluent account. Vibrant and comprehensive, Toll makes an impressive debut. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton (October 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393058476
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393058475
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (566 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,240 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By F. Kim on October 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Ever since reading Patrick O'Brian's depiction of the battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Java in "The Fortune of War," I've wanted to learn more about the United States's own naval history from that period. Surprisingly, though, I was unable to find many published works on the subject. Finally, Toll's "Six Frigates" has arrived, and it's exactly the sort of book I was looking for.

"Six Frigates" is a comprehensive look at the founding of the American Navy, from the years shortly after the Revolutionary War. While the young nation had won its independence, the rest of the world still thought of it as a target ripe for exploitation, and the United States soon found its vulnerable merchant fleet being preyed upon, not only by the Great Powers of Europe, but even the small, piratical nations of the Barbary Coast.

The obvious solution would seem to be the creation of an armed navy, but a surprising revelation of Toll's book is just how much opposition to the idea existed amongst the country's early leadership. Fans of David McCullough's "John Adams" and "1776" will be pleased by the appearance of figures like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, but here Toll focuses more on their political actions and philosophies than their personalities or character. The arguments over whether creating a navy only served the interests of war profiteers, or whether having one placed too much power in the central government, or might cause the government's bankruptcy, provides a fascinating perspective on the differences between the early Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans.

Grudgingly, and in fits and starts, the federal government allowed for the creation of the book's eponymous six frigates.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a military officer, but, I must admit, I didn't know much about the War of 1812. Having been stationed at Plattsburgh AFB, I knew of the Battle of Plattsburgh, but not its significance. As it turns out, Mr. Toll's very readable book fills in many gaps in my knowledge, such as this one. It's a great rendition of the very real people and grand events surrounding the founding of our nation, with the infant US Navy presenting the backdrop and the storyline. And, it reads like a novel - so much so, in fact, it is one of those rare books that, once started, becomes difficult to put down.

The jacket cover of this book indicates Mr. Toll was a financial analyst by trade. I hope he's given up that mundane calling, and dedicates himself to writing more exciting stories like this one. I very much look forward to his next effort.
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Format: Hardcover
Six Frigates is a great read for anyone interested in naval history during the age of sail. Ian Toll does a very good job of detailing the political background and historical circumstances that led to the creation of the US Navy shortly after America's struggle to achieve sovereignty. I found the political landscape particularly interesting, as the infighting between nascent political parties ranged from agriculture to commerce, and how this affected the naval policy (and whether there even should BE a navy at all!).

It was very interesting to see how bureaucratic problems and commercial interests affected national policy. At time it is easy to lament about our nation's current standing with regards to these topics, however, Six Frigates gives an interesting perspective on how the past is not nearly as pristine and rosy as we'd like to imagine.

The chapters detailing specific naval military engagements are well written and I was never confused about the ships' relationship to each other throughout the battles. They are also as exciting as they are interesting. As I read this book shortly after returning from Iraq and spending the summer of 2006 driving around Baghdad concerned with the prospect of a molten copper disks being blasted through me and thinking "this is such a dirty war", I was again checked in my views on the past while reading about sailors who dealt with mind-boggling quantities of iron balls being blasted through their wooden ships. Another very interesting chapter dealt with a blockaded American port sending out mined boats in an attempt to destroy the vastly superior British naval force in what immediately brought my mind back to the game of cat/mouse with IEDs in Iraq.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In Six Frigates, Ian Toll captures both the grand design and small nuances of America's evolution toward a naval power. I enthusiastically recommend this book as a superb distillation of a period of history frequently given modest attention.

Well researched, exquisitely written, Toll engages attention from the first and comfortably navigates the reader through the philosphical, political, economic, technological and military convolutions that were the seed of the U.S. Navy. Toll chronicles key naval actions of the Quasi War, Barbary Coast, and War of 1812. But "conflict" is not reserved to "Old Ironsides" or her sisters. Toll sets the miltary stage with a thorough and insightful examination of the political and economic ebb and flow of the time, and how "civilian" matters shaped action at sea. Toll examines the political debate (Federalist v. Republican) on the notion of whether or not to establish a permanent navy and, if so, how it should be best funded and managed. Toll is also careful to juxtaposition the personalities, strategies and actions of the foreign powers of the time, Great Britain and France.

The book includes enlightening biographies of key political players and their opinions. For example, Toll puzzles over Jefferson's contradictions, writing, "...it is hardly surprising to find that Jefferson's words and deeds on the subject of seapower are dissonant. While serving as minister to France in the 1780s, [Jefferson] had argued in favor of building frigates to patrol the Mediterranean... Fifteen years later, campaigning for president at the head of the fiercely anti-navalist Republican Party, he declared himself in favor of 'such a naval force only as may protect our coasts and harbors'..." (Page 162).
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