From the beginning of our nation, the Navy and its exploits were subjects of artistic depiction.The following series of Navy prints and watercolors is an adaption of a 1962 National Archives exhibit that encompassed the interests of two 20th-century Presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
FDR, Collecting, and the Navy
From his childhood, Franklin D. Roosevelt was an avid collector. He enthusiastically accumulated stamps and books, but his largest collection related to the United States Navy, to which FDR had an intimate connection. Besides prints and watercolors, his Navy collection also incorporated pamphlets, books, models, broadsides, music, and more.
The sea appeared to be in Roosevelt’s blood. On his mother’s side was a long history of maritime merchants who traveled all over the world. Despite the fact that many of the Delanos had been sea captains, it was young Franklin's father who taught him how to sail on the family's sailboat, the Half Moon. By age 16, Roosevelt had his own boat, the 21-foot New Moon.
From 1913 to 1920, Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary to the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. Appointed when he was only 31 years old (the youngest man ever to hold the position), he commented, “I now find my vocation combined with my avocation in a delightful way.” During those seven years he was an enthusiastic advocate for a large and powerful naval force.
“We are tied to the ocean.”
John F. Kennedy, like his predecessor FDR, had a strong connection with the sea. Sailing off Cape Cod was a well-loved pastime for all the Kennedys, while participation—and victory—in many sailing events fed into the family’s competitive streak. Kennedy was given his own boat, the Victura (Latin for “about to conquer”), when he was 15, and he continued to sail it as President. When World War II broke out, he said his interest in joining the Navy stemmed from the fact that he “had spent a lot of time on boats.” His swimming ability, too, probably helped save his life when his PT boat was destroyed and he and his crew were forced to swim several miles to safety in the middle of the South Pacific.
Vacations often led Kennedy back to his hometown of Hyannis Port to cruise around on the Victura or Presidential yachts Honey Fitz and Manitou.
Kennedy doodled pictures of ships in his meetings or at any opportune time, including during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the day before he was assassinated. Objects relating to the sea, such as model boats and scrimshaws, were in his Oval Office. Even as President, sailing never remained far from Kennedy’s thoughts.
The Original Exhibit
Given the two Presidents' shared connection to the sea, sailing, and the Navy, it is not surprising that Kennedy would propose to display a number of pieces from Roosevelt’s Navy collection at the National Archives. The exhibit opened on June 27, 1962. In his opening remarks, Kennedy observed how the exhibit could tell people more about both “our life at sea,” and Roosevelt himself.
Kennedy makes his opening remarks in the National Archives Rotunda. (1962-06-27) by Robert KnudsenU.S. National Archives
The images on display were chosen by Naval historian Rear Admiral Samuel Morison, who selected not only some of the rarest among Roosevelt’s collection but also the most representative. Having to sort through the thousands in Roosevelt’s possession and settle on but a fraction of them to come to the Archives could not have been an easy task. The end result, however, revealed the challenges and triumphs of the Old Navy.
The prints and watercolors presented here are only a handful of the ones that were on display in 1962, although each section of the original exhibit is represented. A number of artworks are paired with photographs from 1962, in which the same work is visible with President Kennedy and others.
The Revolutionary War (1775-1783)
The Continental Navy was established by a resolution of the Second Continental Congress on October 13, 1775. At the time of the American Revolution, the American Navy could not claim to be a very significant fighting force. This was especially true when compared to Great Britain’s Royal Navy, which was then most powerful on earth. The American Navy received substantial support from the French as a result of the 1778 Franco-American alliance and was able to distinguish itself on its own right early on in its existence.
The Battle of Flamborough Head on September 23, 1779, is one of the most famous naval battles of the Revolution, thanks to Continental naval commander John Paul Jones’s famous words, “I have not yet begun to fight!” Jones was captain of USS Bonhomme Richard, which battled with HMS Serapis, a Royal Navy frigate with 44 guns. Although Jones’s ship suffered enough damage to begin sinking in the midst of the battle, the American forces continued to barrage the British with fire until the Serapis surrendered, giving Jones victory.
American ships USS Alfred and USS Providence, commanded by John Paul Jones and Hoysted Hacker respectively, captured the British transport ship HMS Mellish off Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, on November 12, 1776. At the time of her capture, the Mellish had been en route to Quebec to deliver thousands of winter uniforms to Captain Christopher Carleton’s troops stationed there. The uniforms were instead be used by George Washington’s men.
The Ménagère (foreground, right) was a French ship, one of five that was part of a Franco-American convoy meant to deliver supplies. The night of her defeat on December 12, 1782, she had been sailing for Port au Prince along with five other ships, a formidable lineup to face the Royal Navy’s HMS Mediator (background, center) under Captain James Luttrell. Despite the show of force, Luttrell battled his way through the convoy and was able to capture the Ménagère and an American privateer, the Alexander.
The Quasi-War With France (1798-1800)
The Quasi-War with France received its name from the fact that war was never officially declared between the two countries. Relations between France and the United States had deteriorated in the decades since the American Revolution, partly due to tensions arising from France’s own political upheaval and corresponding wars, particularly with Great Britain. When the Jay Treaty of 1794 confirmed friendship between the United States and Great Britain, France retaliated by harassing American ships. The Quasi-War came about when attempts at diplomacy collapsed during the XYZ Affair.
Because French predation on American merchant ships was the root cause of the war, the Quasi-War was a primarily naval conflict. Patriotic fervor spurred building of a number of new frigates and sloops-of-war in 1798, with the USS Philadelphia being the largest of the frigates.
The War With Tripoli (1801-1805)
The war with Tripoli was the first of a number of Barbary Wars that took place in the early 19th century. Tripoli was one of the “Barbary states” in North Africa that also consisted of Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco. After the American Revolution, pirates in these areas had taken advantage of the fact that American ships no longer had the protection of the Royal Navy. The fledgling American state, especially under the Articles of Confederation, often did not have the funds to pay tribute. The Constitution’s powers of taxation and to maintain armed forces helped to mediate earlier problems, but the United States still was vulnerable to pirates and foreign demands. In 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, declared war on the United States after declaring that the United States was late in its payments.
This print was a rare one on display, as the artist, Charles Denoon, was also a seaman on board the Philadelphia, the same ship that was built for the Quasi-War. At the time of her capture, the Philadelphia had orders to blockade North Africa but ran aground on an uncharted reef. Crew worked for hours to straighten the ship without success. Exposed and unable to fire back at the Tripolitan forces, Captain William Bainbridge and the crew surrendered the ship. The Americans were ultimately to have the final say on the matter, however, when a team led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur pulled a Trojan horse project: they sailed into a Tripolitan harbor by disguising their own ship (an earlier-captured Tripolitan vessel renamed the Intrepid) and burned the Philadelphia under the cover of night, ensuring she would not be used against American forces.
"Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie," September 10, 1813 by T. Birch and A. LawsonU.S. National Archives
The War of 1812 (1812-1815)
Politics relating to the Napoleonic Wars were the foundation of the War of 1812. The United States had significant ties to the two main European countries involved, Great Britain and France, but was also looking to exercise its own desire to trade with both as a neutral player. When Great Britain appeared to violate this by seizing American merchant ships and impressing Americans into Royal Navy service, the U.S. Congress declared war.
During one of the most pivotal naval battles of the War of 1812, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry’s ship USS Lawrence sustained heavy damage from continuous British bombardment and was essentially left to fend for herself. Her sister brig USS Niagara—the most efficient and well-manned ship—barely engaged, and the other American ships were too small and far away, and thus unable to distract the British. Only when the Lawrence was completely disabled did Perry jump into a cutter and row over to the Niagara. Taking command there with the spirited motto of “Don’t give up the ship,” Perry sent the Niagara’s captain to rally the American gunboats. In a remarkable turn of events, the Americans were able to fight the British into surrender, ensuring American control of the lake for the rest of the war.
The Peacetime Navy
Peacetime didn’t mean the Navy came to a standstill. Although not engaged in military affairs, the Navy remained active, particularly in ensuring the safety of American shipping. As the United States' commercial affairs went worldwide, the Navy expanded as well.
USS Hudson, formerly Liberator, was built in 1826 for the Greek government. But when Greece couldn’t pay for her, the U.S. Navy bought the ship. She has the honor of being personally inspected by President John Quincy Adams in 1828. That same year, she set out from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, where she helped put an end to slave trafficking under Commodore John Creighton. She later sailed around the entire South American coast, inspecting American and foreign ships. She returned to New York in August 1931, serving as receiving ship until 1844, when she was broken up and sold.
Before the Brooklyn Navy Yard was decommissioned in 1966, it was known as one of the foremost shipbuilding facilities in the country. Its establishment in 1801 and continuous 165-year operation meant that it was witness to a long evolution of vessels, from the wooden sailing ships as the watercolor portrays (possibly the North Carolina) to the armored battleships like the USS Arizona, which was built at the Navy Yard and sank during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
"The Landing of the Naval Expedition Against Tabasco," June 16, 1847 (1848) by Henry Walke, J. Volmering and Davignon, and Sarony and MajorU.S. National Archives
The Mexican-American War (1846-1848)
Following the annexation of a newly independent Texas Republic by the United States, relations between Mexico and the U.S. became more tense, especially over the disputed borders between Texas and Mexico. After a few skirmishes between Mexican forces and those of General Zachary Taylor (who had been ordered to the contested area by President James Polk), the United States declared war on Mexico.
In command of the American forces at the Second Battle of Tabasco was Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry. Having already taken two other port cities, Perry’s interests now turned to San Juan Bautista (present-day Villahermosa), the capital of the state of Tabasco. Technological advancements had been implemented into the Navy by then, and in addition to some brigs and a schooner, steamboats were also involved in the operation. After moving upstream the Tabasco River (the Grijalva River), men under Perry and Lieutenant David D. Porter were able to capture the last Mexican port on the Gulf coast on June 16, 1847.
"An American Steamer in a Japanese Harbor" by Ichikawa YoshikazuU.S. National Archives
The Opening of Japan
Prior to the opening of Japan, the country had been almost completely isolated from the world, limiting its trade to certain Dutch and Chinese ships. Negotiations between Commodore Matthew Perry and Japanese commissioners throughout 1853 and 1854 reversed this policy,l which had stood for two centuries. The Treaty of Kanagawa did not guarantee trading rights, but it did state that Japan would protect American seamen and open the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate for refueling and provisioning purposes.
The writing in the upper right corner identified the ship depicted in the woodblock, probably the Roanoke, as an “American steamship. Length 40 Ken. Width 6 Ken.” The Roanoke and the Powhatan were the two American vessels that carried the first Japanese mission to the United States in 1860. Artist Ichikawa Yoshikazu was among the artists who made the journey.
Viewing the Old Navy Exhibit
With some of Roosevelt’s friends and members of his family present at its opening, the exhibit had no doubt captured the approval of those closest to the late President. For those who did not hear Kennedy speak in person or could not make it to the exhibit, Life magazine published on August 10, 1962, an elaboration of his remarks along with illustrations of the exhibit for the public. The article was entitled, “The Strength and Style of Our Navy Tradition.” In a way, this exhibit is the 21st century version of that Life article—making more widely available a display of two Presidents’ shared naval interests and a snapshot of the United States Navy’s history.
Curator: Megan Huang
Editor: Mary Ryan
Project Manager: Jessie Kratz
Special thanks to: Jeffery Hartley, Dara Baker, Michelle Frauenberger, Katherine Sardino, and Meredith Doviak.