College of Arts and Sciences


Master of Arts in History - Thesis (MA)


Troy L. Kickler


Jefferson, Gunboats, Naval History, Congress, Political History, Republicanism, War of 1812, Navy, Frigate, Warship


History | Military History | United States History


In 1801, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, sought to reduce the national debt, eliminate taxes, and reduce spending regarding the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy. To this end, Jefferson enlisted the assistance of congressional Republicans to authorize and fund the construction of lightly armed, coastal-defense gunboats. By examining Jefferson’s writings and congressional speeches, “In Search of a More Republican Naval Defense: Thomas Jefferson, Congress, and the Gunboat Debate, 1802-1810” explains both Jefferson’s interest in the small warships, and why from 1801 to 1809 Congress appropriated $1,205,500 to build approximately 180 gunboats. This thesis argues that Jefferson believed gunboats to be an effective weapons system that would meet the United States’ need for naval defense at a lower cost than a fleet of sea-going warships. His policy simultaneously did not challenge British Atlantic naval superiority or draw the United States into a European conflict. The Jeffersonian Republican caucus supported all but one of Jefferson’s gunboat appropriation requests. Contrary to previous historical arguments, this thesis argues that Jeffersonian Republicans were not universally anti-navy, nor did Southern agrarians dominate the debates regarding gunboats. Instead, a regionally diverse group of Jeffersonian Republicans, especially representatives from New York and the New England states, held various opinions regarding gunboat policy.