“Already Americans can enforce respect for their flag, soon they will be able to make it feared…. They are born to rule the seas, as the Romans were to conquer the world.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville,

Democracy in America (1835)


Though the republic was barely half a century old in 1835—and just a mono-coastal country facing onto the Atlantic—Tocqueville had no doubt that America was destined to be a maritime nation, ready to compete with the most powerful maritime empire in history, Great Britain. It was American seafarers who carried nine tenths of the goods from the Western Hemisphere to Europe and three quarters of Europe’s exports to the Americas—while English ships in New York Harbor, he observed, were “a pitiful handful.” “Seafaring and sea-trading,” he declared, “brought out the heroic in the American character,” its dangers and uncertainties drawing the typical American into “obeying an impulse in his nature.” That sea-tested heroism made America “a land of wonders” and would give the United States its future spirit.

Nearly two centuries later, historians, scholars, and policymakers are rediscovering the importance of the sea in American history and culture. Sea power was not only vital to American history in the 20th century, including World War II and the Cold

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