It happened today - December 22, 2015

On December 22, 1775, the Continental Congress created the first American navy. And significantly they made Esek Hopkins, Esq. Commander in Chief.

OK, that wasn’t significant. I never heard of him and I’ve taught this stuff at university. He evidently made rather a botched job of it, or so the Continental Congress thought, although given the scale of the task and the pitiful resources available I think they were a bit hard on him.

So did the citizens of his native Rhode Island, where he was elected to the Assembly several times before retiring. And there is at least one school named after him, in Providence. But enough of Hopkins, or perhaps too much.

What I do think is significant is that on scraping together a “fleet” of four converted merchantmen and ordering Hopkins somehow to best the mighty British navy, the Congress named their first flagship Alfred. As in Alfred of Wessex, Alfred of the Cakes, Alfred the Great, the famous English king. And there’s a famous illustration of the Alfred flying the Grand Union flag, the same one Washington flew at Valley Forge, with 13 stripes for the 13 colonies and, in the corner, why, the Union Jack (pre-1801 version, without St. Patrick’s cross).

The point is that it was their traditional liberties, not some novel set, and their ancient Constitution, not some brilliant innovation, for which the rebels were fighting. There was, and is, some confusion on this point, especially by those who think the point of the Revolution was to get rid of a hereditary king and have equality and democracy.

In fact it was to get rid of a king who was refusing to be bound by the constitutional limits that made him a constitutional monarch, in order to preserve liberty and self-government in the sense of a popular veto on ambitious government plans, not an endless series of ambitious government plans legitimized by popular consent.

It was to preserve, not overthrow, and to remain British even if the British themselves were drifting away from their roots. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this point.

As for Esek Hopkins, enough said. And then some.

It happened todayJohn Robson