Book Review: Six Frigates, by Ian W. Toll

Although I read mostly novels these days, it’s good every once in a while to check in with an amazing history book, of which Six Frigates is a superb example. The story of the founding and early institutional history of the United States is easily as enthralling as any novel. Toll’s book is very nautically detailed, but it also includes thorough treatments of the Founders, the political parties, the leading issues facing the young republic such as Barbary piracy and French and British impressment of sailors (which seems to approach kidnapping and slavery in its straightforwardness), as well as quaint customs like dueling.

Among Six Frigates’ panorama of the early nineteenth century appears this early account of British anti-Americanism, which I read as early evidence of the social reaction that came to dominate thought by century’s end:

Hatred of America seems a prevailing sentiment in this country. Whether it be that they have no crown and nobility, and are on this account not quite a genteel power; or that their manners are less polished than our own; or that we grudge their independence…the fact is undeniable that the bulk of our people would fain be at war with them. (p. 276)

Readers of some of my other reviews will know that the tracing of such sentiments to the murderous genteel ideologies of the twentieth century is a pet project of mine.

Here is another private take from Toll’s book: As a Baltimorean, I read the whole work in dreadful anticipation of a cruel truth that finally emerges in a postscript:

1853: Constellation is broken up at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk. Some of her timbers may have been incorporated into a new sloop of war, also christened the Constellation. (The latter remains afloat in Baltimore harbor.) (p. 475)

In sum, there is a lot for me in this book (not all of it pleasant), and there is certain to be a lot for you too; but above all it is a gripping, epic story. It will capture (or should I say impress) your imagination, whatever your circumstances.