Matthew Perry: Founder of the Modern American Navy

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Matthew Perry was in many ways the “founding father” of the United States Navy. His vision went far beyond preparing for combat and the material/logistical build-up of a naval force capable of protecting the new republic’s interests at home and abroad. From the standpoint of infrastructure, Perry laid the groundwork for the formal training and education of officers.

He also oversaw the use of the American Navy to explore and open new relationships with foreign powers, in so doing establishing a precedent for using the Navy as a tool both of statecraft and for exerting influence on a global scale (Symonds, 59). Perry came from a family for whom the Navy was a tradition. His father was a ship’s captain, and his older brother, Oliver Hazard Perry, was the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. He also served against the Barbary pirates, one of the U.S. Navy’s first foreign engagements. During the Mexican War, Perry played a key role, leading a squadron that captured several key objectives.

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He succeeded to the rank of Commodore after the war with Mexico, and it was under his command that, during the 1840s and 1850s, America exerted its naval power in opening up access to Japan, heretofore a closed society to westerners. Perry used force to convince the Japanese to accede to American demands to open their ports to American trade. This led to the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, which provided for the opening of two primary ports and opened the way for further American-Japanese commercial agreements (Wittner, 91). Perhaps Perry’s most lasting contribution was his support of the switch to a steam-powered Navy.

  • Symonds, Craig L. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  • Wittner, David G. Commodore Matthew Perry and the Perry Expedition to Japan. New York: The Rosen Group, 2005.

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