Book Review: Commanding Petty Despots: The American Navy in the New Republic


by Thomas Sheppard

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2022. Pp. x, 240+. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $45.95. ISBN: 168247755X

Creating a Navy for a New Republic

Commanding Petty Despots charts the early years of the United States Navy, back when its biggest ship was a 44-gun frigate. It focuses on the administrative development of the Navy and how civilian control of the service was established in a world where communications traveled at the speed of the wind. The period covered spans the Navy’s creation during the Revolutionary War and ends in 1824, when a formal, professional system for the promotion of the Navy’s officers had come into existence.

Through the text, Sheppard explains how the need for a professional officer corps was reconciled with the personal honor and reputation of the Navy’s officers, qualities that had been inherited from the traditions of the Royal Navy. The early years of the Navy saw many a conflict between the honor and reputation of officers and the national interests of the new country.

On the one side are the stories of the important captains of the early Navy- John Barry, Thomas Truxtun, Stephen Decatur, and David Porter, to name a few. The clashes between these captains forged the new Navy, each vying to be the first on the list of ranks held by the Department of the Navy. Through their careers, Sheppard takes us through the Tripolitan War and the War of 1812. Personal feuds between the most prominent American captains helped shape the early character of the USN, as each tried to one-up the other on the high seas by gaining more glory that would lead to higher rank on the promotion scale. There were even duels and accusations of cowardice and treason thrown around by officers against each other in the young Navy.

The other side of the book takes the reader into the buildings of the Department where the bureaucratic administration of the Navy was formed. Secretaries of the Navy are given their due, with emphasis especially on the important tenure of Benjamin Stoddert, when the Navy Department officially came into being. Much time is given also to the creation of the Navy Board that presided over the promotion of officers in the service. The Navy Board established an increasingly professional officer corps that ameliorated some of the early problems when captains had a tendency to put their desire for glory and honor above the national interest.

Commanding Petty Despots is not a book for those looking for derring-do adventure on the high seas. But if you’re looking for insight into how and when the USN’s administrative structures were built, this is the book for you.




Note: Commanding Petty Despots is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Alexander Stavropoulos   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close