- Sodomy, Masturbation, and Courts-Martial in the Antebellum American Navy
John Adams was in an exultant mood when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, on 28 April 1776. “You will see an account of the fleet in some of the papers I have sent you. … I have vanity enough to take myself a share in the merit of the American navy. It was always a measure that my heart was much engaged in, and I pursued it for a long time against the wind and tide. But at last obtained it.”1 Adams had reason to be proud of his achievement. As a member of a committee appointed in the autumn of 1775 to draft regulations for the infant navy of the Thirteen United Colonies, he was largely responsible for creating its first set of rules.2 Although a lawyer, Adams’s lack of seafaring experience and unfamiliarity with things maritime left him with little basis on which to construct the legal framework for a navy. He needed a template to begin his work, and he did not have to look far to find one. Two suitable documents were easily available: the British Royal Navy’s Articles of War and the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty’s Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea. They were, after all, the basic codes for [End Page 53] the administration of what was then the world’s largest and most effective fighting force, and both proved to be invaluable sources.3
As a result, it is not surprising that striking similarities existed among Adams’s newly created Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies of North-America and the two British documents. Adams’s rules duplicated those of the Royal Navy on dozens of matters central to the operations of fleets of both nations. They dealt in similar fashion with a host of administrative matters, including the duties of officers; the disposition of prizes; the handling of documents, passports, and bills of lading; the proper enrollment of seamen; and the need for divine services. Each document also proscribed drunkenness, sedition, mutiny, theft, murder, sleeping on watch, embezzlement, quarreling, and an additional host of activities. Any unspecified transgressions, according to the three codes, were to be punished according to the customs of the sea.
There were, of course, differences between the Royal Navy sources and the American Rules. Adams ignored several topics in the British documents as he laid out his prescriptions for the newly established navy. There were no specifications for convoy protection or the preservation of private property in naval custody. Neither did his colonial Rules specifically prohibit arson, the looting of captives, treason, or negligence in steering. The failure to enumerate a serious infraction such as treason is easy enough to understand. The thirteen colonies were at the time in a state of rebellion, although they had not yet declared independence, and it is likely Adams would have found including the word “treason” to be impolitic. Neither did Adams replicate the Royal Navy’s unequivocal stand against sodomy. The twenty-ninth of the Royal Navy’s Articles of War left little doubt of the serious consequences that followed a conviction for this offense. It read: “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of [End Page 54] buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by the sentence of a court martial.”4 Sodomy had been a capital crime in the Royal Navy with a mandatory death sentence since the 1660s and would remain so until the mid-nineteenth century.5
Why Adams chose to omit a disciplinary provision so direct and unambiguous is not clear. He was, after all, a man descended from Puritans and possessed of keen moral sensibilities and well-honed notions of propriety. The habitual cursing of both American sailors and their officers on a later voyage to France in 1778 greatly distressed him. He described the continuous swearing of the crewmen as “abominable,” a “scurvy vice,” and “detestable,” using one of the same adjectives to depict shipboard talk that the Articles of War used...