Blog Post

The Somers Mutiny and Founding of the Naval Academy

Why was the U.S. Naval Academy founded? This seems like a question with an obvious answer: because people who serve in the navy need to be taught how to do their jobs. However, this wasn’t always a common belief for those in the navy. The real reason the Naval Academy came to be was because of the Somers Mutiny in 1842.

The story of the Somers Mutiny is fairly straightforward. Philip Spencer, son of a powerful New York politician was a Midshipman on the USS Somers. He had previously been working on two ships before being assigned to the Somers. Spencer had a reputation of being a troublemaker, but his politician father pulled some strings in order for him to stay in the Navy. This caused him to be moved to various ships. However, this would be the last ship he would be assigned to.

Unbeknownst the Spencer’s Captain, Alexander Mackenzie, the midshipman had planned to commit two mutinies while on the two ships he previously worked on. As usual, he began to plan another mutiny while on the USS Somers. He planned on killing the officers and turning over other trainees on the ship to join his plan to turn Somers which was the fastest ship in the navy at the time into a pirate ship. This was eventually found out and Spencer as well as two alleged coconspirators were executed on the Captain’s orders. Due to Spencer’s father having political power and Captain Mackenzies disregarding of naval policy the captain was investigated and given a court-martial. However, he was pronounced not guilty due to Spencer admitting his guilt and prior mutiny attempts before execution.

All of that aside, what does any of that have to do with the founding of the U.S. Naval Academy? The Somers mutiny spurned public outrage about what they perceived to be the immorality of midshipman. The general public demanded that a school was necessary to teach and evaluate the morality of people serving in the navy. This outrage pushed people like Bancroft and Congress to create the academy. The need for morality and diplomacy funnily enough spurned the creation of classes such as dancing and philosophy at the academy. Another reason came about because in the 1830s people in the navy were going over to England and seeing their ships, the midshipman didn’t have the necessary education to replicate them. As you see a mix of practicality and a good dose of public outrage is a great motivator.