Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William E. Chandler (1882–1885): Secretary of the Navy

Called by some naval historians the "founder of the modern navy," William Chandler enjoyed a long and controversial political career. Born in Concord, New Hampshire, Chandler graduated from Harvard Law School in 1854 and became an early organizer for the Republican Party in New Hampshire.

After serving in the Lincoln and Johnson administrations, he became the secretary of the Republican National Committee in 1868. As a member of the Republican leadership, he spearheaded the nomination of Ulysses S. Grant for President in that year's presidential election and secured Rutherford B. Hayes' victory in Florida in the disputed election of 1876.

Chandler became secretary of the navy under Chester Arthur in 1882. During his three-year tenure, the Navy struggled to modernize its obsolete fleet. After securing a huge boost in funding with the Naval Appropriations Act of 1893, Chandler began the process of transforming the American navy from a wooden sail-powered force to a modern steam-and-steel one.

He ordered construction of the "ABCD" steel cruisers in 1893, maneuvering around the Navy Department's bureaucracy to set up control of the project in a technical advisory board. The first of these ships to be built, the USS Dolphin, suffered from corruption in its contracting, as well as from construction and performance problems, all of which brought Chandler considerable criticism. Nevertheless, this marked the first step in modernizing American shipbuilding capabilities.

Chandler left the Navy Department in 1885 and returned to Washington in 1887 to serve out the term of deceased New Hampshire senator Austin Pike. Chandler served in the Senate until 1901, when he accepted William McKinley's appointment to the Spanish Treaty Claims Commission. After the term of the commission ended in 1908, he returned to New Hampshire to practice law, ostracized by progressive Republicans. He died in 1917.