Who Was Alfred Thayer Mahan? - Biography & Theories

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You may know that the United States has a large navy, but how much do you know about the person who influenced its expansion during the 20th century? In this lesson, you will learn about Alfred Thayer Mahan and his theories.

U.S. Naval Power

The United States has the most powerful navy in the world, but this was not always the case. During the 1700s and 1800s, the United States had a large enough navy to defend itself, but it was nowhere near big enough to make us a world power. The theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, however, did quite a bit to influence not only the U.S. Navy, but other sea powers around the world.

Early Life

Alfred Thayer Mahan was born on September 27, 1840 in West Point, New York. The city of West Point may ring a bell for you; it's the home of the United States Military Academy. Mahan was practically born into the military. His father was a professor at the Academy, so it made a lot of sense for a young Alfred to follow in his footsteps. Mahan attended a private school near Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1852.

During this time, he met Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Davis believed that Mahan had a strong naval mind and encouraged him to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1856. Thanks to this influence, Mahan graduated from the Naval Academy in 1859 and embarked on a nearly 40-year career in the Navy. To put that in perspective, depending on your rank in the Navy today, you can retire after just 20 years of service...Mahan served nearly double that!

Portrait of Alfred Thayer Mahan
Portrait of Alfred Thayer Mahan


After graduating from the Naval Academy, Mahan received his first assignment on the frigate Congress, a massive warship used to help escort other smaller ships. He served on the Congress from 1859 until 1861, the year the Civil War broke out. As a lieutenant during the Civil War, Mahan fought for the Union in several key battles, including the attack on Port Royal in South Carolina. In 1863, he had the chance to share his wisdom and knowledge as an instructor at the Naval Academy before returning to the sea.

Frigate U.S.S. Congress
Frigate U.S.S. Congress

From the mid-1860s all the way through the early 1880s, Mahan had the chance to travel the world, going to such places as Japan, Europe, and South America. During this time, he worked on the staff of Rear Admiral J.A.B. Dahlgren and oversaw several ships of his own. After about 25 years of service, Mahan was ready to share his experiences and insights and took a job as a lecturer at the Naval War College in Rhode Island. At this time, he was still considered active duty in the Navy and was elevated to the rank of captain in 1885. Beginning in 1886, Mahan served as the college's president for three years.

Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan

Later Life

In 1890, Mahan published his first of over 20 books about naval and sea power. Within a few years, Mahan was ready to slow down; after all, he had been in the navy for about 37 years. In 1896, Mahan asked to be placed on the retired list, but that didn't last long. In 1898, the United States entered into the Spanish-American War, and Mahan was called back up to active duty. Even though he was still on the retired list, Mahan was elevated to rear admiral, one of the highest ranks in the U.S. Navy. Mahan died in 1914 at the age of 74.

Mahan's Theories

While Alfred Thayer Mahan's 40 years of service in the U.S. Navy is impressive on its own, his most significant impact on history comes from his theories on naval power, especially those explained in his first two books: The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 and The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812. According to Mahan, history shows that having a strong presence on the seas is one of the biggest factors that helps a country win wars and become an influential world power.

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783
The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783

From the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the U.S.; factories around the country were producing manufactured goods. Mahan saw this as both a blessing and a curse. At some point, the U.S. would produce way more goods than it actually needed...but what exactly do you do with the extras? According to Mahan, the United States should start looking for new markets around the world to sell their products. To do this, Mahan outlined a three-step process:

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