Born at Boston, Mass., Porter served in the Quasi-War with France first as midshipman on board USS Constellation, participating in the capture of L’Insurgente February 9, 1799; secondly, as 1st lieutenant of Experiment and later in command of USS Amphitheatre. During the Barbary Wars (1801–07) Porter was 1st lieutenant of Enterprise, New York and Philadelphia and was taken prisoner when Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor October 31, 1803. After his release on June 3, 1805, he remained in the Mediterranean as acting captain of Constitution and later captain of Enterprise.
He was in charge of the naval forces at New Orleans 1808–10. As commander of USS Essex (1799) in the War of 1812, Captain Porter achieved fame by capturing the first British warship of the conflict, HMS Alert, August 13, 1812 as well as several merchantmen. In 1813 he sailed Essex around Cape Horn and cruised in the Pacific warring on British whalers. On March 28, 1814 Porter was forced to surrender to Captain James Hillyar off Valparaiso after an engagement with the frigate HMS Phoebe and the sloop Cherub, when his ship became too disabled to offer any resistance.
From 1815 to 1822 he was a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners but gave up this post to command the expedition for suppressing piracy in the West Indies 1823–25. While in the West Indies suppressing piracy, Porter invaded the town of Fajardo, Puerto Rico (a Spanish colony) to avenge the jailing of an officer from his fleet. The U.S. government did not sanction Porter's act, and he was court-martialed upon his return to the U.S. Porter resigned and in 1826 entered the Mexican Navy as its commander-in-chief 1826–29. He died on March 3, 1843 while U.S. Minister to Turkey. He was buried in the cemetery of the Philadelphia Naval Asylum, and then in 1845 reburied in The Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
He was the father of Admiral David Dixon Porter (1813-1891) and the adopted father of Admiral David Farragut (1801-1870), two of the leading naval officers of the American Civil War, and father of William D. Porter.
See USS Porter for ships named in their honor.
The town of Porter and the county of Porter in Northwest Indiana are named after David Porter. In 1836 the county seat of Porter County, Indiana was originally named Portersville, also named for David Porter. It was changed to Valparaiso (Indiana, USA) in 1837, named for Porter's participation in the naval action near Valparaiso, Chile during the War of 1812.