Formation of the U.S. Navy

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The Algerine Pirates and the Creation of the Navy
An Act to Provide a Naval Armament, March 18, 1794
Henry Knox and Joshua Humphreys
The First Frigates--Technology and Philosophy


Henry Knox and Joshua Humphreys

Once Congress had authorized the construction of the six frigates outlined in the Act to Provide a Naval Armament of 1794, President Washington assigned the task of overseeing the completion of the project to Secretary of War Henry Knox. Before the American Revolution, Knox had been a Connecticut bookseller. Though he was later Washington's chief of artillery, he had little experience in shipbuilding or naval affairs; nevertheless, he threw himself into the task of creating a navy.

As early as 1791, Congress had authorized the formation of a committee to investigate the possibilities of developing a naval force. Knox, who had been appointed secretary of war in 1789, was active in that investigation. He had become acquainted with several shipwrights; through them, he gained some knowledge of the technology of shipbuilding and the specifications and ratings of warships. Part of the committee's research included the examination of ships of war constructed for the Continental Navy.
Secretary of War Henry Knox was given the task to oversee the development of a new United States Navy.
In general, the committee felt that one of the reasons for the poor performance of that navy was the relatively small size of its ships. It appears that Knox was convinced that the United States should build ships of respectable size and strength. Though the act of 1794 authorizing the construction of the frigates was specifically drafted to defeat the small but troublesome Algerian corsairs, Knox's report and recommendations as to the size and strength of the new ships undoubtedly influenced Congress.

Although the naval act of 1794 specified the class of frigates to be built--three of forty-four guns and three of thirty-six guns--the specific design was left to the executive in charge. Knox, in turn, assigned the task of actually designing these first two classes of naval vessels to Joshua Humphreys, a Philadelphia shipwright.

Humphreys was well-known in the capital, where he operated a shipyard. He had also been active in converting several merchant ships into war vessels for the Continental Navy (an activity that resulted in the Quaker Humphreys being ejected from the Society of Friends). Humphreys had been among the shipwrights Knox had consulted in 1791, and he was in complete agreement as to the type of ships the new navy would require. In a letter to Pennsylvania Senator Robert Morris, Humphreys offered his opinion that since the government could not afford to build a great fleet in terms of numbers, the frigates must be large and strong, yet fast. Humphreys felt that the American frigates should be constructed in such a way that "in blowing weather" they would prevail over double-decked warships, yet be fast enough to escape an overly large enemy if necessary.

Humphreys's two-decked ships would be nearly equivalent in size to a traditional three-decked man-of-war, and the line of the ships would be trimmed and tapered to give them speed and maneuverability. To assist Humphreys in laying out the design of this new breed of frigate, Knox appointed a young shipwright, Josiah Fox, as Humphreys's assistant. A native of England, Fox had taken his apprenticeship in shipbuilding at the Royal Navy Yard in Plymouth. In 1793, Fox had traveled to the United States to study American shipbuilding techniques, particularly American woods used in ship construction. Apparently, Fox was well enough impressed with his research that he ultimately decided to remain in America. Fox's collaboration with Humphreys would launch the first ships of the navy under the federal government.

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The First Frigates--Technology and Philosophy

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