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


The First Frigates--Technology and Philosophy

The work of laying out the hull designs for the two classes of American frigates began in a Philadelphia molding loft. Humphreys and Fox first constructed scale half-models of the hulls that could then be disassembled for the production of full-sized templates. These templates were to be used by the various shipyards in constructing the actual ships.

The partnership between Humphreys and Fox quickly became strained. Though Fox had been selected as Humphreys's assistant, Fox possessed greater technical skill in ship design. Fox criticized the large size Humphreys demanded, insisting that overbuilding the ships would render them cumbersome and unwieldy. He also disagreed with the bluntness of Humphreys's stem design, arguing that a stem of more rake would afford the ship better speed and agility. Soon the disagreement between the two men grew to the point that Humphreys would only communicate with Fox through letters. As the schism grew, both men began to pursue their own independent designs, presenting them to Knox for approval. Feeling unqualified to judge the respective qualities of the designs, Knox turned to yet a third designer, William Doughty. Through this intercession, the final plans were accepted. The approved designs were a compromise, incorporating Humphreys's preference for an unusually large size along with Fox's technical improvements.

Many historians have labeled these innovative frigates the first "pocket battleships." Not as large as the 74-gun men-of-war that were typical in world navies, but more powerful than the normal frigate found in the British navy (British frigates typically had twenty-eight to thirty-two guns), the American frigates could overmatch other frigates and possibly even challenge large ships of the line. The new class of American frigate would be the most powerful of that type on the sea. Their extended length allowed them to mount more guns than other frigates. The 44-gun ships were designed to carry thirty 24-pound guns on the gun deck and twenty-eight 42-pound carronades on the quarterdeck and forecastle. The smaller 36-gun ships could mount an impressive twenty-eight 18-pounders on the gun deck with an additional twenty 32-pound guns on the quarterdeck and forecastle.
A live oak. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
The hulls were to be constructed of live oak--a wood far superior in strength to either the white oak or English oak most commonly found in other naval vessels of the time. As independent cruisers able to choose their enemies and outsail those who might prove too powerful, the new American ships would be nearly invincible.

Once the designs were approved, shipyards were contracted to begin the actual construction. For political as well as practical reasons, Knox directed that the building contracts be spread liberally throughout the states. However, the building proceeded at an excruciatingly slow pace, largely due to a lack of supplies, particularly because live oak was not easily obtainable. Found only in the coastal regions and islands off the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, the timber proved far harder to cut and transport than anyone had imagined. Diseases common in the marshy environment further complicated the process.

By 1795, enough live oak had been harvested to allow construction on all six ships. However, other complications arose. Each captain appointed for a future vessel was sent to the shipyard to oversee construction of his ship. He had the right to stipulate changes in construction to meet his own individual ideas. These personal preferences further delayed completion of the ships. In fact, none of the ships was completed by the time Knox resigned as secretary of war in 1795. Two more secretaries--Thomas Pickering and James McHenry--would also come and go before the ships were launched.

In March 1796, as construction of the frigates slowly progressed, a peace accord was announced between the United States and the Dey of Algiers.
The USS Constitution. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
In accordance with clause nine of the Naval Act of 1794--a clause that specifically directed that construction of the frigates be discontinued if peace was established--construction on all six ships was halted. After heated debate, Congress agreed to continue to fund the construction of the three ships closest to completion. Finally, on May 10, 1796, the United States, the first of the nation's new warships, was launched in Philadelphia. This launching was followed on September 7, 1796, by completion of the Constellation, and finally by the Constitution on October 21, 1797.

The following list shows the location of construction and the ultimate fate of all six frigates appropriated by the Act for Providing for a Naval Armament of 1794:

Ship Location of Shipyard Fate
Constitution Boston, Massachusetts Remains in commission
United States Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Broken up 1865
President New York, New York Captured by British 1815
Congress Portsmouth, New Hampshire Broken up 1834
Constellation Baltimore, Maryland Broken up 1853
Chesapeake Gosport, Virginia Captured by British 1813

Continue to:
Franco-American Treaties of 1778

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