Beginning a Legend
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
The late summer of 1785 found the young and poor United States without a navy. It couldn’t afford one. During the same period, American merchant ships were fanning out across the world’s oceans seeking the commerce that would improve the nation’s financial situation. They, however, ran into a growing problem that finally would force the country to develop a navy.
Piracy on the Barbary Coast — the northern coast of Africa — dated back at least to the late Seventh Century. It seems to have been established by the Moslems who first conquered the area as a part of the holy war — jihad — against infidels, then took to preying on infidel shipping in the nearby Mediterranean Sea as a way both to continue the jihad and to make a profit. Christian ships, regardless of nationality, were held for ransom and their crews forced into slavery. The principal city-states engaged in this activity were Tripoli (Libya), Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco. Perhaps the best known among these marauders were the Barbarossas: brothers Arouj and Kahair-ed-Din, and the latter’s son, Hassan, who were particularly active in the middle portion of the Sixteenth Century.
During that same period, the burgeoning European states came into violent contact with the pirates of Barbary.
The British attacked Tunis, and the Dutch both Tunis and Algiers, in efforts to end the piracy and free the slaves. Over the years, relations involved war, alliance, bribe, and outright subsidy in order at least to mitigate the piratical effects on national commerce. About the time of the American Revolution, France was paying Algiers the equivalent of $200,000 annually in tribute, while the British and Spaniards probably were anteing up even more. The Danes, the Dutch, the Swedes, and the Venetians also kicked in their shares, all hoping to have their merchantmen spared piratical depredation.
With the coming of independence, American merchantmen lost the protection of British tribute money and the Royal Navy. In the late summer of 1785, for instance, the American schooner Mariaof Boston was taken by an Algerine xebec carrying 14 guns. One of the seamen enslaved on that occasion was James Leander Cathcart, who subsequently would play a major diplomatic role in the American war against the Barbary pirates (1801-05). Another vessel taken at about that time was the Philadelphia ship Betsey. Her master, Richard O’Brien, also would play an important role in the later war. Neither of these captures stirred a national outcry.
In 1786, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were named commissioners to seek the release of the American vessels and their crews. They learned that the Dey of Algiers wanted $56,496 — about $2850 per man — to release them. It was a sum the United States was not prepared to pay. In 1790, after he had returned home, Jefferson sent a study to Congress reporting they had three options: (1) insure cargoes, regularly ransom crews at a fixed rate, and conduct business as usual; (2) pay safe conduct tribute; or (3) fight. Congress decided to ransom the prisoners, and finally appropriated the monies in May 1792. Unfortunately, the agent designated to conduct negotiations, John Paul Jones, died before receiving his appointment. His alternate, Thomas Barclay, also died just after receiving his instructions. Before another agent could be designated, the British, for their own reasons, concluded a truce between Algiers and Portugal, ending both a seven-year conflict and the Portuguese blockade of the Straits of Gibraltar, which had kept Algerine pirates out of the Atlantic. In the last three months of 1793, eleven American merchantmen and more than one hundred crewmen fell victim to the pirates. Finally, the situation received the full attention of the President and Congress.
The Third Congress convened on 2 December 1793, immediately faced with what to do about continuing Indian troubles on the western frontier and the high-handed treatment of neutral shipping by both British and French belligerents. Six days later, the newspapers in the nation’s capitol carried the first stunning accounts of the Algerine activity in the Atlantic. President Washington sent Congress a message on the subject on the 16th, together with a State Department report on foreign trade. There followed nearly three weeks of secret debates, conducted amidst a flurry of fact and fiction appearing in the local press. The House narrowly adopted three resolutions on 2 January 1794: (1) to appropriate additional money for diplomatic expenses; (2) to provide a naval force sufficient to protect American commerce from the Algerine corsairs; and (3) to establish a committee to determine the size and cost of this force. The Select Committee, composed of six Federalists and three Republicans, was heavily weighted with pro-shipping people. Its report, delivered on 20 January, was based upon estimates submitted by Secretary of War Henry Knox, which, in turn, was based upon information he had been gathering on his own for four years, as well as those documents most recently provided by the President and the Secretary of State. The Committee recommended that four 44-gun (18- and 9-pounders) and two 20-gun ships be constructed. For the construction, it optimistically estimated the sum of $600,000.
The full House debate on the report didn’t begin until 16 February, by which time the members had had an opportunity to study it and split along predictable lines: Northerners vs. Southerners; tidewater merchants vs. inland agrarian interests. Those against argued that the proposed naval force was far too expensive, but even so inadequate to the purpose. Furthermore, they said, it was a menace to democratic government, given the aristocratic image of naval officers inherited from the British. And, speaking of the British, such a development might upset them and lead to overt action against the United States. And finally, building a navy might lead the Algerines to believe we were not negotiating in good faith. The pro-navy people responded, agreeing that a navy was an expensive proposition, but pointing out that, expensive as it would be, still it would cost less than the ongoing inflated insurance rates currently being paid by shippers. As for being a menace to the government, it was noted that a defenseless government was equally in danger of overthrow. It was the belief of those for a navy that the force proposed was adequate for the limited purpose intended, and therefore less of a burden than a full-blown navy would be — and less of a hazard to civil liberty.
In other words, it was barely enough force to beat down the pirates.
The debate continued for nearly a month, and then Washington sent over additional documents in support of the bill. Among these was a 27 November 1793 letter from our consul in Lisbon, David Humphries, wherein he stated “a naval force has now (to a certain degree) become indispensable,” and another from Richard O’Brien, in his ninth year of captivity, who had changed his mind about the use of force and said there was “no alternative.” Additional help for the proponents came on 5 March in the form of a petition from Baltimore merchants for an adequate naval force. And final impetus was gained when the news of the British Orders in Council prohibiting all neutral trade in the French West Indies outraged the Congressmen just two days later.
The complete bill was brought to a vote in the House on 10 March. It was passed 50-39. The opposition had been further weakened by the addition of an article providing for the termination of the program should a peace treaty with Algiers be signed. Senate action seems never to have been in doubt, and on 19 March, with several noncontroversial amendments, the bill was approved without a division. President Washington signed “An act to provide a naval armament” on 27 March 1794. It read, in part: “Whereas the depredations committed by the Algerine corsairs on the commerce of the United States render it necessary that a naval force should be provided for its protection:
“SECTION 1. Be it therefore enacted by the…Congress…, that the President…be authorized to provide, by purchase or otherwise, equip and employ four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each.“SECTION2. And be it further enacted, that there shall be employed on board each of the ships of forty-four guns, one captain, four lieutenants, one lieutenant of marines, one chaplain, one surgeon, and two surgeon’s mates…who shall be appointed and commissioned in like manner as other officers of the United States are.“SECTION 3. And…there shall be employed, in each of said ships, the following warrant officers, who shall be appointed by the President…,to wit: One sailing master, one purser, one boatswain, one gunner, one sail-maker, one carpenter, and eight midshipmen; and the following petty officers, who shall be appointed by the captains of the ships, respectively, in which they shall be employed, viz.: two master’s mates, one captain’s clerk, two boatswain’s mates, one cockswain, one sail-maker’s mate, two gunner’s mates, one yeoman of the gunroom, nine quarter-gunners (and for the four larger ships two additional quarter-gunners), two carpenter’s mates, one armourer, one steward, one cooper, one master-at-arms, and one cook.“SECTION 4. And…the crews of each of the said ships of forty-four guns, shall consist of one hundred and fifty seamen, one hundred and three midshipmen and ordinary seamen, one sergeant, one corporal, one drum, one fife, and fifty marines;…over and above the officers herein before mentioned.“SECTION 5…[crews for 36s]“SECTION 6. And…the pay and subsistence of the respective commissioned and warrant officers be as follows: A captain, $75 per month, and 6 rations per day; a lieutenant, $40 per month, and 3 rations…; a lieutenant of marines, $26 per month, and 2 rations…; a chaplain, $40 per month, and 2 rations…; a sailing-master, $40 per month, and 2 rations…; a surgeon, $50 per month, and 2 rations…; a surgeon’s mate, $30 per month, and 2 rations…;a boatswain, $14 per month, and 2 rations…; a gunner, $14 per month, and 2 rations…; a sailmaker, $14 per month, and 2 rations…; a carpenter, $14 per month, and 2 rations…“SECTION 7. And…the pay to…the petty officers, midshipmen, seamen, ordinary seamen, and marines shall be fixed by the President…and…each of the said persons shall be entitled to 1 ration per day.“SECTION 8. And…the ration shall consist of…: Sunday…bread, …beef, and…rice: Monday, …bread, …pork, …peas or beans, and…cheese: Tuesday, …bread, …beef, …potatoes or turnips, and pudding: Wednesday, …bread, …butter, or in lieu thereof,…molasses, …cheese, and…rice: Thursday, …bread, …pork, and…peas or beans: Friday, …bread, …salt fish, …butter…or… oil, and…potatoes: Saturday, …bread, …pork, …peas or beans, and…cheese: And there shall also be allowed one half pint of distilled spirits per day, or, in lieu thereof, one quart of beer per day, to each ration.“SECTION 9. Provided always, and be it further enacted, that if a peace shall take place between the United States and the Regency of Algiers, that no further proceedings be had under this act.”
This, then, was the act that was to lead, three years and many vicissitudes later, to the launching of a warship rated 44 guns named Constitution. Nothing in the events of her building, her launching, or, indeed, her early days at sea presaged the fame and glory to be achieved by this fabled frigate. It was, however, the beginning of that legend.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. A Timonier Book. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1997.
—. Creating A Legend. A Timonier Book. Chapel Hill: Tryon Publishing Company. 1997.
Smelser, Marshall. The Congress Founds The Navy. South Bend: U. of Notre Dame Press. 1959.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM