By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
Although the congressional act authorizing the construction of Constitution and five other frigates was signed on 27 March 1794, more than a year would pass before the first piece of her hull would be laid on the building ways. Before that could happen, a designer had to be picked, plans had to be drawn up, shipyards selected, and contracts signed for the cutting of the necessary timbers and for the manufacture of the many items needed to complete this most complex system.
The matter of selecting a designer, in fact, occurred before the will of Congress was known, since Secretary of War Henry Knox had had considerable correspondence with Philadelphia shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys for several months and had come to the conclusion that Humphreys was the man for the job. Although it would be June before he was formally hired, Humphreys began work immediately. By the time his position was “official,” his plans both for the 44-gun frigates likeConstitution and the smaller 36-gun units were ready for copying and distribution to the selected shipyards.
Joshua Humphreys’ approach to designing the frigates was first to consider what they were expected to do, and then against whom they were to operate and how many of them there might be. Recognizing that the young United States, still paying for the Revolution and trying to establish its trading partners around the world, would be unable to afford many frigate-size warships, he had the idea that however many were built ought to be big and powerful enough to beat any others of their type in an even fight, but fast enough to escape a fight when the odds were against them. To this end, his designs were for frigates bigger, heavier, faster, and more heavily armed than any other frigates in the world. They would require the toughest materials known to the shipwrights of the day. Their complexity of construction far exceeded anything previously attempted in the country.
While Humphreys was proceeding with his work, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton used a list of materials provided by Humphreys to begin the contracting process on 16 April. Bids were requested of American companies not only for large quantities of the various kinds of wood required, but also for cannon, cannon balls, and kentledge (cast iron ballast blocks). By this time, President Washington had assigned the building sites: Boston was selected for a frigate designated by the letter “B,” in the shipyard of Edmund Hartt. It would be the largest ship yet built in that city. Other building sites were located in Portsmouth (New Hampshire), New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Norfolk, Virginia.
On 9 June 1794, Congress appropriated $688,888.32 for the whole building program, and that same day a contract was let with John T. Morgan for the cutting of live oak, a tough, evergreen form of oak desired for major parts of the ship’s frame (skeleton). Bids for the production of anchors went out on 30 June, two days after the first of the three cannon contracts was let. The contract with Furnace Hope in Rhode Island for the 24-pounders that would go aboard the Boston frigate was let on 9 August. A contract for sails was let during September with the Boston Manufacturing Company. The cutting of live oak on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, began on 23 October, after the end of the malaria season. Mast contracts most probably were let during this period, as well, although they haven’t been found yet. Constitution’s were cut in the vicinity of Unity, Maine, by one Thomas Cooper and a man named Gray, and towed down the coast to Boston.
Copies of Humphreys plans, prepared by assistants Josiah Fox and William Doughty, were delivered to the builders by the end of November. Only on Christmas Eve was Nathaniel Cushing of Pembroke, Massachusetts, issued a contract for five large anchors to be delivered to Boston. At least three of these certainly were for the frigate to be built there.
No-one in government had expected the process to take so long once Congress had authorized the program. In order to make some obvious headway, Secretary Knox decided to concentrate the earliest deliveries of timber and naval supplies at the building yards in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Delays in getting his orders delivered to all concerned resulted in white oak for the hull and white pine for masts being delivered to the Hartt yard by New England contractors prior to their becoming known. The decision was aborted totally when Timothy Pickering became Secretary of War on 1 January 1795.
Pickering’s first noteworthy act dealing with the program was to give President Washington a list of ten proposed names for the ships on 14 March. After some consideration, the President merely underlined the first five on the list and returned it without comment. Constitution, the second name on the list, was assigned to Frigate “B,” which, as yet, was invisible.
White oak timbers for Constitution’s keel arrived in Boston from somewhere in New Jersey at the end of May, and by the end of June the keel had been laid. Over the next six months, shipwrights toiled to shape and put together the stem and stern frames, as well as join the various pieces making up each frame (rib). The work repeatedly was delayed by the slow, uneven pace of deliveries of live oak. Too, deck planking for the gun and berth decks came into the yard ahead of their supporting beams, which were cut but awaited transportation. Nearly all of the planking for the inside and outside of the hull was in the yard seasoning, as were all mast and spar timbers. Much of the iron work (hinges and pins, etc.) had been forged.
In the Boston area, many local contractors were occupied supplying additional items. Paul Revere prepared copper bolts and fastenings for the hull. He also cast a 242-pound bell for the ship. John and Simeon Skillens carved a figurehead of Hercules for the ship’s bow. Ephraim Thayer was making the “fire engines” (portable pumps) for her.
The snail’s pace of frigate construction almost resulted in cancellation of the program. Early in March 1796, word was received that the Dey of Algiers, whose piratical craft had been capturing American merchant ships, had agreed to a treaty that would end these depredations. The last article in the act authorizing the frigates directed that the program would stop if such an agreement was reached. President Washington, however, believed the country ought to have at least a small navy, and on 15 March sent to Congress a letter suggesting that because the work was going pretty well on three of the frigates they should be completed. After a month of debate, the Congress approved completion of the units building in Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia. All the money remaining from the original six-ship appropriation (approximately $229,000) and some $80,000 from another account were committed for the purpose.
In Boston, the pace had been very slow, in part because that city was farthest from most sources of supply. With the cancellation of the New York and Portsmouth units, the Hartt yard experienced the influx of transferred material that included 38 oaken knees, 20 deck beams, 230 side and deck planks, and over 260 other pieces of live oak, white oak, maple, and other wood. The result was that, by the end of that year, all the framing was completed and the wales, the thickest pieces of planking for the outer hull were shaped ready for installation. In the various yard shops, masts and spars were shaped, blocks made, rigging created, and many of the smaller pieces of this vast jigsaw puzzle whose basic ingredient was the wood of over 1500 trees were readied to be fitted into the whole.
This business of building state-of-the-art frigates turned out to be much more difficult and expensive than anyone in government or industry had predicted. Despite the fact that Congress, as we have seen, had authorized the use of all monies remaining from the original six-ship program on the three units to be completed and more, in March of 1797 the Secretary of War, now James McHenry, again had to ask for money merely to build the ships. With so much already committed, Congress could do little else but accede to the request. Constitution received the largest portion: nearly $100,000.
Work on the ship finally was moving along at a rapid pace. By the middle of June, the Secretary was able to report that deck and hull planking was progressing satisfactorily and that caulking of the hull had begun. Seven of the eight ship’s boats were ready, as was a complete set of water casks (enough to carry nearly 50,000 gallons of water). He estimated that Constitution would be ready to launch on about 20 August, about two months away. (USS United States, the other 44-gun frigate building in Philadelphia, had been launched on 10 May). Unhappily, as close to completion as the ships seemed to be, nearly another $300,000 would be needed! Congress came through on 1 July, compelled not only by previous commitment but by a growing anger toward Napoleonic France and French actions against American shipping. It also went a step further and appropriated more than $220,000 to provide for the operation of the ships for their first year in service.
Secretary McHenry’s report of a likely August launching of Constitution proved, once again, to be optimistic. Mid-August found the big frigate — her bulk loomed over the shipyard fence and the neighborhood — having the copper sheathing imported from England applied to what would be the underwater portion of her hull. At this same time, the Furnace Hope delivered the 30 24-pounders, each of which weighed about three and a quarter tons. On 5 September, Constitution’s anchor cable, 22 inches in circumference and 120 fathoms (720 feet) long, was paraded from the Jeffreys and Russell ropewalk to the yard by 293 men accompanied by flags and fife and drums.
Constructor George Claghorn, who, with Navy Agent Henry Jackson, yard owner and Master Carpenter Edmund Hartt, and the prospective skipper of the ship Captain Samuel Nicholson, Sr., U. S. Navy, had overseen her construction, confidently set 20 September as the date of the ship’s launch. (The second of the frigates, the 38-gun Constellation, hit the water on 7 September and undoubtedly added pressure to that already being felt in Boston.) The group’s hopes, however, would be dashed and they would have to endure the further embarrassment of two aborted launch attempts before that happy day was fact, more than a month later than announced.
Hollis, Ira N. The Frigate Constitution. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1931.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. A Timonier Book. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1997.
Paullin, Charles Oscar. Paullin’s History Of Naval Administration, 1775-1911. Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute. 1968.
Smelser, Marshall. Congress Founds The Navy. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press. 1959.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM