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Chapter 22

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 24
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p108  Chapter 23

Frigates are Planned

An extraordinary lot of thought and work had already been expended on the naval force that, according to the Act of Congress, was merely to be used to make peace with Algiers. It was beginning to appear that this Act might indeed be the opening wedge for a standing Navy. And so it was.

President Washington, in deciding to build rather than buy the ships, was clearly flouting the wishes of the majority of Congress, which included those who had agreed to the Navy only on condition that it be used solely against Algiers, as well as those who were unalterably opposed to it under any circumstances. To build the ships would take longer, and the cost would be greater, than to buy them. But he was looking at a broader picture than was the Congress. He was considering not only depredations by Algerine corsairs; he was also concerned about British interference with American commerce as a result of her war with France. Britain denied the right of neutral vessels to enter her enemy's ports, and under this policy she had searched and seized many American ships suspected of carrying war supplies to France. Without a Navy, there was nothing that Americans could do except protest, and protestations were treated with contempt. Therefore, the President was eager to build a respectable naval force that would, if it became necessary, be useful against European as well as Barbary powers. He directed the building of such ships as would, in his view, best comport with the national dignity and honor.

 p109  Soon after the Naval Act was passed, Secretary Knox had invited several shipbuilders to help him lay plans for the six vessels that it called for. He asked John Hackett, who had built the Continental frigate Alliance, to come down from Newburyport in Massachusetts; he enlisted the aid of Joshua Humphreys, Philadelphia's leading builder; John Wharton, in whose yard Humphreys had gotten his start; and William Penrose, another Philadelphian.1

Humphreys, a good friend of Captain Truxtun and builder of three of his ships,​2 had been a master builder for nearly twenty years. He had never been to sea; he had never seen a ship of the line; but he had studied every work on naval architecture he could find; he had built and repaired hundreds of vessels; and he was always ready to talk about the building and working of ships.​3 He was prepared to lead the discussions in the War Office. He had been thinking for a long time about the problem of building a Navy, and he had worked out a bold but well-reasoned plan of action. In the first place, he wanted ships that would be a match for the individual ships of any navy: large, fast sailing frigates of well over a thousand tons, mounting about thirty heavy guns on a single gun deck and a few smaller ones on the quarter-deck. Such a vessel would be able to attack a double-deck ship of the line in blowing weather, when the double-decker could not open her lower gun ports; in light winds, the frigate could avoid an action by outsailing the heavier ship.4

He was opposed by Penrose, who thought the proposed frigates were too large and who pointed out that the British never built single-deckers so large. Humphreys said that the French had cut down some of their double-deckers, seventy-fours, to make heavy frigates whose dimensions were almost the same as those he was proposing. He said further that he thought that when it came to naval architecture the French were superior to the British. He concluded with the claim that "we have not followed the tracts of that nation, but in my opinion have gone before them, & let me say we cannot excell if we are to travel after them."5

Humphreys carried the day, and the Secretary of War asked him to prepare a model showing his version of the proposed frigates. When the model was delivered, Secretary Knox asked for further criticism and opinions "in order to make them the Most perfect ships." Finally, when Knox had gathered together many ideas and had adjudicated diverse opinions, he returned the model, with some  p110 signal alterations, to Humphreys and directed him to prepare the drafts, or plans, for the frigates.6

While Humphreys toiled over his drawing board, the Secretary went on to another problem. Having settled on the size and lines of the ships' hulls, he now wanted to establish spar dimensions. He asked Captain Truxtun's help on this job.7

Before he had even thought of the Navy, Captain Truxtun had spent many long watches beneath tropical skies thinking about and drawing sketches of the masts and yards that always towered above him. At length he had worked out a system that could be used in fitting out a new ship. "To find the length of the main-mast," he wrote, "I take twice the breadth of the beam, and one‑sixth of the sum, and add them together; and to find the length of the main yard, I take twice the breadth of the beam. . . ." and so on, through the forest of spars, from jib boom to ensign staff and from lower masts to royal yards.

Applying his system of masting to the new frigates, he compiled a list of spar dimensions which he submitted to the War Office with the wish that "the most experienced sea‑officers, of skill here, or other ingenious persons, who have been at sea," be consulted before his dimensions were considered final. "I mention sea officers," he continued, "because it is almost impossible that any other description of men, who have not had an opportunity of being often at sea, can form a proper judgment on this important subject."8

Builder Humphreys, disregarding his friend's deprecatory remark, found time to disagree in principle and detail with Captain Truxtun's system of masting. He had seen ships before and after masting, and he was acutely aware of the problems involved; moreover, he had over a period of years devised his own system.9

Captain Barry also submitted a list of spar dimensions; he agreed with neither of the other two.​10 Captain Truxtun's were on the conservative side; he believed that ships of war were generally over-sparred. But any system of masting was but an empirical approach to the dimensions that would please a seaman's eye; "true principles" of masting were never found. Even Captain Truxtun admitted that if a ship spread her sails and worked satisfactorily "we ought never to forget to give Mr. Chance his proportion of Credit for it."​11 The Secretary of War neatly side-stepped the issue, when he found it unresolvable,  p111 by leaving the masting entirely to the discretion of the builder and captain of each individual ship.12

Captain Truxtun's views on the subject were contained in his book. To illustrate his system, he had asked Josiah Fox, a young marine architect who was helping Humphreys with his drafts, to draw for him a picture of one of the new frigates complete with spars and sails. "Be pleased to take pains with this draft," he said, and "let me have it, as soon as possible. . . . When you have done, I will make you a present, of a handsome piece of India cloth for your wife."13

Secretary Knox had agreed to have an engraving made of Fox's completed draft, "the same being wanted for Public use." He then told Captain Truxtun he might borrow the plate to use in his book, "which if as complete as I augur from an estimate of your nautical talents," said Knox, "will be a valuable acquisition to the United States."14

Even while all of this was going on, Captain Truxtun was concerned with another aspect of the preparations for a Navy. He was to superintend the building of the ship he would one day command. It was soon determined that his ship was to be built in Baltimore.

The Author's Notes:

1 Navy 1790‑98, LB, April 1, May 12, 1794.

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2 Commerce, London Packet, Delaware.

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3 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, III, October 7, 1801.

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4 Ibid., I, Humphreys to Robert Morris, January 6, 1793. The basis for this statement is Shipbuilder's Repository, or a Treatise on Marine Architecture (London, 1789), p41. See also statement by Josiah Fox to this effect in PMS: Fox Papers, Fox to Secretary of the Navy, November 27, 1826.

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5 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 203; American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive (Washington, D. C., 1832‑61), Naval Affairs, I, 6‑8.

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6 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 165, June 5, 1795; Navy 1790‑98 LB, May 12, 1794.

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7 Ibid., June 26, July 17, 1794.

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8 Thomas Truxtun, Remarks, Instructions, and Examples, Relating to the Latitude and Longitude (Philadelphia, 1794), Part II, i, ii, iv, viii.

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9 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 31.

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10 Barbary Wars, I, 120.

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11 Truxtun, op. cit., Part II, viii; Quasi‑War, I, 564.

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12 Barbary Wars, I, 128.

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13 PMS: Fox Papers, Truxtun to Fox, November 21, 1794.

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14 Navy 1790‑98 LB, December 18, 1794.

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Page updated: 9 Aug 13