Editor’s Note: On May 10, 2022, Naval History and Heritage Command began commemorating the 225th anniversary of the launch of the first of the U.S. Navy’s six frigates (
United States), which began the new United States Navy. The launch of the frigates is a significant moment in both U.S. Navy and American history, and he U.S. Navy’s earliest heroes, achievements, and traditions are part of the six frigates story.
In March 1796, President George Washington faced the prospect that the nascent U.S. Navy was about to end abruptly – even before any of the six frigates building had been launched. The hoped-for peace between the United States and Algiers in North Africa had been settled. According to the "Act to provide a Naval Armament"
signed by Washington on March 27, 1794 if “peace shall take place between the United States and the Regency of Algiers, that no farther proceeding be had under this act”
– in other words construction of the frigates, authorized by the act, was over.
Washington was reluctant to abandon the Navy. On March 15, 1796 he wrote to Congress that he believed halting the frigates’ construction would be detrimental to the country and “I have, therefore, thought it advisable, before taking such a step, to submit the subject to the Senate and House of Representatives, that such measures may be adopted in the premises as may best comport with the public interest.”
By April 20, 1796 the president had his answer with “An Act supplementary to an act entitled ‘An act to provide a Naval Armament’” authorizing the completion of two forty-four and one thirty-six gun frigate.
Each of the six frigates was assigned a “Superintendent” who would be the warship’s future captain. His duties entailed “observing that all parts of the business [of building the frigate] harmonize, and are conformed to the public interests.” They were also admonished, “You will also carefully observe that there be no deviation from the directions which shall be issued with respect to the proportions of the hull, and equipments [sic] of all sorts.”
Building Constellation in Baltimore
Thomas Truxtun had commanded privateers during the American Revolution and was the only one of the six frigate superintendents/captains who had not held a commission in the Continental Army or Navy. According to a Truxtun biography, the captain’s “appointment was a reflection of his unimpeachable reputation as an able mariner and gallant ship commander.”
Truxtun was to oversee “Frigate E,” the thirty-six-gun frigate building in naval constructor David Stodder’s Baltimore shipyard. The warship became Constellation
Truxtun and Joshua Humphreys, the principal frigate designer, were well-acquainted with each other from the days of the American Revolution when Humphreys built three ships for the captain. Truxtun’s biographer described their relationship: “Humphreys, in his methodical way, was a creator and innovator. His friend [Truxtun], without peer as a ship commander, was always a little too willing to give advice and opinions on subjects that he had not mastered.”
Truxtun was not above inserting his opinions and insisting on having his own way, much to Humphreys’ displeasure. Humphreys expressed his frustration in a letter to Tench Coxe, “I cannot help remarking & submitting to my worthy Friends [Truxtun’s] great experience as a sea officers, & taking him on his own ground, he must submitt to the great experience of persons always building, repairing, strengthening Vessels many of which cases never came under his notice, therefore he cannot be a competent Judge.”
When news circulated in 1796 regarding peace with Algiers and the uncertain fate of the frigate-building program, Truxtun wrote directly to President Washington. He advocated for Constellation
to be finished as it was “by far more forward, than the other 36 gun frigate, ordered to be built in New Hampshire [Congress
], And the white oak timber received long Since and Seasoned, is unquestionably Superior, to any in America, Northward of this Latitude.”
Truxtun’s lobbying efforts were successful. Constellation
was named the thirty-six-gun frigate to be completed (United States
were the two forty-four-gun frigates). But Truxtun’s exertions continued and encompassed his ideas on Constellation
’s structure. Most notably was his objection to the installation of diagonal riders in the frigate’s hold. Humphreys was well-aware that his frigates, his “long ships,”
would be prone to hogging. A wooden vessel hogged due to a combination of the vessel’s weight, internal forces, and buoyancy which caused the keel to curve downwards at the bow and the stern. This curvature resembled the rounded back of a pig or hog, hence the name. If left unchecked, excessive hog could break a keel and destroy the vessel. Humphreys therefore included several strengthening elements to support the large frigates including diagonal riders – long internal, stiffening braces layered on top of the interior ceiling in the warship’s hold. Truxtun insisted that the diagonal riders were unnecessary, that European navies did not use them
and that the riders would waste precious storage space needed for supplies. Secretary of War James McHenry, in consultation with Humphreys, attempted to moderate the disagreement. He noted that most European navy vessels hogged and because of this well-known problem, he wished that Truxtun “should retain two thirds of the riders originally proposed which may, perhaps, be sufficient to guard against the apprehended inconvenience while it will encrease [sic] your room for stowage.”
Truxtun pressed his request and on December 5, 1796 McHenry capitulated, “At your instance [insistence] and resting entirely on your experience, I consent that the Diagonal riders be omitted.”
Constellation is launched
Despite several internal conflicts, construction continued and Constellation
’s launch date drew near. When Humphreys launched United States
on May 10, 1797 the weight of the vessel was so great that it could not be restrained on its ways. Essentially United States
launched itself into the Delaware River over the heads of twenty workmen trapped underneath, but who escaped unharmed. The warship struck bottom and slightly damaged its false keel. Fearful of repeating that near-disastrous launch, McHenry made a curious request -- for Humphreys to go to Baltimore “and in conjunction with Captn
Truxtun, and Mr
David Stodder the Constructor, consult on the best Method to be pursued in Launching the Frigate Constellation
into the Water (so as to float) without Sustaining injury by the Operation.”
In August, Stodder announced that the frigate would be launched on September 7, 1797.
When launch day arrived, everything was in readiness at the Baltimore shipyard. The Time Piece
noted, “The novelty of the scene, (she being the first Frigate ever built in this port) drew forth an immense concourse of citizens, of both sexes, and of all ages; and, notwithstanding the earliness of the hour, appointed for the launch, the number, we are warranted in saying, was never equalled [sic] on any occasion, in this place.” Stodder’s orders to the carpenters and workmen tasked with wedging up the heavy frigate “was communicated by a ruffle from the drum…” The newspaper noted that when everything was ready Constellation
“moved gracefully and majestically down her ways, amidst the silent amazement of thousands of spectators, to her destined element, into which she plunged with such ease and safety, as to make the hills resound with reiterated bursts of joyful exclamations.”
Later that day Captain Thomas Truxtun wrote to his friend Joshua Humphreys. In addition to reporting the successful event Truxtun included a dig or two against the acclaimed ship designer. “At 9 A M, the Frigate Constellation
was Safely launched – A Better Launch I never Saw; the Ship Cleared the ways, without touching or Meeting with the Smallest Accident…” Truxtun concluded with a note, “The Ship did not Strain in the least, or Straiten [sic] her Sheer –”
Less than one year later, Captain Truxtun was praising Constellation
’s sailing qualities, especially in comparison to the forty-four-gun frigates United States
. While deployed in the Caribbean during the Quasi-War with France Truxtun noted, “I have seen so much in the public Prints of the Sailing of Barry’s Ship [United States
], and so much more bombastical Nonsense of that at Boston [Constitution
], that I am at a Loss to make a Report, with Respect to the Sailing of this Frigate on that Score, with any Degree of Satisfaction to myself. I shall therefore only say, that in no Instance of Chace [sic] during our Cruize, was half our Canvass necessary, to overhawll [sic] the fastest sailing Vessel we met, some of which were termed before [meeting with Constellation
“An Act to provide a Naval Armament,” Third Congress. Sess. I. Ch. 12, more commonly known as the Naval Armament Act.
G[eorge] Washington, “Procuring Materials and Building Frigates Suspended,” March 15, 1796, American State Papers, Naval Affairs
Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statues at Large of the United States of America…
(Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1845), 1:453-454.
Henry Knox, “Construction of Frigates Under the Act of March 27, 1794, Instructions from the Secretary of War to the Agents, Superintendents, Constructors, and Clerks of the Yards, for building the frigates of the United States,” December 27, 1794, American State Papers, Naval Affairs
Eugene S. Ferguson, Truxtun of the Constellation: The Life of Commodore Thomas Truxtun, U.S. Navy 1755-1822
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), 102-103.
Joshua Humphreys to Tench Coxe, [29 September 1794]. Joshua Humphreys Papers, Coll. #306, Vol. 1, 1793-1797, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Joshua Humphreys to James McHenry, 12 May 1797, Gazette of the United States, and the Philadelphia Advertizer
(Philadelphia, PA), 13 May 1797, p. 3.
This assertion by Truxtun is incorrect as riders were used as early as the 1500s as evidenced in the structure of the archaeological wreck of HMS Mary Rose
, displayed at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Portsmouth, UK.
[James McHenry] to Joshua Humphreys, 25 July 1797. Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France
 The Time Piece
(New York) 15 September 1797, n.pg.
Thomas Truxtun to Joshua Humphreys, 7 September 1797. Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War…
Thomas Truxtun to [Benjamin Stoddert], 16 August 1798. Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War…