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 the U.S. Navy’s earliest heroes, achievements, and traditions are part of the six frigates story.
“On Saturday last, the keel of the United States frigate, building in this town [Boston], was finished laying.”
“Frigate D” 
the U.S. Navy warship building in Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston’s North End began like the other five frigates authorized by the "Act to Provide a Naval Armament"
. Its four-piece white oak keel, fashioned from enormous trees felled in Trenton, New Jersey, was finished on May 16, 1795 as noted in the Columbian Centinel
. At the end of that year, Secretary of War Timothy Pickering proudly reported that the frigate’s “keel is completed and laid on the blocks. The pieces are scarfed and bolted to each other in the best manner. The stern frame is now completing, and will be soon ready to raise.” 
Despite this optimistic report, Constitution
(its given name), experienced building delays due to difficulties in obtaining the structural live oak from St. Simons Island, Georgia
. But by spring of 1796, Constitution
’s construction was moving at a regular pace. Many dozens of artificers and mechanics circulated through Hartt’s yard providing the skills and man power for the different building stages. Of the hundreds of hand tools to build the warship, two survived and were returned to Constitution
. During the ship’s 1931-1934 National Cruise (a towed voyage to the three coasts of the United States) T. Lamar Jackson presented to Commander Louis J. Gulliver a broad axe and adz purportedly used by Jacob Sibley of Freedom, Maine during the frigate’s construction.
Constitution’s Launch Preparations
For nearly three years, Bostonians had watched the frigate’s hull grow. As the final weeks of construction drew to a close in the summer of 1797, brief newspaper notices, some quite poetic, kept citizens abreast of the various stages, “The ‘CONSTITUTION’ Frigate building here progresses finely. – Preparations for launching her are in forwardness; and before a month expires we expect to see her elegant form embraced by her betrothed element.”
In late August, Constitution
’s captain, Samuel Nicholson, wrote to Capt. John Barry of United States
with information and to seek his advice, “we are in a fair way to finish and Complete the Frigate building here, wch. [sic] be assured will be a very Complete Ship, we are making every preparation for launching her the next new moon….Genl [sic] Jackson [purchasing agent] wishes I should write to you for information respecting an Entertainment at our Launch, as you have allready [sic] gone through this business, you can best advise [sic]. (We expect the Honor of the Presidents [sic] Company)[.]”
’s launch, Claghorn distributed a broadside alerting Bostonians to the long-awaited event. He noted that only honored guests, including President John Adams, would be allowed into the shipyard. A curious and revealing admonition was Claghorn’s order, “It is suggested, as the tide will be full, that it would be necessary to the safety of the spectators, particularly women and children, that they do not approach in crowds too near the margins of the contiguous wharves, as the sudden entrance of so large a body as the Frigate, will occasion an instantaneous swell of the water, the height of which cannot be easily calculated, and against which, therefore, the discretion of the people ought amply to guard.”
That Claghorn actually imagined Constitution
’s hull would cause a tidal wave dangerous to spectators provides an inkling of how truly awesome the towering frigate hull, the height of a four-story building, seemed to Bostonians. Hundreds of spectators were expected and a Massachusetts newspaper reported, “It is said that 50 dollars were offered for the use of part of a house near the navy yard, to see the sight
How did the launch unfold on September 20, 1797? Several eyewitnesses recorded the event. Simeon Skillin, a Boston carver, noted in his almanac, “the Flags & Pendants displayed – announce the Launching of the Frigate Constitution
, the Navy Yard is Honor’d by a Visit of the President of the United States the Governor, & a Vast Concourse of Spectators, a most Brilliant Collection of Ladies, every thing Promises fair, …but alas how futile are the Anticipations of Mortals, the Constitution
after moving Slowly about 20 feet remain'd, Immoveably [sic] fixed, nor could all the force of Levers Screws & Tackles, with a Numerous & Active gang of Workmen, Alter her Situtation[.]”
Salem’s Reverend William Bentley travelled to Boston for the launch and wrote in his diary, “Laid off in the Portland Packet, but we were disappointed. No means could succeed & the Frigate moved only 19 feet. The Concourse was great & nearly 200 boats & Vessels of all sizes were anchored in the river. The Shores of Charleston [sic] & of Noddles Island were covered, as were the tops of all the houses. No damage was done, excepting some small craft went foul of each other, but without great injury.”
A very disappointed Claghorn wrote to Secretary McHenry, “Having before stated to you my intention of launching the frigate CONSTITUTION on the 20th instant, the necessary preparations were made to that end; and, at the time appointed, all the blocks and shores were removed, with full expectation of her moving gently into the water. She, however, did not start until screws and other machinery had been applied; and then she moved only about twenty-seven feet. Concluding that some hidden cause had impeded her progress, and the tide ebbing fast, I decided it to be most prudent to block and shore her up, and examine carefully into the cause of her stopping. I found that the part of the ways which had not before received any of the weight, had settled about half an inch, which added to some other cause, of no great importance in itself, had occasioned the obstruction.”
The Columbian Centinel
reported that because of United States' uncontrolled launch on May 10, 1797
Claghorn had leveled Constitution
’s launch ways “to prevent these evils” when it came to his frigate’s launch.
The next day, Claghorn had Constitution
raised by two inches with wedges and removed “any apparent defects.” The Columbian Centinel
published a notice the morning of September 22nd announcing the second attempt was scheduled for one o’clock that afternoon. The paper assured its readers that the “spectators will be nearly as numerous this day, as they were on Wednesday, and the same respectable persons will be visitors at the navy-yard.”
Reverend Bentley again attended and wrote succinctly in his diary, “The launching of the Frigate was again attempted in vain. People not so numerous as before.”
Claghorn explained the second attempt, “a second attempt was made on the 22d instant; and, upon the removal of her supports, she moved freely for about thirty-one feet, and then stopped. On this unexpected event, as she was somewhat advanced on the new wharf, which was built for her to pass over only, and not to rest upon, I judged it advisable to suspend any further operations, although it might have been possible, with the machinery previously prepared, to have pressed her into the water; but if she had been constrained twenty or thirty feet further, and then have stopped, her situation would have been critical, on a foundation by no means solid: accordingly, she was perfectly secured in her new situation.”
Rachel Bradford’s vivid physical description of Claghorn, whom she calls the “Master Ship Builder” in a letter, captures the effects of the two failed launches on him, “…the chagrin of the Master Ship Builder who actually appeard [sic] to have lost flesh in the eight and forty hours, from mortification and vexation…”
As we leave Constitution
suspended between solid ground and the waters of Boston Harbor, Joshua Humphreys, the frigates’ principal designer, provides sympathy and a philosophical outlook, “I was informed of the misfortune that attended the Frigate at Boston… I cannot help feeling for the Situation of the Frigate as well as for Col. Claghorn, whose situation must be mortifying…” But, he added, “Such circumstances will sometimes happen after the greatest care has been taken.”
Thank you for reading Part 1 of the story behind the launch of USS Constitution.
Stay tuned for, USS Constitution
’s Launch – “A Magnificent Spectacle!” – Part II on October 21st.
 Columbian Centinel
(Boston, MA), “FEDERAL FRIGATE,” May 20, 1795.
Joshua Humphreys to Henry Jackson, Naval Agent, Boston, 30 December 1795. Joshua Humphreys Papers, Coll. #306, Vol. 1, 1793-1797, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Timothy Pickering to the Vice President of the U.S. and President of the Senate, 12 December 1795. Naval Documents Related to the United States with the Barbary Powers
 Columbian Centinel
(Boston, MA), “NAVAL ARTICLES,” August 9, 1797.
Samuel Nicholson to John Barry, 28 August 1797. Area file of Naval Records Collection (Atlantic and Mediterranean), 1775-1927. National Archives (RG45). By stating that he planned to launch Constitution
on “the next new moon,” Nicholson was intending to launch on September 20, 1797.
George Claghorn. “Navy-Yard, BOSTON, September 18, 1797” broadside facsimile published in Edmund J. Carpenter, “Old Ironsides,” The New England Magazine
, November, 1897, 278.
 Greenfield (MA) Gazette. Or, MASSACHUSETTS and VERMONT TELEGRAPHE
, September 21, 1797, p.3, c.2.
[Simeon Skillin, Jr.], “September 20th
1797” diary entry, 1797 Almanac
, USS Constitution Museum Collection. Several eyewitnesses give varying distances that Constitution
moved down its launchways; the distance was actually twenty-seven feet.
[William Bentley], The Diary of William Bentley, D.D.
(Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1907: Salem, MA: Higginson Book Company, n.d.), 20 September 1797, II:237. Citations refer to Higginson Book edition.
George Claghorne [sic] to James McHenry, 24 September 1797. Copy of typewritten transcription of letter from the Dukes Country Historical Society, Edgartown, MA.
 Columbian Centinel
, September 23, 1797.
 Columbian Centinel
, “THE LAUNCH,” September 22, 1797 as reprinted in The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser
, September 27, 1797. This article states that President John Adams was to be in attendance again, yet there is supporting documentation of his attendance at the second launch.
Bentley, 22 September 1797, II: 238.
Claghorne [sic] to McHenry, 24 September 1797.
Rachel Bradford to Elias Boudinot, 26 September 1797. USS Constitution Museum Collection.
Joshua Humphreys to The Honorable Secretary [James McHenry], 4 October 1797. Joshua Humphreys Papers, Coll. #306, Vol. 1, 1793-1797, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.