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.
When we left USS Constitution,
the huge warship had twice failed to launch and was stuck between Edmund Hartt’s shipyard and the waters of Boston Harbor. Months before the September 20, 1797 first attempt, George Claghorn, Constitution
’s constructor, in a congratulatory letter after the launch of the United States,
expressed the hope that he would “give the same pleasing Account of the Frigate Constitution
some time in August….”
Despite Claghorn’s hopes and preparations, Constitution
failed to launch. On September 26, 1797 the Norwich Packet
published Boston news dated September 23: “We this day were in hopes to have announced to the public, the launch of the frigate Constitution
: -- But after two attempts to set her afloat, she remains in perfect safety, on the ways where she was constructed. However mortifying the circumstances may be…there cannot be the least imputable blame attached to the Constructor….”
Joshua Humphreys, the frigates’ principle designer, added thoughts on the failed launches, “I have seen Mr
William Penrose and conversed with him on the subject of the Frigate at Boston, [and] he is of opinion the Ship was laid with too little descent, which was the principle cause of her stoping [sic], that she has not settled not more than an inch or two, and in his opinion has not received any injury, and that she is in as good a situation for Launching as before they attempted it, that by taking up, the Launching ways and cutting the wharf down at the outer end, so as to give the ways more descent the Frigate may be Launched with safety – “
Claghorn made a similar determination. “On examining the ways…, I find they have both settled abaft about one and five-eighths of an inch; which circumstance, as it could not have been foreseen, the descent of the ways was not calculated to overcome, and which solely occasioned her to stop.
I had formed the inclined plane upon the smallest angle that I conceived would convey the ship into the water, in order that she might make her plunge with the least violence, and thereby prevent any strain or injury; I must now give the ways more descent which will remedy the defect occasioned by the settling of the new wharf [built after the September 20 launch]; and I am fully confident that the next trial, at the high tides in October, will be attended with success….”
The October tides coincided with the new moon on Friday, the 20th. Claghorn, however, chose Saturday, the 21st as his third (and what, we can only imagine, he hoped would be his final) attempt to launch Constitution
. Why didn’t he choose the 20th, the date of the new moon and the highest tides? While we don’t know for certain, it may be that Claghorn took no
chances and as the ancient superstition dictated that it was bad luck to launch or send a vessel to sea on a Friday.
As the old saying goes, “third time’s the charm” – and so it was with Constitution
. The Columbian Centinel
described the Boston waterfront on the morning of October 21st, “…Col. Claghorn, anxious to give as early information of the intended operation, as possible, directed a gun to be fired, at day-light on Saturday morning last, as a signal, that at full sea, he should move her into her destined element.” As twice before, Bostonians gathered for the event and “Before noon, a very numerous and brilliant collection of citizens assembled at the spectacle….” But there was no President John Adams in attendance as at the first launch and neither did Salem’s inveterate chronicler, the Reverend William Bentley attend. In fact, Bentley, who had witnessed both failed launches, didn’t even mention
the October 21st event in his diary. On schedule, “at 15 minutes after 12 – at the first strokes at the spur-shores [removal of supporting timbers], she commenced a movement into the water, with such steadiness, majesty and exactness as to fill almost every breast with sensations of joy and delight, superior by far, to the mortification they had before experienced.”
The Norwich Courier
trumpeted the success: “THE LAUNCH – A MAGNIFICENT SPECTACLE!
” and described the frigate as “an elegant and supurb [sic] specimen of American Naval Architecture, strength and beauty.”
, once launched, rode “at her mooring in the harbour, a pleasing sight, to those who contemplate her as the germ of a naval force, which in no remote period of time, will protect the flag of the United States from the depredations of piratical marauders.”
According to a local newspaper, all who helped build the huge warship took great pride in their affiliation with the project. “The best judges have pronounced the CONSTITUTION, like her archetype
to be a perfect model of elegance, strength, and durability: -- And every individual employed in her construction appears to pride himself in having assisted at the production of chef-d’ouvre
of Naval Architecture.”
And what of Colonel George Claghorn? “Too much praise cannot be given to Col. CLAGHORN, for the coolness and regularity, displayed in the whole business of the Launch; and the universal congratulations he received were evidences of the public testimony, of his skill, intelligence and circumspection.”
Successfully launching the nearly empty hull of Constitution
was just the beginning of the end of the frigate’s construction. The next nine months were consumed with finishing and outfitting the ship with the thousands of items needed for a crew of over 400 that would remain at sea for several months at a time. The masts, yards, and miles of rigging had been manufactured and assembled months before and were now to be installed. Thousands of gallons of water and tons of preserved foods were stowed in barrels in the ship’s hold. And all the accoutrements of a warship were assembled and brought on board. Included were 60 muskets for the Marine detachment, 200 cutlasses and 100 pairs of pistols for boarding, 3000 flannel cartridges for the 24-pound long guns and 1400 flannel cartridges for the 12-pound long guns, and 1750 round shot, to name some of the materiel needed for battle.
Less than one year after the launch and even before Constitution
had embarked on its first deployment, George Claghorn’s duties as the Boston naval constructor were terminated. Secretary of War McHenry wrote, “The duties of the constructor having for some time past ceased to have any subject to act upon, you will consider your Salary to have ceased and determined [?] on the first of april [sic] ultimo.”
first put to sea on July 21, 1798 but did not, in fact, sail to the Mediterranean against Algerine corsairs. Instead, the big frigate was deployed to the Caribbean Sea to protect U.S. merchant vessels from the French Navy and privateers in the un-declared naval war with France.
Within weeks of leaving Boston, a dispatch was published noting Constitution
’s excellent sailing qualities, “the frigate answers every expectation, and sails, in the opinion of every officer, superior to any ship they ever saw. – She is an excellent sea-boat, our crew all well and happy….”
Thus began the storied 225-year career of the U.S. Navy’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, USS Constitution.
George Claghorn to Josiah Fox, 29 May 1797. Papers of the War Department
, Josiah Fox Letterbook Papers. Reel #5 Series 1 Naval Architecture Shipbuilding Papers.
, September 26, 1797, p. 3.
Joshua Humphreys to Oliver Wolcott, 12 October 1797. Joshua Humphreys Papers, Coll. #306, Vol. 2, 1797 - 1801, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
George Claghorne [sic] to James McHenry, 24 September 1797. Copy of typewritten transcription of letter from the Dukes Country Historical Society, Edgartown, MA. Claghorn was obviously aware of the nearly uncontrolled launch of United States
and that it had struck bottom and damaged its false keel.
 The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea
(1994), Peter Kemp, editor, under “Superstitions of Sailors” notes “That Friday is a day of ill-omen for a ship to start a voyage is still widely believed among seamen, its origin lying in the fact that the Crucifixion [of Jesus] took place on a Friday.” While a launch is not actually a voyage, Claghorn may have been wary of invoking any superstition that could bring yet more bad luck on Constitution
(Boston, MA), “AMERICAN FRIGATE Constitution Launched
,” October 25, 1797.
 Norwich Courier
published as Chelsea Courier
(Norwich, CT), “THE LAUNCH – A MAGNIFICENT SPECTACLE!
,” November 1, 1797, p. 3.
Ibid. The “piratical marauders” was a reference to the Algerine corsairs, the reason for “An Act to provide a Naval Armament” which signed by President George Washington on March 27, 1794 which created the new United States Navy.
Clipping from unknown Boston, MA newspaper, c. 22 October 1797. Research files of the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.
[James McHenry], Secretary of War to Samuel Hodgdon, 9 April 1798. Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France
1:53 - 54.
[James McHenry] to George Claghorne [sic], 25 May 1798. Papers of the War Department
, Letters Sent by the Navy to Federal Executive Agents (Letters to President, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Letters to (Requisitions on) Secretary of the Treasury and other Treasury Department Officials), June 1798 - June 1824. (National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 45, Washington, DC).
Clipping from unknown Boston, MA newspaper, August 6, 1798. Research files of the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.