James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Plumer, 22 January 1813

From William Plumer

Epping (NH) January 22d 1813.


As a law has recently passed for building ships of the line, with an additional number of frigates, permit me to suggest for your consideration, the propriety & expediency of building one of the seventy fours at Portsmouth in this State. The harbor is not only good, but the situation & means for building is convenient. In that place the America was built, the only ship of the line, I beleive ever built in the United States.1 I think the harbor safe against the attacks of our enemies, & with little additional expence may be rendered absolutely so. There is a very considerable quantity of well seasoned timber on an island near the town, the property of the United States, & I presume the remainder can be easily obtained from our forests.2 There are many excellent carpenters, & other mechannics ready to perform the necessary labor of building the ship. The employment, & the money that would be expended in such an undertaking, would have a favorable effect upon the great mass of the people in the eastern & northern part of the State, who would derive real benefits from it: a circumstance, in times like these, worthy of notice, to a government that in a great measure is founded in public opinion.

Being an entire stranger to the present secretary of the navy, & having no other motive but to promote the public good, you will, I trust, excuse the freedom I have taken in addressing you on this subject. I am with sentiments of respect & esteem, Sir, your obedient servant.

William Plumer

Letterbook copy (DLC: William Plumer Papers).

1Construction on the America, a seventy-four built by Col. James K. Hackett in Portsmouth, began in May 1777. Lack of materials, skilled labor, and funds delayed the work. In early June 1779 Congress ordered Robert Morris to complete the ship as quickly as possible and later appointed Capt. John Paul Jones her commander and supervising inspector. Construction still lagged, however, and the America was not launched until 5 Nov. 1782 (Howard I. Chapelle, The History of the American Sailing Navy: The Ships and Their Development [New York, 1960], 80–83).

2Construction at Portsmouth on the seventy-four Washington began in the spring of 1813 and was completed in October 1814. The commandant of the navy yard at Portsmouth, Isaac Hull, spent the spring of 1813 trying to collect the necessary timber and frequently advertised for live oak in the local newspapers. By July 1813 he was compelled to lay off most of his carpenters and use white oak as a substitute in some of the ship’s construction. Competition for the wood was especially keen because William Bainbridge at Charlestown, Massachusetts, was overseeing the construction of another seventy-four, the Independence, which was launched in June 1814 (New-Hampshire Patriot, 6 Mar. 1813; Dudley, Naval War of 1812, 2:43, 91, 195). For construction at the Portsmouth navy yard, see Maloney, The Captain from Connecticut, 211–57.

Index Entries