Alexander Hamilton Papers
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To Alexander Hamilton from Henry Knox, 21 April 1794

From Henry Knox

War Department April 21. 1794

Sir

I have the honor to transmit you an estimate of the quantity and quality of Timber, Plank, Scantling and Copper &c. which will be required for each of the four largest frigates contemplated by the Act entitled “An Act to provide a naval armament” nearly the same quantity will also be wanted for each of the thirty six gunships mentioned in the said Act.1

It has been decided by the President of the United States that the said frigates be built in the following ports, to wit

Boston one 44 gun Ship
New York do
Philadelphia do
Baltimore one of 36 guns
Portsmouth Virginia one of 44 do
Charleston So. Carolina one of 36 do

It appears to be of indispensible necessity that immediate arrangements should be made to obtain the articles contained in the estimate and to have them transported to the ports before mentioned— excepting such articles of the timber as may be obtained at, or in the neighbourhood of, the said places.

The live oak and red cedar must principally be obtained from the islands on the coast of Georgia. Some parts however may be obtained in North Carolina, although it is alledged that the farther South the live oak the better.

Different opinions are entertained as to the most certain, and the most oeconomical mode of obtaining the live oak and cedar from Georgia, and transporting the same to the ports where the ships are to be built.

Some persons recommend that one or more persons in whom due confidence may be placed, should repair to the Islands of Georgia, and contract with the proprietors of the timber as it stands for such parts as will serve the moulds, and that a sufficient number of axemen with their provision be sent from the northward, in order to cut the same, and transport it to the places where it is to be used. These persons assert that any contract made in Georgia or other parts to the Southward, will be executed by negroes, whose indolence and carelessness will inevitably produce disappointment or loss.

The moulds for the timbers of both sized ships are preparing and nearly finished. These must be transported to the places where the timber is to be cut, otherwise mistakes would arise and disappointment of course ensue.

Besides the mode before mentioned, there are persons who recommend a contract with some persons, if such could be found, which is said to be the case to procure the timber in Georgia, and transport it to the respective ports or places.

You will please to judge which of these two modes will be preferable. I have understood that in 1776 or 1777 the frames of two 74 gun Ships were cut under the authority of the United States, part at Sunbury and part at a place called Kilkenny near the mouth of Savannah River, and that as the said timber was very large part of it yet remains. It may therefore be proper to look it up, and if it should answer for the frames of the proposed frigates as probable it would be excellent from its long seasoning.

I have the honor to submit to you a letter from Mr Wereat of Georgia2 upon this subject, the purport of which is confirmed by Brigadier General Gunn3 of the same state.

The manner in which these vessels ought to be built has been under consideration, that is whether the hull and other parts susceptible of the measure should be built by a contract, or by a capable agent or agents appointed for the purpose of procuring the labor and materials. Upon enquiry however it appears improbable that a contract could be formed with the Shipbuilders in this place for the one directed to be built here. They alledge that if a contract was offered and accepted by two or more it would excite the ill will and envy of those who had no part in it, and as the frigate would require many hands the price of that sort of labor would rise, and that therefore it would be in the power of those not employed to raise the wages of the Journeymen a shilling or two per day, which would occasion great embarrassment, if not ruin, to the undertakers. Hence it would appear to follow as a consequence that if the Shipbuilders of Philadelphia, some of whom have considerable capitals, would decline a contract, that it would be almost or quite impracticable to obtain the building by contract elsewhere. If this should be so, then Agents respectable for their intelligence, activity, and integrity must be sought in the places in which the said frigates are directed to be built.

The President of the United States has approved of the said vessels being built under the directions of some agent or agents which I presume it will be in your department to nominate to him.

I suppose however if you should find it practicable to build them by contract, that the subject will still be reconsidered by him, and as for myself I should find great satisfaction in a contract, if one, upon solid principles, could be obtained.

LC, RG 45, Letters Sent Concerning Naval Matters, National Archives.

11 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 350–51 (March 27, 1794). The program for the construction of a navy had been undertaken in January, 1794, when news of the new depredations by the corsairs along the Barbary coast reached the United States. Attacks on American shipping had increased as a result of the truce negotiations between Algiers and Portugal which caused the squadron of Portuguese vessels guarding the Straits of Gibraltar to be removed, thus permitting the Barbary corsairs to sail into the Atlantic (see Thomas Jefferson to H, December 12, 1793, note 2). By November, 1793, the attempt of the British consul at Algiers to arrange a permanent settlement between Portugal and Algiers had failed, and Portuguese vessels resumed the blockade of the Straits. The truce ended on March 26, 1794, but the corsairs continued to prey on American shipping in the Mediterranean (James Simpson to Jefferson, November 21, 25, 1793, April 3, 1794 [ALS, RG 59, Despatches from United States Consuls in Gibraltar, April 13, 1791–December 31, 1795, National Archives]). Simpson’s letter of April 3 was not received until July 3, but news of the end of the truce appeared in the [Philadelphia] Gazette of the United States and Daily Evening Advertiser on June 13, 1794. On January 2, 1794, the House of Representatives “Resolved, That a naval force, adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided” and “That a committee be appointed to report … the naval force necessary for the purposes aforesaid, together with an estimate of the expense, and the ways and means for defraying the same.” On January 7, 1794, the House passed a resolution instructing the committee appointed to “prepare and report to the House an estimate of the expense that will be requisite to place the principal seaports and harbors of the United States in a state of defence” (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , IV, 154–55, 164). The question of the proposed naval force was taken up again on February 6. The Republicans, led by James Madison, were strongly opposed to its construction. Madison contended that it would be more to the advantage of the United States to purchase peace from the Algerines, for he “fancied that it might be purchased for less money than the armament would cost. On the other hand, if they do not act from their own impulse, but upon the instigation of Britain, we may depend upon it that they cannot be bought.” The construction of a navy, Madison maintained, would enhance the possibility of war with Britain (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , IV, 433). Opponents of the plan for a naval force also argued that the United States might better achieve its objectives by hiring “the Portuguese to cruise against the Algerines” or by using commercial restrictions against Great Britain to compel her to take action against the Barbary pirates. There was, in addition, extensive debate on what sources of revenue should be used for the construction of a navy (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , IV, 432–36, 438–41, 444–48, 459–62, 486–98). On March 10, however, the House passed by a vote of 50 to 39 the bill providing for a naval armament, and the Senate’s amendments were agreed to on March 19 (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , IV, 497–98, 524).

“An Act to provide a Naval Armament” provided that the President should “be authorized to provide, by purchase or otherwise, equip and employ four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 350–51). The construction of the vessels was placed under the direction of the Secretary of War, but by the provisions of “An Act making alterations in the Treasury and War Departments” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 279–81 [May 8, 1792]) War Department contracts were negotiated under the supervision of the Treasury Department. Within the Treasury Department Tench Coxe was responsible for negotiating these contracts and seeing that they were carried into effect (see H to Coxe, April 4, 1794). “An Act making appropriations for certain purposes therein expressed” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 394–95 [June 9, 1794]) appropriated $688,888.82 for the naval armament.

A letter book copy of the estimate enclosed in this letter may be found following Knox’s letter to H in RG 45, Letters Sent Concerning Naval Matters, National Archives.

At the Charleston Library Society, Charleston, South Carolina, is an undated document in an unidentified handwriting which reads as follows:

“First Cost of a Frigate of 44 Guns of 1300 Tons & Provisions for six mos 150,000
350 Men 50,000
Provisions for 6 mos 11,000
211,000
Annual Cost of Such Vessel 60,000 Drs.”

Below this note H wrote: “A naval force to be employed.

4 forty fours.”

In addition to the two notes, a large doodle was drawn which covered H’s note and two-thirds of the document.

On the back of this document in a second unidentified handwriting is written:

“Origin of the Navy

“At a Caucus in 1794, consisting of [Ralph] Izard, [Robert] Morris & [Oliver] Elsworth of the Senate, of [Fisher] Ames, [Theodore] Sedgwick, [William L.] Smith, [Jonathan] Dayton &c of the Represes, & of Secrets. Hamilton & Knox, to form a plan for a national Navy, Smith began the within figuring in Secret, of the Meeting. Hamilton then took the pen & instead of minuting the proceedgs he made all the flourishes here described, during the meeting. In conseqe. of the plan adopd. at this meetg. a Bill was reported for building the 6 Frigates, wch formed the Foundatn. or origin of the Amer. Navy.”

2The letter from John Wereat, a Savannah merchant, has not been found. A letter on this subject from Tench Coxe to Wereat on April 21, 1794, indicates that Wereat had volunteered his services in carrying out a contract for wood (LC, RG 75, Letters of Tench Coxe, Commissioner of the Revenue, Relating to the Procurement of Military, Naval, and Indian Supplies, National Archives).

3James Gunn was United States Senator from Georgia.

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