George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Stephen Sayre, 10 December 1793

From Stephen Sayre

[c.10 December 1793]


I do myself the honor of inclosing the Copy of a Letter, which I address’d to your Excellency, in 1789.1

I trouble you with it, to remind you, of having, long since, had some expectations of being employ’d, in an object, which, has for many years, occupy’d my thoughts & my time.

As Congress seem disposed to fulfill your expectations by building a certain number of Ships, for our defence; I beg to be brought into your remembrance, so as to have a fair opportunity of recommending myself, as able to conduct our naval force, be it what it may.

The Science of Ship building has been my favorite amusement—and during the late war, I found opportunity of making some experiments—I built two Ships in St Petersburg, of 1200 Tons each, which, tho’ of pine timber, have made several Voyages to India—have proved strong—profitable as to freight, & swift sailors, tho’ rigg’d with Masts & Spars, so as to require, only half the number of men, necessary for other Ships, of the same Tonnage. They were built, after my own draughts which I found, on comparing them with those of Mr Peck of Boston, exactly on the same principle—this he acknowledged, at our first interview—having never seen each other till after the war.2

Since that period, I have been, for some three weeks, in Plimouth, Portsmouth, & Chatham, employing every hour in observations on their Ships, their Dockyards &c. Were the United States to follow the same useless, and expensive mode, in our naval Establishments, they will find the Sums enormous.

I can build Frigates—costing no more than those of 36 guns, now in use in England, that shall defend themselves against those of 74 guns.

But since the Country must have a Navy, or rather some naval force for our immediate safety: I have communicated an improvement to General Knox—such as would, if press’d with danger, & the necessity of our utmost exertions, make us the only naval power on the Seas—I can build Ships which cannot be taken by Ships now in use.3

I am ready & wish for opportunity, to prove the fact to demonstration. I believe the General will tell your Excellency, if ask’d the question, that the fact appears evident the moment the principle is known. One days experiment will however decide the question. I am with great Respect your Excellenceys most sincere &c. &c.

Stephen Sayre

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. Although undated by Sayre, this letter carries a docket of “Decem. 1793” and is marked “File Dec. 10. 1793.”

1Sayre’s letter to GW of 3 Jan. 1789 sought appointment as a commissioner to establish a naval force for the United States or as U.S. consul general for England. The enclosed copy evidently was made from a retained draft and differs somewhat from the letter sent to GW, but the basic content is the same (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

2Sayre arrived at St. Petersburg, Russia, in April 1780 and left in October 1781. While there, he wrote John Adams about his shipbuilding venture (see Sayre to Adams, 21 Oct. [1 Nov.] 1780 and 30 Dec. 1780 [10 Jan. 1781], Papers of John Adams description begins Robert J. Taylor et al., eds. Papers of John Adams. 17 vols. to date. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1977–. description ends , 10:321–23; 11:36–39). John Peck (c.1726–1790), of Boston and later Kittery, built a number of ships during the Revolutionary War and was celebrated as a naval architect.

3Sayre’s communication to Henry Knox has not been identified. He wrote Knox again on 16 Dec., “asking a declaration, favouring the object I have lately communicated to you” and adding, “Have I not a right to expect you, to state this important improvement, as far as it strikes your understanding, and as far as prudence dictates, to the President of the United States. If Congress should resolve to build any number of ships, for our safety and defence, ought not the President to know, in time, that there is, in this City, a man who is capable of building them, on the highest stage of improvement?” (NNGL: Knox Papers). Knox replied to that letter on 18 Dec. offering to meet with Sayre (NNGL: Knox Papers).

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