George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 15 April 1794

From Henry Knox

War Department April 15. 1794

The Secretary of War respectfully submits to the President of the United States, the following ideas relatively to the frigates authorised by the law for providing a naval armament.1

That the said frigates be constructed upon the principles which shall after the most mature information and consideration appear to combine the greatest possible force, with adequate strength, and swiftness of sailing, so as to render them equal or superior to any ships of their description belonging to the powers of Europe.

That therefore the largest of the ships of forty four guns be constructed to carry thirty cannon of the calibre of twenty four pounders upon one deck, each cannon to weigh about two tons. Formerly cannon of this calibre weighed forty eight hundred, which indeed is the weight at present in France, but then they are ten feet in length whereas it is proposed to make our’s of about eight feet.

That in order to complete the force of the ship the following ordnance be added to the twenty four pounders—eight twelve pounders—four eight inch howitzers—two five inch and an half howitzers, besides smaller cannon or carronades for the tops and forecastle.

That the forty four gun ships be one hundred and forty seven feet keel for tonnage—forty three feet beam—fourteen feet hold below the gun deck, and including the orlop deck, six feet in the clear between the gun and spar deck and seven feet waist.

That taking into consideration the great length proposed it will be necessary to devise certain braces and riders in order to give a just strength and prevent the accidents to which vessels are generally liable, of being hogged, or broken backed, which causes the vessel from weakness to droop at both ends.

That Mr Joshua Humphreys and Col. Marsh eminent master shipbuilders in Philadelphia, and Mr John Wharton formerly also an eminent shipbuilder, and a member of the navy board during the late war, have each given to the subscriber their opinions of the propriety of the proportions before specified,2 but Mr Thomas Penrose, Mr John Bowers, and Mr Samuel Bowers, also all excellent shipbuilders, are of opinion that twenty eight twenty four pounders on one deck will be sufficient, and that it would be difficult to secure a ship of thirty twenty four pounders against the broken back before mentioned.3 As it is important to be certain of the principles, Mr John Hacket an eminent shipbuilder in Massachusetts who constructed the Alliance frigate during the late war, has been invited to repair to this city in order to be consulted on this business. It is asserted by Captain Barry and seems conceded by the builders that the Alliance was one of the best constructed frigates in all respects of the late war. Besides Mr Hacket’s, other opinions will be sought in order to furnish materials for a solid judgment upon the subject.4

It is proposed the frigates of thirty six guns shall carry the same weight of metal of the forty four gun ships, but only to have twenty eight guns upon one deck, of course eleven feet shorter. But Mr Penrose is of opinion that these frigates should have one hundred and twenty feet keel for tonnage, thirty five feet beam, twelve feet hold, six feet between decks, and six feet waist, and one hundred and sixty three feet on the gun deck, and the largest guns to be twelve pounders.

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 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 any which may be directed to be built here. They alledge that if a contract was offered and accepted by two, three, or more, it would excite the ill will and envy of those who had no part in it, and as the frigates 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 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 it shall be decided to build the said frigates.

If the principles of oeconomy alone were to predominate in determining the places where the said vessels were to be built and equipped, it is not improbable the arrangement might be different from the one hereinafter submitted.

But as the government is the government of the whole people, and not of a part only, it is just and wise to proportion its benefits as nearly as may be to those places or states which pay the greatest amount to its support. It is conceived the saving of a few thousand dollars in the expences will be no object compared with the satisfaction a just distribution would afford. Under these impressions the following are submitted as places at which it might be proper to build the said frigates, to wit

Charleston South Carolina 1 36 Gunship
Norfolk or Portsmouth, Virginia 1 36
Baltimore Maryland 1 44
Philadelphia Pennsylvania 1 44
New York New York 1 44
Boston Massachusetts 1 44

The information which the subscriber has hitherto received is by no means accurate as to the price at which the said vessels could be built at either of the two southern places, nor the time in which they could be finished, but it seems to be pretty well ascertained, that it would be practicable to build them as specified, although it may and probably will require that some additional artificers should be sent from the northward, particularly to Charleston. It is to be understood that the enhanced prices particularly at Charleston will relate principally to the hull, provided the communication is kept open, as the guns, anchors, and a variety of other articles may be sent to that port from other parts of the United States. Perhaps articles must be imported from Europe for all the places, particularly copper for the bottoms, hemp for the cordage, and sail cloth.

It will however be of the utmost consequence to the construction of the vessels, that the timber should be cut with all possible expedition, as it is estimated by a master builder here, that it will require the labor of three hundred men two months to cut the live oak and cedar necessary for the said ships.

The estimate which accompanies the report, is made in Philadelphia. But if the appearance of our being involved in the European war should continue it is very questionable whether the actual cost will not considerably exceed the estimate.5 All which is humbly submitted

H. Knox secy of war

LS, DLC:GW; LB, DLC:GW. The closing on the LS is in Knox’s writing.

1“An Act to provide a Naval Armament,” 27 March, provided for “four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each” (Stat description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends . 1:350).

2Shipwright Joshua Humphreys (1751–1838), at 218 Swanson Street, received an appointment as naval constructor for the 44-gun frigate United States, which was built at Philadelphia (Philadelphia Directory 1794 description begins James Hardie. The Philadelphia Directory and Register . . .. Philadelphia, 1794. description ends , 74; and Knox to Humphreys, 28 June, DNA: RG 45, Letters Sent by the War Department Relating to Naval Matters). Col. Joseph Marsh was located at 23 Christian Street, Southwark (Philadelphia Directory 1794 description begins James Hardie. The Philadelphia Directory and Register . . .. Philadelphia, 1794. description ends , 95). John Wharton (c.1732–1799), a Philadelphia shipbuilder, served on the Continental Navy Board, 1778–80.

3Thomas Penrose (1734–1815) was at 27 Swanson Street, Southwark, and also at 85 Penn Street. Knox presumably meant Joseph (d. 1797) and Samuel Bowers, shipbuilders at Point Pleasant, near Kensington (Philadelphia Directory 1794 description begins James Hardie. The Philadelphia Directory and Register . . .. Philadelphia, 1794. description ends , 15, 119).

4In the 1770s, John Hacket was associated with his relative William Hacket in shipbuilding at Salisbury, Massachusetts. For Knox’s letter to John Hacket of 1 April, see DNA: RG 45, Letters Sent by the War Department Relating to Naval Matters. The Revolutionary War frigate Alliance was a 36-gun frigate. Originally named the Hancock, it was launched in 1778. Capt. John Barry commanded the Alliance from September 1780 until its sale to private owners after the war.

5The enclosed estimate of 15 April (DLC:GW) reads: “Estimate of the building and fitting a frigate of 1430 51/95 tons the proposed size of a forty four gun ship—and also one of 1145 25/95 tons, the proposed size of a thirty six gun ship—

  Pennsa. Curry
Carpenter’s bill complete £9.—.—
Smith’s bill including Anchors  4. 5.—
Joyner’s bill for stuff & work —.17.6
Boat builder’s bill —. 3.6
Painter & Plumber’s bills —. 7.6
Carver’s bill —. 4.6
Cooper’s do for 6 months water —.12.6
Blockmaker’s bill —. 7.6
Mast maker’s bill —.11.3
Rigger’s bill with Cordage  3.—.—
Sail Cloth & Sailmaker’s bill, 2 suits  3. 5.—
Chandler’s bill for locks, hinges, colors and other small charges  1. 2.6
The cannon & ordnance stores are not included in this estimate  
For one ton £23.16.9
  Pennsa. Curry
44 Guns 1430 51/95 tons at £23.16.9 £34.100. 8. 5¼
36. 1145 25/95 tons at do 27.300.12. 6”

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