Chapter 5 – From High Tide to Low Tide, 1798-1801.




One historian, Marshall Smelser, refers to the summer and fall of 1798 and the early months of 1799 as the high tide of the Federalist naval program. Several events contributed to the rising swell. This chapter follows the brief flood tide of the twinned careers of the infant U.S. Navy and Joshua Humphreys to their low tide beaching at the hands of Thomas Jefferson and the economy-minded Albert Gallatin.


High Tide


Continued fears and rumors of an imminent French invasion spread waves of alarm. These rumors, fueled by the Federalist press, soon found a degree of confirmation. During the first week of July 1798, the Delaware, one of the newly launched American warships, surprised and captured two French privateers lurking in Delaware Bay. Both of these ships were commerce raiders, not part of a French invasion fleet, but the obvious visual impact of these two ships tied to a dock in Philadelphia, awaiting disposition by an admiralty court, gave clear evidence of the French threat.[1]

As early as March and April of the same year, 1798, both Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry, still Secretary of War, had proposed completion of the other three frigates, the President, the Congress, and the Chesapeake; these three ships were the last of the group of six originally proposed in 1794 during the conflict with Algiers. Naval constructors had laid three keels and stockpiled timber, but construction had gone no further. Now, in July 1798, Congress appropriated $600,000 to complete these three ships to augment the rapidly growing Navy.[2]

By the fall of 1798, Benjamin Stoddert and the newly founded U.S. Navy had attained a modest degree of success, the original three frigates, the Constitution, the Constellation, and the United States, joined by a dozen smaller ships were at sea; French privateers had been drive, at least, from American waters; naval protection allowed convoys of American merchant ships to sail in comparative safety, and more warships were on the way, including French prizes being converted into American warships. Stoddert had also found time to recruit and to organize a staff for the growing business of the Naval Department with its nine million dollar annual payroll.[3]

Rather than rest on his laurels, the energetic and farsighted Stoddert began to plan for the future of the United States Navy. On November 23, 1798, Stoddert sent a proposal to President Adams recommending the construction of forty-four additional ships. Among these forty-four, Stoddert proposed construction of twelve ships-of-the-line, battleships. These ships represented the apex of eighteenth century naval construction. Rated as 74-guns, these ships, with a crew of seven hundred, carried as many as one hundred guns on either two or three decks. This proposal meant more than simply building larger ships. The puny U.S. Navy, even with its three super frigates, did not threaten the invincible British Navy; Stoddert’s proposal did. The proposed creation of 74-gun ships-of-the-line announced Stoddert’s intention to transform the United States into a major naval power capable of challenging British pre-eminence in the western hemisphere. A month later, Stoddert submitted a report to the House Committee on Naval Affairs that went even further; Stoddert preached to the already converted. Josiah Parker, an increasingly firm navalist, chaired a committee dominated by other supporters, such as

Robert Goodloe Harper, Samuel Smith, and Harrison Otis Gray. Stoddert’s December report went far beyond a request for forty-four additional ships. In addition to ships, Stoddert called for the creation of six permanent navy yards, with at least two dry docks. Dry docks enabled shipcarpenters to build a ship without the dangers of launch that had attended the Constitution and to extensively repair or maintain the hull of a ship without the arduous and time consuming process of careening. Stoddert also advocated the purchase of several of the Georgia Sea Islands as timber reserves for the Navy. Creating navy yards and timber reserves would enable the Navy to cut and stockpile seasoned timber to facilitate both construction and repair.[4]

Predictably, anti-navalists, Republicans and Federalists who represented agricultural districts, vociferously opposed Stoddert’s proposals. In the newly elected Albert Gallatin, the opposition found a voice capable of answering the navalists on terms meant to strike fear in the hearts of taxpayers. Gallatin did some quick calculations: two million dollars for ships-of-the line, another million for other ships, fifty thousand dollars for timber reserves, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the sites of the six navy yards, without any construction, plus the annual expenditure for provisioning, manning, and maintaining the new ships. Coming quickly to the bottom line, Gallatin estimated that, if enacted, Stoddert’s proposals would increase all federal annual expenditures by almost fifty percent, from $8,000,000 to $11,000,000. Gallatin also saw the greater implications of Stoddert’s future navy. He argued that this greatly enhanced navy would entangle America in European wars and invite certain animosity from a challenged British Navy.[5]

While Stoddert’s little navy had performed creditably, thus far Joshua Humphreys’ three very expensive frigates proved a disappointment. Captain Samuel Nicholson and the Constitution had put to sea in July 1798, captured one questionable “prize,” for which Nicholson was later reprimanded, and then put into port at Hampton Roads, Virginia and stayed there. At the end of July 1798, John Barry and the United States carried the American flag and the war against the depredation of American shipping to the leeward islands of Martinque, Dominica, and Guadeloupe. In August and September, Barry snapped up two French privateers, the Sans Pareil and the Jalousie. Having achieved a modicum of success, suddenly and inexplicably, Barry abandoned his West Indies station and headed home only to encounter a gale off the Virginia capes that damaged the Unites States’ bowsprit. When advised of Barry’s early return, Benjamin Stoddert expressed outrage and dismay. Joshua Humphreys had designed mighty warships; great captains were harder to come by.[6]

As the year 1799 dawned, Congress continued the debate over Stoddert’s proposal to enlarge the Navy and to put it on a permanent basis, and Gallatin and the anti-navalists heaped scorn on the lackluster performance of the vaunted frigates. But, during the first week of February word reached Philadelphia of a great American victory. Captain Thomas Truxtun and the Constellation pursued, forced to fight, and defeated a 50-gun French frigate, L’Insurgente. In a duel which lasted less than two hours, the relatively inexperienced American gun crews had pummeled their French opponent. For the first time, since the days of John Paul Jones, an American ship and crew had defeated a larger and more powerful opponent. The victory of the clearly superior Constellation vindicated Joshua Humphreys’ innovative design and provided the congressional navalists with ample argument for their cause. On February 11, 1799, impressed by the American victory, Congress passed several naval bills that enacted almost all of Stoddert’s proposals. In separate bills, Congress voted: one million dollars to construct twelve new warships, six ships-of-the-battle-line of 74-guns and six smaller sloops; two hundred thousand dollars for timber, including twenty-two thousand dollars for two Georgia timber islands; fifty thousand dollars for two dry docks, and one hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars to purchase land for six navy yards.[7]

With congressional approval and the power and means now at hand to secure the future of the United States Navy, Benjamin Stoddert turned to a reliable and like-minded advocate of American naval superiority, Joshua Humphreys. Along with details about timber deliveries and ship construction, references to naval yards wind through Joshua Humphreys’ correspondence. As an advocate of a commanding naval presence, Humphreys understood the need for permanent facilities in which an ample, skilled workforce, stockpiles of appropriately sized and seasoned timber, spars, rope, sails, wharves, derricks, and an out-of-the-elements boat shed, stood ready to service wooden sailing warships and to provide the frequent repairs which they demanded.

When Henry Knox appointed Humphreys to the position of Naval Constructor, Humphreys entered into an agreement with the government, “My yard was rented by the Agents appointed by General Knox for the building the frigate United States for 400 dollars for the first year after which I enlarged it and agreed with Mr. Francis for I received 500 dollars per annum.” Thereafter, Humphreys routinely referred to his yard as “The Navy Yard,” or even “The Philadelphia Navy Yard.”[8]

Now, in 1799, empowered by congressional largess, Stoddert and Humphreys pursued their common goal for the establishment of permanent naval yards. Humphreys delineated a set of criteria for their ideal location: fifty or sixty acres of land, with sufficient space to stockpile seasoning and already seasoned, pre-cut and pre-labeled pieces of timber such as planks, beams, and knees (Humphreys’ concept approached the modern idea of inventoried parts.); a deep water location, but secure from any potential sea-born threat; accessible to fresh water; close to white oak forests; near a large commercial city for supplies, and near a site of the availability of naval architects and workmen of all the various necessary skills.

Humphreys even added specifics to make the location worker-friendly. He suggested locating the yard near a southern facing river bank or cove that would extend the working season into colder weather by warming the workers and protecting them from winter’s coldest blasts. In addition to the requirements for a desirable location, Humphreys enclosed a list of personal needed, “A principal Naval Constructor…A Master Builder, A Storekeeper or Clerk of the Yard…A Superintendent or harbour Master.” In other words, from his own experience, he recommended, separating into four discrete jobs, the tasks that he had performed solely. This list gives important evidence of a great change in the management of pre-industrial labor organization. Humphreys’ predecessors, the great shipbuilders and shipyard owners of pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia, James and Charles West, Joseph Lynn, James Parrock, Thomas Penrose and Manuel Eyre, had been both managers and, to some extent, hands-on shipwrights. They negotiated contracts with their merchant-customers. They hired labor and purchased supplies, as well as actually constructing the ships in their yards. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the task of constructing a major ship, either a warship or a commercial vessel had become so complex that large scale shipyards (fifty or sixty acres where several ships were simultaneously under construction or repair) required a division of labor. By 1799, Joshua Humphreys, the hands-on shipwright of the 1770s, had evolved into a supervising manager. Three especially skilled and experienced shipwrights, John Delavau, Nathan Hutton and Samuel Humphreys, Joshua’s older son, acted as the foremen of separate teams of shipcarpenters, caulkers, and joiners, each performing discrete tasks, supported by a myriad of common, unskilled laborers. In this sense late eighteenth century shipbuilding foreshadowed the more complex and rigid division of labor that attended the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution.[9]

The next item on Stoddert’s agenda, a dry dock, was another time-saving improvement in ship construction and maintenance to which Humphreys had given thought. The alternative to a dry dock was the ancient nautical practice of careening a ship. First, laborers stripped and emptied the ship. Careening required the removal of all cannons, ammunition, and other internal paraphernalia and the removal of external sails, spars, and rigging. Then workers, possibly aided by team of draft animals, drug the emptied hull onto a beach where they first scrapped away accumulated marine growth and then performed whatever maintenance and repairs that the condition of the vessel required. After the workers completed their ministrations to one side of the hull, they repeated the process on the other. Careening was time consuming, labor intensive, and dangerous to the structure of the ship. Dry-docking saved time, vital for a warship; it also saved labor and lessened the possibility of damage to the hull of the ship. Dry-docking still necessitated emptying and stripping the ship, but beyond that the task became relatively simplified (relatively being the operative word). Workers, using a capstan or other mechanical device, towed the emptied ship into the enclosure. Then the water was pumped out (a dry dock worked on the same principal as the lock on a canal). After the floor of the dry dock dried (hence the name) and the hull was shored. As soon as workers secured the ship, carpenters began repairs, working both inside and outside and on both sides simultaneously. Within a fraction of the time and at lower cost, the dry-docked warship could return to its station.[10]

In 1799 no dry docks existed in an American shipyard. Joshua Humphreys had never seen one, but he confidently described one and estimated its cost, “…the probable cost of erecting a dry dock for docking ships of war in the United States…at bottom 170 feet by 30 feet wide and twenty feet deep – $53,907.33.” He also corresponded with a Philadelphia friend in London, John Shallcross, and asked Shallcross to procure plans for dry docks used in British shipyards.[11]

In the summer of 1799, Humphreys focused his attention on the matter of naval yards. On July 31st, he wrote to another naval constructor, Foreman Cheesman, “…Tomorrow it is off for the City of Washington to establish a Navy Yard at that place where one of the 74s are to be built….” Having rejected a location further up the Potomac River that may have been financially advantageous to Benjamin Stoddert, a beleaguered Georgetown land speculator, Humphreys chose a site on the east branch of the Potomac, “Buckman’s Point appears to me the most suitable site for a Navy Yard.” In the following spring (1800), Humphreys extended the search. He reported, without recommendation, on several potential New England sites: New London, Newport, Boston, Charlestown, Portsmouth, Portland, and Wicassett. And during the summer of 1800 Humphreys attempted, with some evidence of hurried anticipation, to finalize the site for the navy yard in Philadelphia. He recommended the purchase of several contiguous lots on the Delaware River, immediately adjacent to the southern end of his own yard, but the transaction did not go smoothly, “Mr. Allen, who deems the price offered, $10,000, so ridiculously low that he won’t consider it…and Mr. Anthony Morris is also pressing for an answer as he wishes to offer his lot for sale if it is not taken for a navy yard.” Humphreys’ letters also refer to another source of consternation, a dispute with members of the Pennsylvania State Assembly as to whether or not the state government would extend already existing public streets through land being considered for the navy yard. By September, Humphreys had had no response from the Navy Department, Not so subtly, he wrote again reiterating his recommendations about the lots owned by Messrs. Allen and Morrises. Yet, as the year ended, the matter seemed to come to a satisfactory conclusion, “I have closed with Mr. Anthony and Luke Morris for their lots at twenty-five thousand dollars…I have not yet received an answer from Mr. Allen respecting his lot.” However, within a week, Humphreys, to his apparent relief, reported,

Messrs. Allen have agreed to accept twelve thousand dollars the sum

That I offered on behalf of the United States…for their lot in Southwark

adjoining Prime Street on the south side thereof + from front street into

the river Delaware, being not less than one hundred + fifty feet on front

street + and that width continued into the Delaware…the lots intended

for a Navy Yard.


Another letter that appears in Humphreys’ Letterbook immediately after the announced purchase of Allen’s lot helps us to locate the site of the navy yard, “I have just purchased a site for a navy yard a little below my house – tis the spot on which the old fort


Even with the pleasant diversion of inspecting locations for naval yards and making recommendations concerning the construction of dry docks, Joshua Humphreys focused his attention on his first love, construction of a ship of war. To garner public support and to hasten the financing of the construction of the 74-gun ship-of-the-line, in the enacting legislation, Congress included a provision for public subscriptions. The federal government would repay the amount with 6% interest-bearing treasury bonds. Newburyport, Massachusetts led the way with the construction of the Merrimack. In Philadelphia on June 11, 1798, a group of mostly Federalists merchants that included: Thomas Fitzsimmons, who chaired the committee, the financier, Thomas Willing and the later Secretary of Navy, William Jones met at City tavern to organize a subscription drive. Within three days they had collected $70,000, and by the end of summer the total reached $101,000. When the drive ended, the amount collected provided not only enough funds to construct the warship but also enough to purchase two lots on Second Street to sort and stockpile the huge mass of timber needed. As early as November 1798, anticipating Stoddert’s proposal for a permanent navy or, perhaps, simply sharing the same goals, Joshua Humphreys submitted to the Secretary of Navy a preliminary estimate for the construction of a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, the price was $320,000, excluding provisions and stores. A month later, Humphreys refined his original proposal and submitted an itemized list of the cost of “Materials and labour for the construction of a 74.” This time Humphreys estimated the cost at $324,700. By the first month of the new year, 1799, Humphreys had begun to accumulate and sort out, “Timber…in the frame of a Seventy four Gun Ship.” By June 1799 shipcarpenters had begun to assemble the mammoth structure and the vaguely nautical edifice had a name, “Philadelphia.” Again as with the construction of its predecessor, the frigate United States, work proceeded haltingly. The same twin nemesis that had plagued previous ship construction, timber supplies and consistent funding, reappeared. Other matters demanded Humphreys’ attention. By 1800, the original frigates, Constitution, Constellation, and United States, had been at sea for two years. Their design had proved flawless, less so the timber from which they had been constructed. Humphreys’ estimate of a twenty-year life for live oak was overly optimistic. In the same letter that had estimated the cost of the construction of the 74-gun ship, Humphreys included six pages of “estimates of material for probable want of the frigate United States.” During the summer of 1800, the damaged United States returned to its place of birth for refitting. Humphreys’ workers replaced knees, beams, and planking, especially those areas above the wales, the areas most exposed to sea, wind, and blistering Caribbean sun. Even with his other activities, Humphreys ministered to his creation, and, by September 1800, he reported that the ship “may haul into the stream in 15 or 20 days.” In the same letter, Humphreys assured the Secretary of the Navy that although many demands diverted his attention that “My shipyard has been occupied for the Frigate Philadelphia.” (See: Figure 9.)[13]


The Tide Changes


In two years, 1799 and 1800, Joshua Humphreys, Benjamin Stoddert, the navalists in Congress, and the young but confident United States Navy rode the crest of popular support. The first Secretary of the Navy had used that support to enlarge the infant navy, to found naval yards, to secure timber reserves, to plan dry docks, and he had persuaded Congress to begin construction of 74-gun ships-of-the-line. All this proved to be illusory. Once again events, both immediate and far beyond the gates of Humphreys’ yard, dictated Humphreys’ fate and the fate of the navy that he served.


Notes on Chapter 5    

            [1]Smelser, Congress, 186- 193, and Fowler, Jack Tars, 36.

            [2]Sprout, Rise, 61; Fowler, Jack Tars, 36; Dauer, Adams, 145-148,

and Bauer, “Navalists,” 31.

            [3]Carrig, “Stoddert,” 62.

            [4]Palmer, Stoddert, 126; Sprout, Rise, 63-65; Symonds, Navalists, 73-79, and Carrig, “Stoddert,” 64-65.

            [5]Sprout, Rise, 66-69.

            [6]Palmer, Stoddert, 40-41 and 46-52, and Clark, Gallant, 418-424. Palmer describes Barry’s behavior as “puzzling” and suggests that Barry was past his peak as a captain.

            [7]O’Connor, Origins, 69-70; Carrig, “Stoddert,” 65; Dauer, Adams, 304; Fowler, Jack Tars, 42-46; Sprout, Rise, 69; Symonds, Navalists, 31; Palmer, Stoddert, 126. Palmer, without explanation, describes the $135,000 for navy yards as spent but unauthorized.

A more recent work, Jeffery M Dorwart, The Philadelphia Navy Yard: From the Birth of the U.S. Navy to the Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 50-52, has further detail. Dorwart states that Stoddert took money that had been appropriated for construction for 74-gun ships and spent it, or perhaps misappropriated it, for the purchase of land for navy yards.

            [8]Joshua Humphreys to Thomas Turner, Esq Accountant N Dept, “Letterbook,” Vol. 3. There is no date for this letter, but it appears with other correspondence for October 1800. Joshua Humphreys to Henry Knox, May 5, 1796, “Letterbook,” Vol. 1. For Humphreys rational for the navy yard see: “Report on the State of the frigate now building in the Port of Philadelphia,” Dec. 28, 1796, “Letterbook,” Vol. 1.

            [9]Joshua Humphreys to John Swanwick, Josiah Parker, and William Bingham, Feb. 2, 1797, “Letterbook,” Vol. 1; Joshua Humphreys to Secretary of Navy, Dec. 26, 1798, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2.

“Arrangements of Officers and their duty for a Navy Yard for the United States of America,” “Letterbook,” Vol. 2. There is no date, but this letter appears among correspondence for February 1799. Humphreys’ criteria severely limited the geographical sites for a potential navy yard location. The need for accessibility to white oak timber eliminated ports south of the Chesapeake. This elimination of southern ports further eroded the possibility of southern Republican support for the navy. As any pork-barrel congressman knows, federal expenditures have a powerful influence on voters and the outcome of elections. Jeffery Dorwart notes that Humphreys’ criteria was disingenuous; it overlooked some of the drawbacks in his favored location in Southwark, See: Dorwart, Philadelphia, 47-49.

10Thomas R. Heinrich, Ships for the Seven Seas: Philadelphia Shipbuilding in the Age of Capitalism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,1997); see page 2 for a photograph of a 20th century drydock at the William Cramp & Sons shipyard in Kensington.

Charles B. Stuart, The Naval Dry Docks of the United States, 2nd edition (New York: Charles B. Norton, Irving House, 1852). Stuart’s work has detailed descriptions and numerous plates showing naval drydocks at New York, Boston, and Norfolk Navy Yards, but not the Philadelphia Navy Yard.



            [11]Joshua Humphreys to Secretary of Navy, Jan. 23, 1799, “Letterbook, Vol. 2, and Joshua Humphreys to John Shallcross, Feb. 1799, “Letterbook,”, Vol. 2.


            [12] Joshua Humphreys to Foreman Cheesman, Aug. 4, 1799, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2; “Report to the Secretary of Navy of the most Suitable place for a Navy Yard on the East Branch of the Potomac River,” Aug, 15, 1799, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2; Joshua Humphreys to Benjamin Stoddert, July 9, 1800, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2. The second letter referring to Anthony Morris’ lot, Joshua Humphreys to Benjamin Stoddert, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2, has no date, but it appears with other correspondence dated the third week of July 1800. Joshua Humphreys to Benjamin Stoddert, Sept. 15, 1800, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2; Joshua Humphreys to Messers. Bonsall and Shoemaker, Dec. 11, 1800, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2; Joshua Humphreys to Jacob Sheafe, no date, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2, and Deed Book, E.F.-7, 1, HSP.


            [13]John C. Miller, The Federalist Era, 1789-1801 (New York: Harper Brothers Inc., 1960), 216; Frederick C. Leiner, Millions for Defense: The Subscription Warships of 1798 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000), Chapt. 4, 53-71; Joshua Humphreys to Benjamin Stoddert, Nov. 16, 1798, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2; Joshua Humphreys to Benjamin Stoddert, Sept. 3, 1800, “Letterbook,” Vol. 2, and “Records of the building the United States, 1798-1801.” (This volume is a separate journal of the repairs and expenditures for the frigate, U.S. United States. It is also housed in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with the Joshua Humphreys papers.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s