Conflict and controversy marked the career of the ardent Federalist, Joshua Humphreys, and both conflict and controversy have outlived him through more than two hundred years. Friends, relatives, partisans, enemies, those for and against him, have risen and taken pen in hand to excoriate him, to vilify him, or to praise and defend him. How is it possible for anger or esteem kindled so long ago to persist into the twenty-first century?
This chapter explores the conflict and controversy surrounding Joshua Humphreys’ career and traces the historic paper trail of defense and vilification from 1827 to the present. In doing so, it seeks to illuminate several disparate things: the passion of early American politics and the length to which historians can carry an argument, even when it has become arid and sterile.
Part 1: The Rivals
On August 13, 1827, Joshua Humphreys, now long in retirement received an alarming letter from his son Samuel, the chief naval constructor for the United States Navy at the naval yard in Washington, D.C. In the letter, the younger Humphreys referred to “a newspaper article in the National Journal” that contained an extract from another newspaper, The Wheeling Gazette. The extract related the story of a correspondent who had traveled in the West and had interviewed an old man with a wondrous tale to tell. The old man, Josiah Fox, claimed that he had drawn the designs for the three frigates: The United States, the Constitution, and the Constellation, after suggestions in design made by the Secretary of War, Henry Knox.
The “old man,” Josiah Fox, was a Quaker and shipwright who had been born in Falmouth, England in 1763. At the age of eighteen, Fox was apprenticed at the royal dockyards and later employed there. As a young man he had sailed on a ship captained by his brother, and he had visited dockyards in Spain, Venice, and Russia. After his voyaging Fox returned to England and resumed employment at the royal dockyards at Deptford, London. In the fall of 1793, becoming dissatisfied with this position, Fox emigrated to the United States. Landing at Alexandria, Virginia, he traveled to Philadelphia searching for work. Finding none, even in the midst of a shipbuilding boom, he considered returning to England. However, in 1794, Thomas Penrose, the dominant shipbuilder in Philadelphia hired Fox to teach nautical drafting to his sons. Somehow, Fox also made the acquaintance of Benjamin Rush, and, in the spring of 1794, Rush, Penrose, the Revolutionary War sea captain, John Barry, and Andrew Ellicott, the surveyor general for the building of the national capital and a kinsman of Fox, introduced him to Henry Knox.
On July, 16, 1794, Henry Knox wrote to Fox stating, “Sir You are hereby appointed as a Clerk in the department of war to be appropriated at the present to the assistance of Joshua Humphreys who is constructing the Models and Drafts of the Frigates to be built in the United States.” In his letter of appointment, Knox clearly stated Fox’s position. The wording of the letter would not seem to leave room for either ambiguity or misunderstanding, but it did.
For the next four years, the names of Fox and Humphreys appeared in each other’s correspondence, sometimes on a businesslike level, but often as an angry welt across the page. The relationship began badly. Fox, supported by Thomas Penrose, proposed frigates constructed on the English model, ships that emphasized compactness and speed over size and firepower. Fox, trained in English dockyards, lacked an appreciation of the American innovations to which Humphreys committed his plans.
Although Fox and Humphreys had begun their relationship by disagreeing on fundamental principals of design for the new warships, an atmosphere of collegial professionalism marked the years 1794-1796. When Humphreys questioned Fox about the method of deck planking used in the royal dockyards, Fox responded with a letter headed “Esteemed Friend.” Similarly, several of the letters from Humphreys to Fox conceded Fox’s experience and inquired about other English dockyard practices: about the dimensions of the mold loft and other dockyard technology. In one letter, Humphreys asked about the “mode used in Kings Yard for caulking seams,” and “I wish you to send me descriptions of the machine they have in the dockyards for driving bolts.” Faced with the delays in the delivery of the precious, but troublesome, live oak for the construction of the Constellation in Baltimore, Fox respectfully solicited Humphreys’ opinion. Occasionally, the correspondence of the two reflected disagreement, but in an amiable, professional tone. When Henry Knox’s successor as Secretary of War, Timothy Pickering, wrote to naval agent William Pennock referring to Josiah Fox’s qualifications, he cited Humphreys’ opinion of Fox, “He is handsomely spoken of by Mr Humphreys who thinks there are few Men in this Country equally qualified in this line….”
It is difficult to discern exactly when and why the relationship between these two proud craftsmen began to deteriorate. In the summer of 1794, Secretary Knox sent John Morgan, the shipbuilder at Norfolk, Virginia yard on the expedition to cut live oak from the coastal islands of Georgia. By December of that year, the live oak timbering had become a disaster and Joshua Humphreys recommended Josiah Fox as the replacement constructor of the frigate at Norfolk. Unfortunately, for Fox, Humphreys, and the other frigate shipbuilders and advocates of the U.S. Navy, the cessation of hostilities between the United States and the Dey of Algiers rendered Josiah Fox temporarily shipless, but not for long. In January 1796, James McHenry succeeded Timothy Pickering as Secretary of War. Having consulted with Pickering, McHenry found another more appropriate role for Fox. McHenry chose him to design and supervise the construction, in Boston, of one of the tribute ships for the Dey of Algiers, a frigate later named The Crescent. McHenry wrote,
“I have conversed with Mr. Wolcott (the Secretary of the Treasury): We are both of the opinion that the first step towards building the frigate is to send Mr. Fox to the different Navy Yards to take an account of the timber and to converse with the principal builders to see on what terms…any of them undertake to have her completed. The explanation which Mr. Fox can give to the master builders, will enable them to state their terms which he will bring back with him & then a choice may be made…I am convinced that it will be in vain to seek a substitute for Mr. Fox… I desired Mr. Humphreys to calculate the proper dimensions of the hulk and to make a draft of the same. The draught I assume Mr. Fox had completed.”
Perhaps Fox was recommended and chosen to construct the Algerine frigate because of his English training. It stands to reason that the Dey of Algiers would be more pleased with a British warship than one modeled after the efforts of the upstart Americans.
Having accomplished this task, Fox returned to his mundane position of “clerk” in the War Department. Yet the simple title “clerk” hides Fox’s most important contribution, a contribution missed by even his most vocal historical supporters. While Joshua Humphreys labored to construct the three resuscitated frigates, The United States, The Constitution, and The Constellation, Josiah Fox, confronted with James McHenry’s utter incompetence, functioned capably, without title, as the virtual Secretary of Navy.
During 1795 and 1796, the correspondence between Humphreys and Fox gives evidence of professional cordiality and cooperation. Letters referring to “laying the Keel…running the fosing 3rd futtocks, hause piece…caulking…bolting” passed between them. But coldness had begun to seep into their relationship. Instead of “Esteemed Friend” letters were now formerly addressed as “Dear Sir.” In an October 25, 1796 letter to Captain Thomas Truxtun, Humphreys wrote, “I have sort of direction over Mr. Fox and I have often urged him to compleat [sic] your draft but never could get him to finish it, he always having some idle excuse or other.”
By the summer of 1797, the relationship between the United States and the Republic of France had deteriorated into open but undeclared warfare. Public outrage, sparked by French depredation of American shipping, encouraged President John Adams, the navalists in Congress, Secretary James Mc Henry, Josiah Fox, Joshua Humphreys, and other frigate builders to summon renewed vigor to prepare a naval response to the French attacks and to launch the three frigates nearing completion. Humphreys won the race, and on May 10, 1797 the United States slipped uneasily into the Delaware River. At this point, the cordial but restrained relationship between Josiah Fox and Joshua Humphreys completely dissolved. On February 9, 1797, Fox had written to his brother: “I still continue in the office capacity of general superintendent of Marine papers, but hold my Appointment of Constructor of the Frigate of 44 guns building at Norfolk.” Throughout 1796, Fox wrote and received similar letters in which he identified himself as “Navy Constructor.” As to whether or not Joshua Humphreys knew of Fox’s use of the title, there is no evidence, until the explosive letter. On July 25, 1797, Humphreys received a letter from Fox in which Fox affixed the title, “Navy Constructor.” The letter, written at the behest of the Secretary of War, ordered Humphreys to Baltimore to supervise the launch of the frigate Constellation. Humphreys responded immediately and vehemently,
“…but sir I cannot receive hereafter or attend to any directions from you although directed by the Secry of War while you style yourself Naval Constructor you also know that I am the head of that Department – and when you direct a letter to me let it be done in style as ‘Clerk of the Marine Department.’ Whenever the Secretary deems my service no longer necessary, you may then to other persons assume such title as your vanity may suggest.”
Silence followed the explosion. There is no copy of Humphreys’ letter in Josiah Fox’s paper, and the papers of neither combatant contain a reply or response. Humphreys’ angry letter ended round one.
Circumstances separated the opponents. As the real but undeclared war with France continued, Congress and President John Adams took further steps to protect American shipping and honor. On April 16, 1798, Congress passed an act establishing the Department of the Navy, and later that month John Adams appointed his second choice, Benjamin Stoddert, as the first Secretary of the Navy. Humphreys rejoiced and at a Federalist dinner, held on April 28, 1798, he offered a toast, “The infant navy of the United States – Like the infant Hercules, may it even in its cradle strangle the serpent which would poison American glory.” Over the next three years, Benjamin Stoddert, Joshua Humphreys, Josiah Fox, the navalists in Congress, shipbuilders, and a legion of workers: shipcarpenters, ship joiners, cauklers, mastmakers, block makers, and hundreds of other laborers worked feverishly to create and arm the new United States Navy. The three launched frigates needed rigging, armament, crews, and provisions. Humphreys and Stoddert scoured ports and examined available merchant ships to convert to warships. These purchased ships required the ministrations of Humphreys and other shipwrights. Plans for a great 74-gun battle-ship-of-the-line appeared on drawing boards, and Humphreys and Stoddert connived to found real navy yards with genuine dry docks for the infant marine Hercules. Included in this ambitious program, Stoddert planned the completion of the three other original frigates whose keels stood on blocks in the three scattered yards. Here, Josiah Fox found release from his clerkship. Stoddert appointed Fox to complete the ill-fated Chesapeake in the Gosport Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. Fox not only completed the vessel, but he also made major changes in its design, reducing its size from 44 guns to 36 guns.
In this atmosphere of feverish activity, the recriminatory rivalry between the two proud “naval constructors” vanished. But, by the summer of 1801, when Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans swept into power, Stoddert’s marine house of cards collapsed. The economically-minded Republicans took aim at their bête noire, the bloated, extravagant naval budget. Ship construction ceased, and plans for the great battle ships remained paper dreams. Stoddert resigned and, eventually, Robert Smith replaced him as secretary of the bare-bone navy. The rival “naval constructors” suffered identical fates; both received terse but almost apologetic letters of dismissal. Joshua Humphreys left the superintendancy of the newly founded United States Naval Yard and returned to his own yard, but not for long. Within two years letters now identified the shipyard as “Humphreys and Son.” By 1804, bereft of his wife and younger son, Clement, Joshua Humphreys receded into retirement at the family home, Pont Reading, in rural Haverford, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Josiah Fox proved more resilient. In 1809, he resurfaced again as the naval constructor at the Washington Naval Yard, only to be fired again by another Virginian, James Madison. Fox holds the unenviable distinction of being dismissed by two succeeding presidents. End of Story? Actually, the story did not end in 1804 or 1809. What makes the tale of the rivalry between Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox really interesting is that it is an epic saga without end.
In 1827, the era of the Monroe Doctrine and emerging American nationalism and international commitment, the American people, and, therefore, politicians, expressed increasing interest in the United States Navy. As a result, American newspapers reported the results of a “friendly,” arranged race between an American warship and its French counterpart. The American ship had outperformed its competitor and literally had sailed rings around the French ship. The victory sparked interest in the designer of the ship, which had been built thirty years earlier. The National Journal reprinted a letter from the Wheeling Gazette. In the letter, written “near Wheeling” and dated Nov. 27, 1826, Josiah Fox, writing in the third person, and referring to himself as “the subscriber” wrote,
“The subscriber was applied to by General Knox…to assist in their construction…his worthy friend + Kinsman, Andrew Ellicott of West Point introduced him to the administration … Commodore Barry who had known him from his youth. The principal master shipbuilders of Phila. also bore testimony to his skill in Naval Architecture…. As a Clerk in the department of War until suitable provision could be otherwise made for him at that time his advice and assistance was required on naval subjects, particularly as to the practicality of avoiding errors on which ships of the revolution were constructed…his models formed to combine Bouyancy + Capacity with fast sailing…he introduced into the service the improved mode of drafting Ships of War and likewise the Manner of Making the Moulds, Straking and Beveling of the timbers. He has good reason to believe that he was the first person who ever directed putting together a stern from moulds of a ship of War before it was raised in the United States…the subscriber was employed in laying down the draughts in the moulding loft + superintending the making of the moulds…he was employed to form the draughts for the Constructors in which he was assisted by Wm. Daughty, the present Constructor of the Navy…The 4 frigates which the subscriber drafted were the United States Constitution, Constellation + the one intended to have built at Norfolk. After beginning the construction at Norfolk at the Gosport Navy Yard he returned to Phila there the subscriber was then taken into the war Office as an assistant to the Secretary of War and the naval part of the duties was chiefly confided to him. In the Summer of 1796 Mr. Pickering being translated to department of State applied to the subscriber…to draft and take direction of the building etc. a frigate to carry 36 guns for the Dey of Algiers. That the estimates were made in conjunction with Mr. Joshua Humphreys and as the subscriber was not designated by any other title, it was determined that he should add to his name ‘Navy Constructor.’ To carry the duties of his instructions more expeditiously…he should proceed to Portsmouth NH…when he had put the business…into successful train of operation he returned to Phila. and resumed his station in the War Department until the Spring of 1798.”
In short, Josiah Fox stated that he had drawn the designs for the three original frigates, The Constitution, The Constellation, and The United States. Since the letter briefly referred to Secretary of War, Henry Knox and barely made reference to Joshua Humphreys, Fox seemed to imply that he had designed the three warships as well as drew their plans.
Samuel Humphreys the son of Joshua Humphreys and, in 1827, the current naval constructor for the United States Navy at the Washington Naval Yard, responded swiftly and vociferously. He wrote to his father informing him of the newspaper article supporting Fox’s claim, and the younger Humphreys asked his father to send evidence to refute Fox. Eleven days later, Joshua Humphreys answered his son’s request.
“Exactly at what time Fox was taken into The service I do not know…Fox was considered a first rate draftsman…I gave him directions to prepare a draft for the 44 gun ships, with instructions in what matter to draw it, but instead of conforming to the instructions I gave him, he drew drafts according to his own opinion which was so foreign from my ideas that I set it aside + drew another myself, by which the U States, the President + Constitution were built; I then set Fox to lay down the ships in the mould loft, making moulds for cutting timber by and other setts [sic] for the master builders in different yards. The three ships being built instructions from me by the same draft… After the moulds in the mould loft was finished for the six frigates I set Mr. Fox to make four copies for the four large frigates one to be sent to each yard wherethe Frigates were to be built. I examined them and compared them with the original draft drawn by myself and certified them to be current before they were sent on; whether he or Mr. Doughty copied the drafts of the 36 Gun frigates, I have forgotten. After all the drafts were compleated [sic] I recommended Fox to general Knox for a clerk in his office…Colonel Pickering acted as Secretary of War + appointed Fox to build the 44 gun Frigate at that place + stated in his appointment that he Fox had a principal share in constructing the other Frigates, on Fox showing me his appointment I asked him how he could receive such instructions without informing the secretary that they were not correct as his having anything to do with the construction of those ships; In consequence I wrote Col. Pickering 5 June 1795 informing him that Fox had nothing to do with planning or constructing the Drafts or Models of the frigates.When he was appointed to build the 44 at Norfolk the Keel was laid he cut the keel and reduced the size of that ship to that of 36 gun ship, although the draft and mould + Instructions were sent on to the agent there for a forty four, he drew a new draft + built the ship by his own plan…(perhaps this is the alteration he alludes to that he suggested to genl Knox when the ship was compleated[sic])…he was afterwards appointed Naval Constructor at Washington; he drafted the Gunboat…he also drafted the Frigate Philadelphia…none of them (Naval Constructors) had anything to do with drafting or constructing the Frigates but myself.”
Defending his father’s reputation, Samuel Humphreys dispatched a letter to the editor of The Washington Journal,
“I noticed in your paper of the 11th inst. An extract of a letter from a gentleman on his travels in the Western country who gives a statement ofa conversation with he had with Mr F in which he Mr F takes to himself the credit of drawing the original drafts of the Frigates United States Constitution, Constellation + gives to Mr. William Doughty the drawing of the President and Congress – His statement in relation to them is incorrect – The original draught of the United States, Constitution President Constellation + Congress were drawn by Joshua Humphreys of Philadelphia agreeable to dimensions propose by him to Genl Knox then Secretary of War. The only part Mr Fox took in the business was making copies from the originals – I am perfectly willing to give Mr Fox all the credit that is due him + and with that disposition I will state that he drafted the Frigate Philadelphia and Chesapeake and the sloop Wasp – He built the last two named vessels.”
Three days after his August 24th letter, Joshua Humphreys added a postscript, “Fox did propose some alteration in the frigates to general Knox + which he sent to me, Some I adapted + others I rejected, they were of little consequence none of them that was a duplicate had any tendency to alter her construction as you know Fox + I widely differed on that subject-.”
The rivals had spoken. To those unfamiliar with the intricacies of naval architecture, the muddled and confusing claims, over who designed and who drafted what, seem confusing and unimportant. But to those original rivals, Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox, the matter held great importance. Their honor, their reputation, and their place in the pantheon of the ancient art of shipbuilding were all at stake. Design means to conceive, to originate, to be the creator of something. Draft means simply committing to paper, to draw, to make blueprints of the conceptual innovations of another. The vehement defense by the two rivals tells us that they knew what was at stake. Were the great and potent frigates English warships built in America by an Englishman steeped in English shipbuilding lore, or were they American objects that somehow reflect American uniqueness? The deaths of the two rivals left the issue unresolved, but the supporters of both causes rushed into the fray.
Among the earliest zealots to take up the cause were two descendants: Col. Henry H. Humphreys (U.S. Army, ret.), the great grandson of Joshua Humphreys, and Elizabeth Brandon Stanton, Josiah Fox’s great granddaughter. Approaching his topic in military fashion, Humphreys ordered his evidence as Documents A to H. All of these were letters from Joshua Humphreys’ correspondence, most already cited in this study. To drub the opposition into submission, Elizabeth Stanton opened with an impassioned salvo, “…from whose fertile brain sprung the Constitution, Constellation, Wasp, and Hornet,” but she added nothing new to the claimants’ cause. Not to be outdone by blood relatives, scholars have joined the campaign.
In 1935, Howard Chapelle, the dean of the historians of the design and architecture of American sailing warships, entered the list. He came down heavily on Fox’s side, “The papers of Both Fox and Humphreys are in existence, and by comparing them the following facts come to light, Fox, who was a skilled draughtsman as well as a shipwright drew the plans for the frigates United States and Constitution apparently under Humphreys’ direction though the existing copy of the plan for these ships is signed by Dougthy. Then, Chapelle continues in one breadth to give Humphreys credit, “…Humphreys should receive credit for the designs of United States, Constitution, Constellation, Congress, and the first design of the President,” and to excoriate him in the next when he identifies the United States as, heaviest built of the three 44’s as well as the slowest.” Chapelle finishes by extending more credit to Fox, “Fox not only designed No. 5 but No. 3…he may have designed them all.” However, in this quotation it is unclear whether Chapelle refers to the 44-gun ships, the 74-gun ships, or the gun boats for Jefferson’s reduced navy. A total absence of footnotes or bibliography makes Chapelle’s argument hard to evaluate. It is impossible to know to which of Fox’s or Humphreys’ papers he refers. When you are a preeminent American historian, you can get away with that level of jovian dictums, not so lesser mortals.
Overwhelmingly, more recent historians of the origin of the United States Navy eschew the narrower issue of drafting and give Joshua Humphreys credit for the innovative vision of American ships for the “infant Hercules,” the United States Navy. They point to the theoretical level of his work; they describe his thinking about naval architecture and navies as “revolutionary.” They note Humphreys’ commitment to the use of American materials, live oak and red cedar, and his advocacy of the purchase of timber preserves, the stockpiling and seasoning of timber, and the founding of naval yards with drydocking facilities to more economically and efficiently repair ships and speedily return them to service, While others have not, these historians focus on a bigger picture.
Several historians cling to the old battle. They support either Josiah Fox or Joshua Humphreys. During the earlier part of the twentieth century, Ernest Wessen systematically collected Josiah Fox’s papers. Today the PeabodyMuseum and Library in Salem, Massachusetts houses this collection. In fact the library catalogues the collection as the Ernest J. Wessen Collection. Not surprisingly, Wessen was among Fox’s most ardent supporters. To describe Humphreys, Wessen used strong words, “unqualified,” and “ Pretender.” Merle T. Westlake, the most recent active and vocal supporter of Fox, has also used the Wessen Collection extensively. In a 1964 article, Westlake again focuses on the issue of drafts and designs, “Fox was directed to prepare the final drafts…. It is therefore evident that the ships were not designed by one man.” The article continues quoting a long letter from Fox that accused Joshua Humphreys of duplicity, ‘Mr JH on finding himself disappointed in his view attempted to palm another draft upon me as an approved one…’” Westlake concludes the article, “It is evident that Josiah Fox played a major role in both design and construction.” In a more recent article, Westlake re-examines the Fox-Humphreys controversy, but in less strident, more conciliatory language. After this re-examination, the rest of Westlakes’ article narrates Fox’s later career at the Washington Naval Yard, his conflict with the yards’ superintendent, Thomas Tingey, and his dismissal by President James Madison. This 1999 article concludes differently than the 1964 article, “It is known however, that the original criteria for the general design and dimensions for the first frigates were determined by the War department with advice from a committee of knowledgeable shipbuilders and that the drafts and molds were prepared by Josiah Fox and William Doughty under the direction of Joshua Humphreys.” This conclusion is both disingenuous and mean-spirited. Notice that Josiah Fox is no longer given credit for designing the frigates. But at the same time, Westlake does not extend to Humphreys the credit for innovation that other naval historians have.
Part 2: The Enemy
Incredibly, the Fox vs. Humphreys debate has continued for more than two hundred years. Even today, mere mention of either name stirs heated discussion among both partisans and neutral historians and sends them scurrying to archives searching for letters, blueprints, and other telltale evidence. However, they are looking in the wrong direction. There may be unresolved conflict over who designed or drafted what, but Josiah Fox was Joshua Humphreys’ rival, not his mortal enemy. Josiah Fox did not cost Joshua Humphreys his position as Naval Constructor. Humphreys’ own ardent and passionate Federalism and three more powerful and insidious enemies: the broad societal and economic changes that swept Philadelphia in the 1790s, the Republican Party, and the Penrose family, did that.
Bartholomew Penrose arrived in Pennsylvania about 1700. Although Penrose left no body of letter, journals, or ledgers, an outline of his brief life in America and his career is possible. Penrose was the son of a Bristol shipwright. In 1705 or 1706, Penrose, both a shipwright and a ship captain, purchased a property at the foot of Philadelphia’s High Street, now Market Street, the main thorofare running inland from the Delaware River. This property was the site of his wharf and shipyard. Even though he was an Anglican in a Quaker community, Penrose prospered in a colony whose economic lifeline, the Delaware River tied Pennsylvania to the greater Atlantic World. The bounty harvested and gathered from Pennsylvania’s forests and fertile farmland demanded vessels to carry its wealth to England, Ireland, the West Indies, and other far-flung markets. On May 4, 1707 Bartholomew Penrose and his partner, the proprietor, William Penn, launched The Diligence, an 150 ton ship, designed to carry cargoes from Pennsylvania to Virginia, London, and the West Indies. Bartholomew Penrose died in 1711 and was buried in Christ Church’s graveyard, “a man of some means.” His “means” included a prosperous shipyard and wharf, a flourishing commercial venture, and numerous progeny with a penchant for marrying favorably and acquiring land, wealth, and power.
With its increasing wealth, especially in land, the family relocated southward, down the Delaware River. The southern fringe of the county and the port offered cheaper land, more space for sprawling shipyards, easier access to the river without commercial clutter, and proximity to an already established community of shipbuilding craftsmen, many descendants of the original Swedish settlers. Bartholomew Penrose Jr. (1708-1758) and his younger brother, Thomas Penrose (1709 or1710-1757) purchased land in Wiccacoe (later identified as the District of Southwark) and continued their father’s business as shipbuilders, shipowners, and merchants.
In 1731, Thomas Penrose married Sarah Coats. She was a descendant of the original Swedish settlers and a member of an extensive and prosperous merchant family. Thomas Penrose owned at least three ships: the brig Greyhound, launched in 1747, the Ranger (1750), and the Neptune (1753). Thomas Penrose’s will describes him as owning, “fifty-four feet or there abouts on the Delaware River & extending westward about One hundred & eighty feet more or less…” The will also mentioned another wharf and lot, “50 feet wide, west from the Delaware River to Front Street…wherein I now dwell.” (The will left the lot, wharf, and shipbuilding yard to Thomas’ son, James, of whom more will be said later.) The will also listed other lots, apprentices, and Negroes.
Less is known of Bartholomew Penrose Jr., who is best described as the Penrose who took the more traveled path. Instead of shipbuilding, Bartholomew Penrose pursued a career as a merchant. His business records center him in the vibrant trade in Pennsylvania agricultural goods bound for the West Indies. A ship’s manifest identifies casks of linseed oil and barrels of flour and pork destined for Barbadoes, Jamaica, and St. Christopher. At least one ship that carried Bartholomew Penrose Jr.’s cargo was Penrose-built. The Diligence appears frequently in Bartholomew Penrose Jr.’s ship manifest.
While Bartholomew Penrose Jr. chose a career of an Atlantic World merchant, his two cousins, Thomas’ sons, Thomas Penrose Jr. (born 1733 or 1734, died 1815) and James Penrose (born 1737 or 1738, died 1771), continued the family’s traditional craft, shipbuilding. By the 1760s, James and Thomas Penrose Jr. operated one of the two busiest and most productive shipyards along the Philadelphia waterfront, the other being Emmanuel Eyre’s yard in Northern Liberties.
With other American merchants and craftsmen, the escalating dispute between the colonies and the British government drew Thomas Penrose Jr. into the murky and troubled waters of international and local politics. Family records identify Penrose as a member of the Church of England, who had changed faiths and joined the Society of Friends. If so, the coming revolution propelled him into “un-Friendly” activities. According to records, Thomas Penrose Jr. became a member of the local committee of correspondence and supported the non-importation actions against the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Act, although there is no evidence that Penrose’s shipyard constructed any of the ships built at the behest of the Continental Congress’ Defense Committee.
Here in the shipyard of Thomas Penrose Jr. and his brother, James Penrose, the story of the Penrose family and the “rivals,” Josiah Fox and Joshua Humphreys, collide. Upon James Penrose’s sudden death in 1771, his wife and heir, Ann Penrose, released Joshua Humphreys from his apprenticeship, with the understanding that he, Humphreys, complete the construction of an unfinished ship in Penrose’s yard. The underlying implication is that Humphreys, more or less, took advantage of the widow Penrose to gain his release, and that this incident was the origin of the succeeding animosity of the members of the Penrose family for Humphreys. The story becomes even more confused and more convoluted. Among some sources, Thomas Penrose Jr. was among those shipbuilders who recommended Joshua Humphreys to secretary of war, Henry Knox, in 1794, but other sources list Penrose as being among the Philadelphia shipbuilders who rejected Humphreys design for the frigates. Here the plot thickens. In 1793 Thomas Penrose Jr. hired Josiah Fox to teach drafting to his sons, and Fox’s recollections are the strongest testimony for the shipbuilder’s rejection of Humphreys design. No verifiable evidence of Thomas Penrose Jr. relationship with Humphreys exists, but there is evidence for another member of the Penrose family.
Out of this tangled muddle, one fact emerges. At least one member of the Penrose family, William Penrose, son of Thomas Penrose Jr. and nephew of James Penrose hated Joshua Humphreys. Born in September 1763, William Penrose, unlike his father and uncle James, chose the other Penrose path, the life of a sea captain rather than a shipbuilder. On October 23, 1793 in a becalmed sea off the coast of Portugal, the ship President, captained by William Penrose, sighted a rapidly approaching rowed galley. The approaching ship flew the friendly Spanish flag. As the vessel closed with the President, it opened fire and launched a boat with thirty armed men. William Penrose had encountered the pirates of Algiers. Caught by surprise, unarmed, and helpless, Penrose surrendered without resistance. As the pirate crew swarmed the deck of the ship, without being allowed to go below to secure any personal items, the corsairs stripped Penrose, his officers, crew, and passengers of their clothing, dressed them in rags and forced them into the pirate launch. William Penrose, sea captain, and member of the rich and powerful Penrose family had become a captive of the Dey of Algiers.
In a letter addressed to David Humphreys (no relation to Joshua Humphreys), the American ambassador to Spain and transmitted through the compassionate services of the Swedish consul, Penrose and the twelve other American captives decried their desperate situation and begged relief, “…made us to work like slaves…so we had nothing to subsist on but a little black bread and water and sometimes nothing.” Penrose continued, “…and if you will be so kind as to supply me with a few dollars for the present I shall take it as the greatest favor any person ever conferred on me, for it is impossible to subsist long in this miserable situation.”
Finally, the government of the infant republic noticed the plight of Penrose and the other Americans held captive by the Dey of Algiers. The lack of naval power forced George Washington’s administration to agree to a humiliating treaty that included both ransom for the captives and tribute to their captor. Ironically, part of the tribute included four American-built warships. While Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox labored against great odds to complete the frigates for the unborn United States Navy, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering provided ample funds to construct and outfit the tribute ship, the Crescent. Even more ironically, Pickering chose the newly released Captain William Penrose to deliver the Crescent to the Dey of Algiers. Assumedly, Pickering chose Penrose because of his knowledge of Algerian waters. How William Penrose felt about delivering the ship, the naval stores, and the $642,500 bullion to the Dey of Algiers, the ruler who had held him under such vile and degrading conditions, we do not know. Penrose left no records.
Between 1787 and 1800 profound political, social, and economic changes transformed the United States, the state of Pennsylvania, the city of Philadelphia, and the District of Southwark, the site of Joshua Humphreys’ shipyard and community of his workers. By 1800 the tides of political fortunes had turned against Joshua Humphreys’ Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party swept into power. Now, the Republicans controlled both the presidency and both houses of Congress. The vanquished Federalists would never again elect a president or control either the Senate or the House of Representatives. The electorate had rejected the Federalists and their exclusionary political ideology. In 1800, American voters, then and ever after, reacted with adversion to any political party that uses repugnant policies to desperately retain power. Republican enmity to the powerful and expensive United States Navy put it and its chief naval constructor, Joshua Humphreys, the outspoken and fervent Federalist, at grave risk.
In Philadelphia, Federalist leaders and their supporters literally fought for their political survival, but an entirely new element, the “Wild Irishmen,” overwhelmed them. These terrifying and unruly laboring immigrants flooded the districts of Kensington, Northern Liberties, and Southwark, that along with the separately-incorporated City of Philadelphia comprised Philadelphia County. As poor laboring immigrants, who held strong hatred for the British government and its Federalist allies, these politically astute and politically active Irishmen were natural recruits for the Republican Party. During the 1790s, between three and four thousand Irish, escaping oppression, poverty, and the failed United Irish Uprising, poured into the United States. More than any other section of the County of Philadelphia, Southwark felt their presence. 70% of the 1,900 new inhabitants of Southwark were Irish who immediately joined the swelling ranks of the Republican Party. In the Election of 1796, Federalists had struggled desperately. In Southwark, one Federalist employer, almost certainly Joshua Humphreys, tried threat, “…said he had a thousand cords of wood to haul and that no man should be employed to haul his wood who would not vote for Mr. Morgan (the Federalist candidate for Congress),” an empty, senseless, and panicky threat to no avail. The Republican candidate, John Swanwick carried 91% of the 512 ballots in the Southwark district.
In Pennsylvania, by 1799, Republicans completed their triumph. Thomas McKean, the Republican endorsed candidate, took the governorship, and Alexander James Dallas, one of the politically skilled Republican organizers, became the Secretary of the Commonwealth. From PhiladelphiaCounty, three Republicans took seats in the now Republican-controlled Assembly. Among these were two fiery radicals: Dr. Michael Lieb from German-dominated Northern Liberties, and William Duane, the Irish incendiary and editor of the vehemently anti-Federalist newspaper, The Aurora. The third Philadelphian was the former Algerine captive, William Penrose.
It is difficult to explain William Penrose’s republicanism, especially his association with the radical representatives of the laboring poor immigrants, William Duane and Michael Lieb. First, William Penrose is a wraithlike historical figures who appears, briefly, and then disappears, leaving no tracks, behind him. He left no journal or diary and only two brief and turgid letters, besides the letter from Algerine captivity. Secondly, Penrose’s republicanism defies logic. Rationality demands that Penrose, the Algerine captive and victim of America’s naval defenselessness, support the Federalists and their naval program to prevent deprivations of American shipping by both European naval powers and Mediterranean corsairs and to save others from his humiliating fate. But, there has never been much of a connection between American politics and rationality. Penrose’s republicanism was, at best, lukewarm and cavalier. When city Republicans criticized his support for conservative compromise with the Federalist-controlled Pennsylvania Senate in 1800, he responded, “If they are dissatisfied with us they must supply our place next year with such men as they believe will pay more attention to their interests.” True to his word, Penrose served only one term in the Pennsylvania Assembly. Upon the expiration of his term, he disappeared from historical record. Only family histories note his death in 1816 and the appointment of executors of his estate.
Immediately, following Jefferson’s election to the presidency, the Republicans, led by William Penrose, began their campaign against Joshua Humphreys, a proud, defiant, die-hard Federalist now brought to his end. During the last months of John Adams’ administration, Joshua Humphreys and Benjamin Stoddert had moved to found the new United States naval yards, including one in the Southwark section of Philadelphia. They had found a convenient location, two lots immediately adjacent to the southern boundary to Humphreys’ own yard, but there was a flaw. A public thorofare, Prime Street, ran east to west between the lots and gave access, by a public landing, to the Delaware River. Security-minded Stoddert and Humphreys petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to vacate the street, to close it to public traffic. The Commissioners of the Southwark District, chaired by Republican Richard Tittermary, who had replaced Humphreys in that position, and supported by William Penrose, opposed the vacuation petition. Truthful or not, Humphreys wrote, “Mr. Penrose and his son in the legislature…” oppose the petition “…I believe from an envious disposition…his own party in the District are exasperated at him.” The following month, in two letters to Benjamin Stoddert, Humphreys reported difficulty and defeat, “Mr. Penrose…from his known opposition to the Federal Government, the Morris family, and my own…,” had successfully passed a bill in the Republican- controlled Pennsylvania Assembly not to vacate the street.
Eight months later, Joshua Humphreys received another letter. This one, from the new Secretary of the Navy, Samuel Smith, notified Humphreys that his position as “Naval Constructor” had been terminated. There is no “smoking gun,” such as a letter from William Penrose to Samuel Smith demanding Humphreys’ dismissal, but circumstantial evidence strongly points to the reason for Humphreys’ end. In an atmosphere charged with animosity, both personal and political, William Penrose and the victorious Republicans crushed the infant United States Navy and one of its leading proponents, Joshua Humphreys. Of the two, the Navy, at least, survived to see better days.
The rivals and enemies: Joshua Humphreys, Josiah Fox, and William Penrose, lived in an age when gentlemen took their personal and familial honor seriously. Often, as in the case of William Penrose and Joshua Humphreys, the birth of the embryonic political parties exacerbated and intertwined the personal with the political to a point where distinction between the two blurred and disappeared. This chapter allows us to see how the lives of three almost important and proud men crashed into conflict in the tumultuous days of the infant AmericanRepublic.
Notes on Chapter 6
Joshua Humphreys Correspondence, Vol. 1, 126, HSP.
Merle T. Westlake Jr., “Josiah Fox, Gentleman, Quaker, Shipbuilder,” PMHB, Vol. 88, 316-317; Merle T. Westlake Jr., “The American Sailing Navy: Josiah Fox- Joshua Humphreys & Thomas Tingey,” The American Neptune, Vol. 59, Number 1 (1999), 21; Dorwart, Philadelphi,a p. 34, and Elizabeth Brandon Stanton, “Builders of the First Navy,” Journal of American History, Vol. II (No. 1, 1908) 101-102.
Letter, Henry Knox to Josiah Fox, Josiah Fox Papers, Ernest J. Wessen Collection, MH 11, Box 11, Folder 1, typescript letterbook, Vol. 1, Peabody-Essex Library & Museum (Hereafter cited as Fox Papers.), and Dorwart, Philadelphia, 34.
Letter, Josiah Fox to Joshua Humphreys, April 27, 1795, “Correspondence,” Box 1, Folder 4, (Fox Papers); Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Josiah Fox, July 22, 1796, Letterbook. Vol. 1, HSP; Letter, Josiah Fox to Joshua Humphreys, Letterbook, Vol. 3, (Fox Papers); Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Josiah Fox (no date), Letterbook, Vol. 1, (Fox Papers), and Letter, Timothy Pickering to William Pennock, May 14, 1796, Letterbook, Vol. 1, (Fox Papers).
Westlake, “American,” 23; Letter, James McHenry to Timothy Pickering, July 8, 1796, as quoted in: Bernard C. Steiner, The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry, Secretary of War under Washington and Adams (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers , Co., 1907), p. 180, and Letter, Timothy Pickering to William Pennock, May 14, 1796, copy in: Letterbook, Vol. 1,(Fox Papers).
James McHenry‘s incompetence is detailed in: Letter, Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Sedgwick, Aug. 29, 1798, as cited in: Smelser, Congress, 152-153; Letter, Timothy Pickering to Josiah Fox, (no date), Letterbook, Vol. 1, (Fox Papers); Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Josiah Fox, Feb. 7, 1795 (Letter is incorrectly dated. It should be 1796.), Letterbook, Vol. 1, Fox Papers; Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Josiah Fox (no date), Letterbook, Vol. 1,HSP; Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Josiah Fox, July 22, 1796, Letterbook, Vol. 1, HSP, and Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Capt. (Thomas) Truxtun, Oct. 25, 1796, Letterbook, Vol. 1, HSP.
Letter, Josiah Fox to George Fox (The brother is not identified by name, only as “Dear Brother.”), Feb. 9, 1796, typed copy, MH 11, Box 6, Folder 7, (Fox Papers); letter, Josiah Fox to ? (Correspondent is not identified.), June 9, 1796, Letterbook, Vol. 3, (Fox Papers); Letter, Anna Fox to Josiah Fox, July 24, 1796, Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 4, (Fox Papers), and Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Josiah Fox, “Clerk in the Marine Department War Office,” July, 25, 1797, Letterbook, Vol. 2, HSP.
Palmer, Stoddert’s, 8-27; Smelser, Congress, 156-193; Dorwart, Philadelphia, 44-55; Gazette of the United States, April 28, 1798, as quoted in Smelser, Congress, 137; Westlake, “American,” 28; Westlake, “Josiah Fox,” 319, and Howard I. Chapelle, The History of the American Sailing Navy (New York: W.W. Norton &Co., 1935), 93.
Harry M. Tinkcom, The Republicans and Federalism in Pennsylvania, 1790-1801: A Study in National Stimulus and Local Response (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1950), 173-179.
The story of the race between the U.S. United States and the French frigate is told by Herman Melville in White Jacket, 272. Melville sailed on the U.S. United States but later deserted, and he castigated the navy for the brutal treatment of seamen. “Subscriber Letter,” Letterbook, Vol. 4, (Fox Papers). The “Subscriber Letter” is also quoted in: Westlake, “American,” 22-26.
Letter, Samuel Humphreys to Joshua Humphreys, Aug. 18, 1827, Correspondence, HSP; Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Samuel Humphreys, Aug. 24, 1827, Letterbook, Vol. 3, HSP, and Letter, Joshua Humphreys to Samuel Humphreys, Aug. 27, 1827, Correspondence, HSP.
Col. Henry H. Humphreys (Ret.), “Who Built the First United States Navy?” JAH Vol. X Number 1, 1906, 49-50; Stanton, “Builders,” JAH, 101; Chapelle, History, 86-98; Palmer, Stoddert’s, 27; Fowler, Jack Tars, 19-21; Craig, “Benjamin,” 61; Symonds, Navalists, 36; Ferguson, Truxtun, 110-111; Clark, Gallant, 368-370; Martin, Most, 5-13; Sternlicht, Constellation, 5; Gruppe, Frigates, 16, and Smelser, Congress, 72.
Typed copy of a letter written by Ernest Wessen, Dec. 12, 1933, Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 4, (Fox Papers); Westlake, “Josiah Fox,” 316-327, and Westlake, “American,” 21-41.
For two other recent works that emphasize Joshua Humphreys role in the creation of the United States Navy see: Richard Eddy, “‘…Defended by Adequate Power’ Joshua Humphreys and the 74-Gun Ships,” The American Neptune Vol. 51 (Summer 1991), 173-194, and Dorwart, Philadelphia, 34-37.
William Penrose Hallowell, Records of a Branch of the Hallowell Family, including the Longstreth, Penrose, and Norwood Branches, Complied by William Penrose Hallowell (Philadelphia: Hallowell & Co., Publishers, 1893), 174; Josiah Granville Leach, History of the Penrose Family of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Drexel Biddle, 1903), 12; Brewington, “Maritime,” 104-105, and Dorwart, Philadelphia, p.11.
Leach, History, 19-25, and Hallowell, Records, 149.
Ibid. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s American Collection houses two valuable artifacts of the Penrose family’s shipbuilding and mercantile activities: “Ship Manifest, Bartholomew Penrose, West Indies – 1736-1756,” and Shipbuilding Establishment of James Penrose , ca. 1760.”
One of the historians of the Penrose Family, identifies Thomas Penrose Sr. as active on the Revolution; see: Hallowell, Records, 150-152, but Jeffery Dorwart does not list Penrose among the Philadelphia shipbuilders who built for the Continental Navy, even though the Penroses had extensive knowledge and experience at warship construction; see; Dorwart, Philadelphia, 15-21.
There are no Penrose papers that mention Humphreys’ release from an apprenticeship, nor is the incident mentioned in Humphreys’ papers, but in 1773 Joshua Humphreys entered into business as a partner with his cousin, John Wharton when he purchased the yard of the bankrupt Benjamin Hutton.
For a different version of Humphreys’ relationship with Ann Penrose see: Martin, Most, 4; Dorwart , Philadelphia, 14, and Brewington, “Maritime,” 52.
Hallowell, Records, 152-159; Leach, History, 60-61, and Matthew Carey, A Short History of Algiers with a concise view of the origin of the rupture Between Algiers and the United Sates: to which is added a copious appendix containing letters from Captain Penrose, M’Sherry and Sundry other American captives with a description of the treatment those prisoners experienced, 3rd ed. improved (New York: Evert Duyckink, 1805), microfilm, Library Company of Philadelphia, 76-78
21 Letters, Timothy Pickering to Joshua Humphreys, Sept. 14, 1798 and Oct. 9, 1798, “Calendar of Pickering Papers,” Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. III (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1896). The “Calendar” is a list and summary of Pickering’s letters. The letters to Humphreys are annotated as “vol. 9, 325” and “vol. 9, 450” respectively.
Carey, Short History, 87-88; O’Connor, Origins, 63-64; Symonds, Navalists, and Donald.Barr Chidsey, The War in Barbary: Arab Piracy and the Birth of the United States Navy (New York: Crown Publishers, 1970), 30-52.
With the exception of Carey’s work, William Penrose went unnoticed among the Algerine captives.
Ronald P. Schultz, The Republic of Labor: Philadelphia Artisans and the Politics of Class, 1730-1830 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 124-126 and 145-148; Tinkcom, Republicans, 173-179 and 221-224; Edward C. Carter III, “A ‘Wild Irishman’ Under Every Federalist Bed: Naturalization in Philadelphia, 1789-1806,” APSP, Vol. 133, No. 2, 178-189; Kim T. Phillips, “William Duane, Revolutionary Editor,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkley, 1968, 101-113; Roland M. Baumann, “The Democratic-Republicans of Philadelphia, The Origins, 1776 -1797,” Ph. D. dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University, 1970, 512; Kenneth W. Keller, “Cultural Conflict in Early Nineteenth Century Politics,”PMHB, Vol. 110, No. 4, October 1986, 510 and 523-525, and Richard G. Miller, Philadelphia – The Federalist City, A Study of Urban Politics, 1789-1810 (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1976), especially chapters 7 and 8 and 11-126 and 127-142.
The two William Penrose letters are: William Penrose to Alexander J. Dallas, Nov. 1800, George Mifflin Dallas Collection, Box 1, Alexander James Dallas Papers, HSP, and “Letter Requesting an Interview on the Subject of Naval Yard,” no date, Stauffer Collection, Vol. III, 874, HSP. The quotation is from the first letter. The second letter is especially tantalizing. However, it does not identify a date or author of the letter. It only mentions that Penrose wanted the meeting to be held in his lodgings, “a more private than public place.”
None of the standard sources on the Republican rise to power in Pennsylvania even identify William Penrose. See: Baumann, “Democratic-Republicans.”
These three letters are among the Joshua Humphreys Papers in the collection of HSP. See: Letters, Joshua Humphreys to Benjamin Stoddert, Jan. 7, 1801, Feb. 6, 1801, and Feb. 16, 1801, Letterbook, Vol. 3, HSP, and Letter, Samuel Smith to Joshua Humphreys, Oct. 26, 1801, Correspondence, HSP.
For an extended discussion of the continued history of the United States Navy Yard in Philadelphia after Humphreys’ tenure see: Dorwart, Philadelphia, 48-55.
For details of the political machinations within the District of Southwark see: Southwark Papers, Box 3 and 4, HSP.