When William Penn founded his sylvan colony and his “green country” town, he expected more than a bucolic and rustic “Holy Experiment.” He expected to make a profit. Following other successful colonies in British North America, he expected settlers to practice extractive agriculture. Extractive agriculture meant bulky quantities from field and forest that would pass through his City of Brotherly Love, down the Delaware River, and out into the commercial network of the British Empire. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, bulky cargoes meant ships, and ships equaled shipbuilders. As the son of a captain and a man familiar with ships and shipping, Penn specifically encouraged shipbuilders to settle in his new colony, and he entered into partnership with at least one of them.

We have ample evidence of early Philadelphia shipping and, by extension, shipbuilding. Visitors remarked and marveled at the number of ships crowding the wharves and roads of the Delaware River. Numerous merchant account books and journals describe cargoes and ships, arriving and departing. Thanks to imperial records we have lists of ships registered in Philadelphia. Several recent historians have written about early Philadelphia shipbuilding, but they do so from the point of view of merchant strategy. They write about ownership both singularly and collectively; they discuss changes in the size and rigging of ships as the evolution of trade in the eighteenth century demanded ships that could carry greater quantities of goods to more distant markets. But for all of that, we know almost nothing about the men who built those ships. The merchants, for whom they built ships, rarely identified them by name. Even contemporary historians who have written about shipbuilding almost never mention the shipbuilders. This study begins to fill in that empty space; it begins the recovery of the history of those early Philadelphia shipbuilders. And, although it pays some attention to the craft of shipbuilding, it focuses mainly on the shipbuilders themselves.

Of necessity, Chapter One has a bibliographic dimension. Lacking any existing shipbuilder’s or shipyard records for the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries, this work employs third person voices: the private records, account books and journals of Philadelphia merchant shipowners,  and the public records: the Minutes of the Common Council of the corporate City of Philadelphia, tax assessments, and deed books. Initially using these, this work simply identifies, just by name, the few seventeenth and the more numerous early eighteenth century Philadelphia shipbuilders. Then, it unfolds the business of shipbuilding. It describes the symbiotic but not sycophantic relationship between the merchant shipowners and the shipyard-owning shipbuilders. Shipbuilders insisted on fair value for the product of their labor and, at least in one recorded instance, prevailed in disputed cases. Our sources reveal that merchants intimately knew the reputation of various local shipbuilders, and shipbuilders of especial repute could select their merchant clientele. When challenged, these artisans defended their craft. This chapter also allows an initial glimpse into the organization of a large pre-industrial labor force, the hierarchical layering within its labor force, and the craft of shipbuilding. Next, it explores the artisan culture of the shipbuilding community in early eighteenth century Philadelphia. In particular it examines their pursuit of property and finds that, at least, some of the dominant shipbuilders, sometimes in combination with other artisan, amassed considerable property. Finally, this chapter describes shipbuilder’s strategy in their use of accumulated wealth to assure economic security for themselves and their posterity.

Having described the first century of Philadelphia shipbuilders, Chapter Two moves to their experience during the Revolutionary War. It begins with a brief description of the variety of American naval forces contending with the might of British seapower. With the exception of the heroics of John Paul Jones, for America, the naval conflict of the Revolutionary War proved to be less than glorious. Facing the all-powerful British navy, the American navy lacked ships, and the Continental Congress lacked the funds to provide any. There was no naval George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, or even a George Rogers Clark; there was only bloody-minded John Paul Jones and a collection of merchant ships and captains pressed into service. And, when the British occupied Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, Philadelphia military shipbuilding came to a halt.

Several historians of Revolutionary War shipbuilding and naval warfare claim that the war was a critical period for the American navies. That simplistic assertion begs qualification. In terms of the evolution of the national bureaucracy’s effort to organize its resources to construct warships and command them and from Congress’ inept initial Marine Committee to Robert Morris’ Superintendency of Marine, that claim of criticality has validity. In terms of any addition to the accumulated skill or military shipbuilding expertise of Philadelphia shipbuilders, the claims of significance have little veracity.

Chapter Three, the heart of the work, collapses the focus of the work to one shipbuilder, Joshua Humphreys, Philadelphia’s pre-eminent eighteenth century shipbuilder and naval architect, and one ship the U.S. United States.

In the 1790s, with the infant republic and the temporary national capital, the shipbuilders of Philadelphia experienced a buoyant resurgence, a kind of Golden Age of the construction of wooden sailing ships. And here, the extensive records of Joshua Humphreys allow us a detailed entry into the craft and community of Philadelphia shipwrights. Humphreys’ 1794 appointment as U.S. Naval Constructor initiated a period of innovation in design, especially the use of American materials, in the construction of warships. In this sense, American shipbuilding mirrored the experimental nature of the American nation with its new federal constitution. The result of Humphreys’ commitment to innovation in naval architecture was the three great American warships: the United States, the Constellation, and “Old Ironside,” the Constitution.

Chapters Four and Five continue the saga of Joshua Humphreys and the initial ship construction program of the new-born United States Navy. It focuses on the compatable and efficient relationship between two different men, Joshua Humphreys, the master shipwright and naval architect and Benjamin Stoddert, lately a Georgetown merchant and  now the first Secretary of the Navy. These two chapters also intertwine two of the factors: foreign events and domestic politics which have influenced the history of the United States Navy from its creation to the present day. But Humphreys’ brief tenure as chief shipbuilder for the newly-created U.S. Navy illustrates more than creative marine architecture. As a dedicated and loyal Federalist, Humphreys lived political axioms: “all military spending is political” and “to the winner belong the spoils.” Humphreys’ career rose with the Federalist ascendancy and died with the Republican victory in the Election of 1800.

One reader has described Chapter Six as bizarre. It is indeed bizarre but fascinating. This chapter revisits the two-hundred-year-old Joshua Humphreys vs. Josiah Fox controversy, but it adds another combatant, the enigmatic Philadelphia sea captain Algerine captive, William Penrose. Humphreys and Fox certainly were rivals, and historians of naval architecture continue to debate who designed and who built which ships. But Josiah Fox did not deprive Joshua Humphreys of his cherished position as U.S. Naval Constructor, William Penrose did.

Chapter Seven, entitled “An Embattled Enclave,” concludes this work. Humphreys’ dockyard records, which identify workers by name, dates of employment and wages received, supplemented by tax records, census records, deed books, city directories, records of wills and estates, and the records of two institutions: Gloria Dei Church and Pennsylvania Hospital permit a social reconstruction of the shipbuilding community, especially in the context of a considerable body of scholarly literature about the lives of “laboring” people in late eighteenth century Philadelphia. We see this shipbuilding community as it experienced the political, social, economic, and pathogenic incursions and unrest that marked Philadelphia in this period. We see, through the lens of historical analysis, this community of shipbuilders and their families as it endured times that were prosperous, adverse, and, for many, deadly, all at the same time. We also see the Free Black shipbuilders of Southwark in the brief window between the legal end of slavery in Pennsylvania and the horrid racial oppression of the early nineteenth century. Finally, we see the dissolution of this shipbuilding community at the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, a victim of political and economic forces beyond its control and, probably, beyond its comprehension.

This story then tells the story pf early Philadelphia shipbuilders from their pre-William Penn origins through to the first decades of the Nineteenth Century. It concentrates on the career of Joshua Humphreys and his role in the construction of the first ships for the infant United States Navy. And it uses Humphreys’ extensive and detailed records to illuminate the shipbuilding community at the gates of Humphreys’ shipyard, the shipbuilders of Southwark.[1]



[1] For recent histories of Philadelphia shipbuilding see: John J. McCusker, “The Prnnsylvania Shipping Industry in The Eighteenth Century,” 1973, and unpublished manuscript, HSP and Joseph A. Goldenberg, Shipbuilding in Colonial America (Charlottsville: University of Virginia Press, 1976.  Neither McCusker nor Goldenberg identify a shipbuilder by name. For lists of ships registered in Philadelphia in accordance with British law see :Simon J. Crowther, “The Shipbuilding Output of the Delaware Valley, 1722-1776, American Philosophical Society Proceedings, Vol. 117, 1973, 90-104.

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