Iron guns of the American navy (Naval History & Heritage Command)
A WOODEN ship began to rot the instant it touched water, rotted all the faster when it was laid up in port, as all the ships of America’s small navy now were; but these were still fine ships, among the finest in the world. They were the offspring of an American shipbuilding tradition that went back to early colonial times, old enough to have gained much practical acumen but still too young and small to be afflicted with the pilfering, chicanery, corruption, bureaucracy, and conservatism that were the bane of the shipyards of as vast and venerable an institution as the Royal Navy of the last decade of the eighteenth century.
In early 1794, as Congress was moving to approve the construction of the first ships for the new United States navy—the capture of ten American merchant ships by Algerine corsairs the previous October had swayed even some of Secretary of State Jefferson’s Republican followers to support the bill—Joshua Humphreys, a Philadelphia Quaker who had overseen the construction of several warships during the Revolution, set down his ideas about what those new ships would need to look like. He had written Robert Morris, one of the state’s first two United States senators and an influential figure in naval matters ever since serving as agent of marine for the Continental Congress during the Revolution. Morris was also a fabulously wealthy man, or at least had been before issuing his own personal notes for $1.4 million to help finance the Yorktown campaign in 1781. “It is time this country was possessed of a Navy,” Humphreys began, and immediately got to the point. “As our navy must for a considerable time be inferior in numbers,” he wrote, its ships had to be individually more formidable than any enemy ships of the same class they were likely to encounter: “such Frigates as in blowing weather as would be an overmatch for double deck Ships, & in light winds, to evade coming to action.”
In other words, they had to be large enough to carry armaments that would outgun even a double-decker ship of the line when rough seas prevented the more powerful vessel from opening its lower gunports; they had to be fleet enough to outsail the larger ship in light breezes. And in an equal match, they should hold their own against any enemy frigate known, and even smaller ships of the line up to sixty-four guns. Humphreys thought the keel should be a minimum of 150 feet long, about 20 feet longer than the largest British frigates of the day. “Ships built on these principles will render those of an Enemy in a degree useless, or require a greater number before they dare attack our Ships,” Humphreys argued.1
American shipyards up and down the coast turned out everything from fishing boats to four-hundred-ton merchant brigs; they had acquired a reputation for creating fast, sharp, weatherly ships, the schooner emerging in the eighteenth century as the quintessential American vessel possessing those characteristics in abundance. They also had acquired a surprising amount of knowledge of modern warship design, much of it coming directly or indirectly from the Royal Navy’s practices. England’s royal dockyards employed fifteen thousand workers, a third of them skilled shipwrights who had come to their trade in the only way possible, via a seven-year apprenticeship under another royal dockyard shipwright. As early as 1690 there were enough of those English dockyard-trained artisans living and working in America for the Royal Navy to issue a contract to a privately owned shipyard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for construction of a fifty-gun ship of the line, the Falkland.2
By the time of the Revolution, Philadelphia had become the largest shipbuilding center in America, owing less to its inconvenient waterfront, a hundred miles from the sea up the Delaware River, than to its proximity to huge stands of timber. Humphreys’s business partner and cousin John Wharton was a close friend of Morris’s, and when the Continental Congress voted in December 1775 to have thirteen small frigates built, Humphreys immediately submitted a proposed design. The draft of the thirty-two-gun frigate from Humphreys & Wharton followed the basic Royal Navy plan for ships of this class in its arrangement of decks and guns, but was uniquely American in its hull plan, a sharp, fast-sailing design. It was also bigger than its British counterparts, 132 versus 124 feet long on the berth deck. The Randolph would be completed at the Humphreys & Wharton yard in Philadelphia in 1776. That same year Humphreys was “disunited … from religious fellowship” with the Society of Friends for his participation in the work of war.3
A ship of war even more than any other sailing ship was a compromise between a series of utterly irreconcilable forces. A ship built massively enough to absorb enemy fire in her spars and hull and sustain the considerable shock of recoil from her own guns would necessarily ride low in the water from all the weight carried, limiting speed and maneuverability. For the guns to be usable when the ship heeled over in heavy seas, they had to be as high above the waterline as possible, resulting in a high center of gravity and poor stability. Trying to overcome the hull’s resistance in the water with lofty masts and large spreads of canvas exacerbated instability still further. Extra ballast could counter this problem to some extent, but only at the cost of depressing the hull still deeper in the water. A hull with sharp, narrow ends yielded a ship that sailed faster and closer to the wind, but cut into the space available for stowing the large stocks of provisions a man-of-war had to carry for the large crews needed to fight the guns or board an enemy ship. Increasing the length of the hull made it possible to increase weight and storage capacity while still preserving comparatively sleek proportions, but the strains that constantly worked on the elastic wooden structure with every roll of the sea increased rapidly with length as well, causing frames and members to separate, leaks to open and expand, and bow and stern to sag, or “hog,” along the length of the keel.4
By the late eighteenth century every European sea power had evolved its own basic designs for warships and the construction practices required to build them and was generally loath to deviate from what had been found through trial and error to yield a workable if often uninspiring result. Conservatism was built into the process. All the pressures of government policy and practice worked to standardize designs to minimize costs and risks—and to preserve the deeply vested interests of workers and suppliers, nowhere more so than in the Royal Navy’s long-established shipyards, with their long-established traditions. Royal Navy officials regularly railed against the stranglehold the artisans held on the craft and against the corruption that drove up costs and stifled improvements, but nothing changed. One ancient privilege allowed shipwrights to take home “chips,” supposedly small scraps of leftover wood good only for burning but in practice extending to substantial pieces of sawn timber that went out the door every day, a steady stream of legalized pilfering. Captain Thomas Troubridge, a lord of the Admiralty from 1801 to 1804, thought “all the master shipwrights should be hanged, every one of them, without exception.” Lord St. Vincent, first lord of the Admiralty in the same period, more mildly proposed that all dockyard artisans be given a pension—on the condition that “they should reside fifty miles from any dockyard.”5
IF AMERICAN shipbuilders were less experienced, they were also free of all those hindrances. And so the design that Humphreys drew up when the first frigates of the United States navy were to become a reality in 1794 was like none ever seen. With a nominal rating of forty-four guns, his frigate was not only longer but proportionately more slender than any other frigate of the day. The design also incorporated a number of striking structural innovations that liberated it from some of the constraints that had forced so many trade-offs on designers of warships in the past. A series of long, arcing diagonal braces, six on each side, three sweeping forward and three aft, hugged the inside frame of the hull and were tied to it every two feet with one-inch copper bolts. These “diagonal riders” were an entirely new idea, and they greatly improved the strength and stiffness of the entire structure while counteracting the tendency of the long ship to hog. The deck planking was pressed into service as a structural reinforcement too; four pairs of extra-thick planks ran fore to aft the length of the ship, each plank of the pair “joggled” into the other and to the beams below with interlocking cuts like a jigsaw puzzle. This also added to longitudinal stiffness. A series of mutually supporting stanchions and knees carried the weight from the top, spar deck to the gun and berth decks below, and finally onto the diagonal riders beneath, which made for a substantial boost in the gun-carrying capacity of the entire ship. The top deck of standard European frigates consisted of a quarterdeck aft and forecastle forward with only lightweight, narrow gangways running between them on each side and a large open hatch between them and the fore- and mainmasts. A total of about twenty carronades and chasers could be carried on the quarterdeck and forecastle of a typical British frigate. But Humphreys’s bracing system allowed for a nearly complete spar deck running flush fore to aft, broken only by the main hatch, with room and support for as many as twenty-six guns along its entire length.6
Secretary of War Henry Knox showed the plan to another Quaker shipwright who had recently arrived in America and made an impression in Philadelphia, still the nation’s capital at that time. Josiah Fox was born in England to a well-off family, served an apprenticeship to a master shipwright at the Royal Navy’s dockyard in Plymouth, and then, having come into his inheritance, spent the following seven years traveling the world, visiting dockyards and educating himself on the design of ships across Europe. In the fall of 1793 he went to America to study timber and was introduced to Knox in Philadelphia.
Fox had several critiques to offer of Humphreys’ plans; in particular, he objected to “any hollows in the Body; by no means to have any hollow in either her Waterlines or Timbers in the Fore Body.”7 He also strongly opposed the size of the ship and offered his own alternative plan for a more conventionally dimensioned frigate. After seeking a third opinion from John Wharton, Knox settled on a compromise: many of Fox’s specific objections were addressed in a final redesign under Humphreys’s direction, but the size of the final ship remained as Humphreys wished.
As work began in Philadelphia on the first of the forty-fours in the spring of 1794, copies of Humphreys’s final drawings were prepared by Fox to send to the shipyards up and down the coast that had been contracted to build the other five frigates. The work had been distributed in an unfeigned bid to build political support for the program, and at each yard a private “Constructor or Master Builder” was hired at an annual salary of $2,000 to oversee the building. Humphreys was chosen in Philadelphia; yards in Boston and New York were selected to build the other two large frigates, while three smaller thirty-six-gun ships, built to a design Fox supervised, were assigned to Norfolk, Baltimore, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
To make patterns for the large riblike frames of the ship, a full-size plan was drawn in chalk on the floor of what was known as a mold loft. Humphreys found it would cost $2,000 to erect his own building large enough to house a mold loft for his frigate and was forced to rent space from another builder. Following the chalk outlines, thin battens of quarter- or half-inch wood were cut and nailed together to form flat templates for the curved shapes of the frames, and copies of these too were sent to the New York and Boston yards. In the summer of 1794 copies also went to woodcutters and ship’s carpenters dispatched to the islands of Georgia to seek out large timbers of the right rough shapes.
They were looking for live oak, Quercus virginiana, a tree unique to the seacoasts of the southeastern United States. The name “live” came from its evergreen habit, and it was a beautiful tree, growing 40 to 70 feet high with a magnificent spread, 150 feet or more at the crown, usually draped with Spanish moss; a single tree could shade half an acre. Its attraction to shipbuilders, though, lay in its incredible density and resistance to decay. At seventy-five pounds per cubic foot, it was 50 percent denser than white oak. And its large angled branches offered ready-made timbers whose strong grain would follow the curve of each finished section of the frame without any weakening cross-grain angle cuts.
British surveyors had identified live oak as a promising wood for ships back in the 1770s. To build a single seventy-four-gun ship of the line required three thousand loads of six hundred board feet of oak, the equivalent of sixty acres of mature wood, and the Royal Navy was already importing oak from as far away as Spain and the Baltic to meet its burgeoning needs. But live oak was a difficult wood to harvest and work. On the Sea Islands of Georgia, where the trees grew in abundance, the local planters were making too much money growing indigo to be interested in going into the lumber business, and other places the trees were found tended to be wild and inaccessible. Many live oaks were afflicted with rot that spread from the taproot up into the heartwood and was only apparent after the tree had been laboriously felled. Ship’s carpenters dreaded working with it; the wood was so hard that a nail driven in was impossible to remove, tools were instantly dulled, and augers had to be hammered in to start drilling a hole.8
But Humphreys had used live oak in the Randolph in 1775 and thought its value in the new big frigates was indisputable. His design called for abundant use of two other uniquely American woods that combined decay resistance with resilience, pitch pine and red cedar, but only live oak had the strength and density to form the backbone of what Humphreys envisioned as an enveloping cage that would not only support the ship’s structure but provide a solid barrier to enemy shot. British ships had 6 or 8 inches between frames, but the new American frigates were designed to have frames butting flush together in pairs with only 2 inches of space between each pair, not enough room for a cannonball to penetrate. At the waterline, a ball would have to smash its way through 22 inches of wood formed in a three-ply sandwich: an outer layer of white oak planking, the live oak frame, and then another interior layer of white oak plank. Given the higher density of live oak, it was altogether equivalent to something closer to 30 inches of white oak, which was the typical thickness of the walls in a seventy-four-gun ship of the line. A thirty-two-pound carronade ball fired even point-blank at maximum charge would not have sufficient momentum to penetrate that.9
Humphreys confidently predicted that fifty-five men could cut all the live oak needed for one frigate—about five hundred trees’ worth—in two months. But he utterly underestimated the obstacles involved in working in the inhospitable locales where it was found. Finding local labor, hacking out roads through the woods with teams of oxen and horses, and fighting torrential rains and sickness all but unmanned the supervisor sent to manage the business, a Boston shipwright named John T. Morgan. From Georgia he wrote Humphreys, “These Moulds frighten me they are so large,” and cataloged all his woes. “I lost a fine lad, an apprentice last Saturday with fever, I have it now, everybody is sick here. If I am to stay here till all the timber is cut I shall be dead … I cannot stand it.” When Humphreys tried to shame him for his slowness, Morgan replied, “You say that if I was there I should be mortified, if you was here you would curse live Oak.”10 Several more of the northern carpenters died, others deserted, but by the end of the year a shipment arrived in Philadelphia that was everything Humphreys had hoped for. “One cargo of live oak has arrived from Georgia … most of which is now under workmen’s hands,” Humphreys reported in late December 1794. “This timber is greatly superior to any in Europe, and the best which ever came to this place.”11
The frigates were probably the most technologically complex pieces of machinery that existed in the America of 1794, with every part made by hand: iron bolts up to twenty feet long, forged one at a time by blacksmiths; 150,000 treenails, wooden pegs as much as four feet long that were slowly hammered into augered holes to fasten planks together, their ends then split and wedged to hold them tight; more than a thousand pulley blocks of varying dimensions, their sheaves made of ultra-hard lignum vitae. Every plank was sawn over a sawpit, one man in the pit below and another standing on the timber above, each working one end of a two-man saw; large frames were roughed out with an ax, then finished with an adze, which when swung at arm’s length by a skilled master shipwright could shave a whisker off a huge timber in exactly the right spot. Each of the longest of the hundreds of thousands of holes that needed to be drilled might take two men a week to complete by slowly working their way through twelve feet of solid timber, constantly backing the auger out to clear the chips, and finally running a heated iron through the finished hole to leave a smooth, hardened, and somewhat water- and decay-resistant surface. Copper bolts used below the waterline were not threaded but had to be secured by “upsetting” their ends, working them with hammers to form a flattened head.12 Rope had to be spun and tarred, decks caulked with a ton of oakum and a dozen barrels of pitch, sails cut and sewn. The building of the ship went on outside, in all weather. Yet when all went well it could be done start to finish in a year, even a ship the size of one of Humphreys’s large frigates.
But months and then years of delays ensued waiting on the shipments of live oak. By the end of 1795 five of the six shipyards still had only two-thirds of the live oak pieces they needed; New York had only a quarter, because a schooner carrying one of its large shipments was lost off Cape Hatteras.13
Another spring and fall went by before finally, in 1797, three of the frigates were done; the remaining three would follow over the next three years. Humphreys had submitted a long list of proposed names for the ships, mostly rather feeble imitations of Royal Navy names—Ardent, Terrible, Invincible, Resolution, Tartar, Formidable—but after much toing and froing, United States, Constitution, and President were chosen for the Philadelphia, Boston, and New York forty-fours; the thirty-sixes were given the names Congress (Portsmouth), Constellation (Baltimore), and Chesapeake (Norfolk).
It was always an unknown how a ship would perform when the forces of wind and water combined for the first time on a new design, not least because the sizing of the masts and spars of a sailing ship was more of an art than a science. Humphreys had in his possession a book containing long lists of rules of thumb, copied from a British handbook written out at the Royal Navy’s Deptford yard in 1719, which specified numerical proportions for establishing the lengths and diameters of all the yards of a ship. The Philadelphia merchant captain William Jones sent Humphreys his own list of such rules, as did Captain Thomas Truxtun. Though inarguably the product of much trial and error, rules like these were equally obviously ad hoc; there was no law of physics behind them, no mathematical reason for the main topsail yard to be 18⁄25 the length of the lower yards or the mizzenmast 11⁄13 of the mainmast.14 The ultimate decision rested with the ship’s captain, however, and so for months as his ships were being fitted out for sea, Humphreys had to sit uncomfortably on the sidelines, an idle spectator as crucial decisions were made that could make or break his reputation, fairly or unfairly.
Republican newspapers were waiting to pounce on any sign that the ships were a failure; they had already had a field day over the snags at the launching of the Constitution in September 1797. The previous May, at the launch of the United States in Philadelphia, the inclined ways that the ship slid down were set at too steep an angle, and the ship hit the water so fast that it struck the river bottom, doing serious damage to the keel. The Constitution’s ways had the opposite problem, sinking into the mud so that the ship came to a halt after sliding only twenty-seven feet. A large crowd had assembled to watch the launch, including President Adams. Two days later a second try sent the ship only a few dozen feet farther. The anti-Federalist newspaper Time Piece responded with a mocking ode that suggested the frigate was far better staying where she was, and singled out her builders for particular derision:
When first you stuck upon your ways
(Where half New England came to gaze)
We antifederals thought it something odd
That where all art had been display’d
And even the builder deem’d a little god,
He had not your ways better laid.15
The ship finally made it into Boston harbor on October 21, the third attempt.
With immense relief, Humphreys received a letter in September 1798 from Captain John Barry practically ecstatic with praise for the United States. She had finally made her way down the Delaware and out to sea after more than a year of additional delays from accidents, febrile illness that had swept Philadelphia, and problems in fitting out and recruiting a crew. “No ship ever went to sea steers and works better, and in point of sailing, I have every reason to believe, she is equal, if not superior to any I ever saw,” Barry wrote. “I have seen nothing that I could not with the greatest ease outsail, and in a sea, an easier vessel perhaps never spread canvas.”16 The second of the frigates to be launched, Baltimore’s Constellation, received equally high praise from her officers; she “steered like a boat,” running ahead of everything as she dropped down Chesapeake Bay in a strong wind.17
In June 1798, during the Quasi War, Congress authorized the construction of several more warships, to be funded by public subscriptions in the leading maritime towns and repaid by government bonds yielding 6 percent interest. Five smaller frigates resulted from the effort: the thirty-six-gun Philadelphia, the thirty-two-gun New York and Essex (the latter the contribution of Salem), and the twenty-eight-gun Boston and John Adams (the latter from Charleston). None were especially innovative designs, hewing closely to contemporary Royal Navy models, but they were all well-built ships that helped spread the know-how of warship construction, not to mention support for the new American navy, along the American seaboard.18
THE LAST full year of Thomas Jefferson’s second term, 1808, found William Bainbridge in Portland, Maine, assigned to oversee the building of gunboats and enforce a series of wildly unpopular measures that the president and the Republicans thought would force Britain to recognize American rights. Jefferson remained convinced that America possessed a powerful weapon in economic coercion; limiting or banning America’s oceangoing trade would deliver British concessions without recourse to war.
John Randolph offered up his usual scorn. Supporters of trade restrictions, he said, wanted “to cure the corns by cutting off the toes.” Subsequent events only seemed to confirm his cynicism. American exports and re-exports, which had reached $108 million in 1807, plummeted to $22 million in 1808 after Jefferson’s embargo of all American oceangoing trade with Europe or European colonies went into effect. A few towns were especially hard hit; a fifth of the residents of Salem were said to be reduced to beggary and the pastor of the town’s East Church, Dr. William Bentley, noted in his diary that more than a thousand of the town’s citizens were being fed each day at a soup kitchen supported by public subscription.
To the American navy fell the unsavory task of stopping violations of the laws, halting and turning back American ships, and seeing through the myriad ruses that American ship’s captains inventively created to get around the restrictions. This did not make Bainbridge a popular man in Portland. It would not have been the most lively place to live in the best of times, but his job added a social awkwardness and isolation to his stay there. He wrote to a friend begging for news and said he could “promise in return to keep you informed of the price of codfish & potatoes.”19
What made the duty all the more galling was that the trade restrictions were so shot through with loopholes and exceptions and hesitations, even as they gave navy and customs officers ever more coercive powers, that it all seemed an exercise in arbitrary futility; a few merchants were severely punished while others carried on better business than ever. One of the first measures banned British imports but then went on to exempt those items that America could not get anywhere else—in other words, precisely the things that Britain profited the most by in trading with America, such as Jamaican rum, coarse woolens, and Birmingham hardware. The subsequent embargo on American trade included an exemption that allowed any American merchant with property abroad to send a ship for it; that resulted in 594 departures from American ports. After that loophole expired, American coasting vessels kept showing up in Caribbean or even European ports, their captains maintaining with perfectly straight faces that they had been blown across the ocean by bad weather. Benjamin W. Crowninshield, who like his brother Jacob was prominent in the family shipping business in Salem, told Treasury Secretary Gallatin about several such incidents he had heard about. In one case the ship Hope put into Havana on the excuse that her mainmast had been split by lightning. The “lightning” turned out to have been a keg of powder set off in the mast, accidentally killing a crewman in the bargain.20
Meanwhile, foreign depredations on American shipping intensified. Despite endless diplomatic negotiations in London and Washington, Britain had only escalated its clampdown on American trade. Since 1807 a series of orders in council—proclamations issued by the British government through royal prerogative—had in effect abrogated Britain’s adherence to the international law of neutrality by barring all neutral trade with the Continent. The only exceptions were for merchant ships that first put into a British port and obtained a British license to proceed. Napoleon retaliated with edicts banning neutral vessels from calling at French-controlled ports if they had touched first at a British port. American shippers were now damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Each of the warring European powers admitted that its act was contrary to the law of nations, but justified it as a retaliatory response to the other’s illegal acts. By the end of 1811 the total number of American ships seized since 1803 was approaching the 1,500 mark, divided roughly two to one between Britain and France.21
What made it all the more obnoxious was that, in practice, the orders in council only seemed to reinforce the obvious conclusion that Britain’s real aim was not so much to deny France trade but to make sure Britain benefited from whatever trade occurred. The British government sold as many as twenty thousand licenses a year to shippers who wanted to trade with the French Empire; bought and sold on the open market, they fetched up to £15,000 apiece. The blockade, justified as a military necessity, was looking an awful lot like a system simply of legalized extortion.22
In the 1808 U.S. elections the Federalists doubled their seats in the House of Representatives, and though still a minority, the party was riding a rising a tide of New England resentment over the embargo. Behind the parties’ differing economic and regional interests lay a bitter class and cultural divide that gave their disagreements an increasingly ugly tone. Federalists looked at Jefferson’s supporters and saw an irresponsible—and hypocritical—rabble that spouted stock phrases about egalitarianism while defending slavery, that was always willing to rattle the sabers toward Britain but never willing to raise taxes to pay for the navy, and that had replaced the virtuous selflessness of the Revolutionary generation with a politics of crude and self-interested demagoguery.
The Republicans for their part saw the Federalists as Anglophile elitists out to impose “monarchical” tyranny upon America, and could point to the Federalists’ own glaring hypocrisies. Though they had borne the brunt of Britain’s seizure and impressment policies, New England’s merchants also had the most to lose from war with Britain and the total loss of trade that would result, and so were constantly making excuses for Britain’s actions. Federalist writers even tried to claim that only a handful of American sailors had ever been impressed, or that it was the nefarious doing of a few American merchant captains who connived to have their sailors pressed toward the end of a voyage to avoid paying them.23
Still, between the Federalists who wanted a navy but not to oppose Britain with and the Republicans who wanted to oppose Britain but not with a navy, enough votes emerged between the two parties to override Gallatin’s furious objections and approve a modest naval expansion. In January 1809 Congress passed “an act authorizing the employment of an additional naval force” that tripled the number of seamen to 3,600 and the number of midshipmen to 450, and ordered four of the frigates that had been in ordinary for years immediately fitted out and made ready for sea to join the frigates Constitution and Chesapeake in active service. Sixteen Republican senators and some forty House Republicans, largely from New England, joined the Federalists in passing the measure. Gallatin fumed about “the navy coalition of 1809, by whom were sacrificed … the Republican cause itself, and the people of the United States, to a system of favoritism, extravagance, parade, and folly.”24
By a much wider margin Federalists and disaffected Republicans joined forces in both houses to repeal the ineffectual embargo. In an unmistakable parting shot, they chose to make Jefferson’s by now much-hated law expire the same day as his presidency, March 4, 1809.
As ONE OF his first official acts, the new president, James Madison, named Paul Hamilton as his secretary of the navy. Hamilton was an unknown, a former governor of South Carolina, a man with no experience of ships or the sea. But one of his early acts was to order the four frigates and several smaller seagoing vessels now in service organized into a Northern Squadron under Rodgers and a Southern Squadron under Decatur and begin regular sea patrols. Their ostensible mission was to protect the American coastal trade, but Hamilton meant to send a more important message, and he did: the American navy was no longer going to be a passive bystander to British and French encroachments on American home waters.
Hamilton also began cautiously pointing out to Congress that a navy built around gunboats and always kept in port was scarcely a navy at all, nor could it even be the seed of one. In June 1809 he told the Senate:
Much must depend on the species of policy which, in the event of war, may be adopted. If … a plan of operations merely defensive shall be pursued, there can be no doubt that gunboats will aid materially, if properly stationed; but, if, on the contrary, our marine should be directed against a foreign trade, and to the convoying and protection of our own, a system of well armed, fast sailing, frigates, and small cruisers, would, on every principle, be preferable in point of effect, and, comparatively rated per gun and number of men to be employed, would be much less costly. It must also be observed that it is only on board vessels suited for sea service that good seamen are to be formed, and that those calculated merely for ports afford no opportunity for improvement in naval science.25
Whatever complex blend of circumstances and politics had led to it, American naval officers began to see a glimmer of light: the navy was back at sea at last. As William Bainbridge wrote David Porter later that year, “You may rest assured of one fact, that we have an excellent secretary and that he is a most zealous friend of the navy.”26
No one wanted to be caught napping again, and all the American commanders took advantage of their patrols up and down the coast to drill their crews and inculcate in them a new, unmistakably aggressive posture. In March 1810 the President, under William Bainbridge’s command, chased the British sloop of war Squirrel off Charleston bar. In June, Hamilton reinforced the navy’s resolve to confront the British in American waters with an order sent to all his captains:
You, like every other patriotic American, have observed and deeply felt the injuries and insults heaped on our Country … Amongst these stands most conspicuous the inhuman and dastardly attack on our Frigate the Chesapeake—an outrage which prostrated the flag of our Country and has imposed on the American people, cause of ceaseless mourning. That same spirit which has originated and has refused atonement for this act of brutal injustice, still exists with Great Britain.… What has been perpetrated may again be attempted. It is therefore, our duty to be prepared and determined at every hazard, to vindicate the injured honor of our Navy, and revive the drooping Spirit of the Nation … offering yourself no unjust aggression, your to submit to none, not even a menace or threat from a force not materially your Superiour.27
A summer cruise in 1810 uniting the entire American navy under Commodore Rodgers in a small show of force was planned, and Midshipman Henry Gilliam, aboard the Constitution, wrote his uncle that the secretary’s orders had been read aloud to the frigate’s assembled crew. Capturing the new spirit of determination that the Chesapeake’s surrender never be repeated, Gilliam said, “The General orders from the Navy department to Comr. R is not to suffer the smallest insult whatever to the Squaderon under his Command … but to resent it with all the force he can.… if so I am confident the Amer flag will never be struck until it has made a defence worthy of republicans.” And Decatur, now in command of the frigate United States, promptly replied to Hamilton, “Your instructions … have infused new life into the officers. No new indignity will pass with impunity.”28
The following May, in 1811, on a dark night off Cape Henry, Virginia, Commodore Rodgers in command of the frigate President encountered and exchanged shots with a strange warship. Rodgers had made it publicly known that he was on the lookout for the British frigate Guerriere, which had been reported stopping American ships and pressing American seamen. No one would ever agree who hailed first or who fired first, and while the evidence slightly favored Rodgers’s account, it was also evident he was spoiling for a fight. When the firing was done, the small British sloop of war Little Belt had sustained heavy damage along with nine dead and twenty-three wounded.
Recriminations flew across the Atlantic, and British commentators emphasized the unequal odds of the fight, but in writing to Rodgers, Secretary Hamilton could not contain his satisfaction over the “chastisement, which you have very properly inflicted.” He begged Rodgers to let him know the name of the one wounded boy aboard the President so that he might “hug him to my bosom (whatever may be his condition, or circumstance in life), while I made him an officer in the American Navy.”29
Equally rapturous cheers echoed from American newspapers, exulting that the score with “the Leviathan of the deep” and the “mistress of the seas” had been evened at last, no matter the details and circumstances.
JAMES MADISON was an easy man to underestimate. At five foot four, the fourth president of the United States stood a foot shorter than Washington or Jefferson and weighed little over a hundred pounds. He habitually dressed in sober black, which made more than one observer think of “a schoolteacher dressed up for a funeral.”30 More comfortable in his own company than in society, given to hypochondriac anxieties about his nerves and health, he was forty-four before he again summoned his courage to approach a woman after having been jilted twelve years earlier on his very first attempt. Even on this second try he had sent Aaron Burr to act as an intermediary, to inquire if the twenty-seven-year-old widow Dolley Payne Todd might be interested in him. To his infinite relief she was, and they made a devoted if odd couple, she enthusiastically fulfilling the social duties that he always dreaded.
Madison had a thorough and logical mind; he was able to master the most complex subjects, develop ideas, invest countless hours writing and rewriting; but as the historian Garry Wills observed, he always preferred to let others get the attention: “He worked best not merely in committee but in secret.” He was the anonymous voice of the most persuasive papers of The Federalist that rallied public opinion in favor of the Constitution, the unnamed author of pamphlets that bolstered Jefferson’s presidency; he had even ghostwritten George Washington’s first inaugural address, the House’s reply to Washington’s address, and then Washington’s thank-you reply to the House. He had, said political friends and enemies alike, the naivety of a man who, unacquainted with the world, works out the perfect solution at his desk and is baffled when the world does not agree.
At his inaugural ball the new president looked “spiritless and exhausted,” thought Margaret Bayard Smith, the wife of the editor of the National Intelligencer and a keen early observer of Washington society. Jefferson was beaming, happy to pass on the office to a trusted colleague, but even happier to be formally free of the burdens of the job he had all but abdicated since the election, letting decisions drift as his eight-year policy of economic resistance to British outrages collapsed about him. When the managers of the ball appeared at the new president’s side to ask him to stay to supper, he wanly assented, then turned to Mrs. Smith and blurted out, “But I would much rather be in bed.”
It was not just Madison’s personality that was deceptive; everything about his political ideology seemed to point to a man who disparaged strong leadership and bold action. Madison had been the single strongest proponent of the embargo as an alternative to military confrontation; as secretary of state he had talked Jefferson into it, clung to it through all its inconsistencies, defended it even when the tide of Republican party feeling rose against it and repeal became inevitable. Even when Albert Gallatin had concluded that all America had accomplished with its weakly enforced trade restrictions was to parade its pusillanimity before the world—“I had rather encounter war itself than to display our impotence to enforce our laws,” he had conceded to Madison in 1808—Madison clung to a belief that his policy of peaceful coercion would ultimately bring Britain to relent.31 In his public writings he had always been true to the Jeffersonian article of faith on the inherent evil of war, not so much because of the destruction and killing that war entailed but because of the threat it posed to liberty at home. “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded,” Madison wrote in 1795 in his Political Observations. “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”32
What friends and enemies alike failed to grasp was that the kind of man who quietly worked out solutions to complex problems in the privacy of his study and his mind could be a man of stubborn resolve once he determined what those solutions were. And the fact was that as early as the spring of 1811 he had concluded that peaceful means would never bring Britain to respect American sovereignty and independence; no option remained but war. His challenge now was to slowly, cautiously, and deliberately build the political case for what would inevitably be seen as a total about-face in a policy that for a decade had been most closely associated with no one but Madison himself.
On April 13, 1811, the president invited the editor of the National Intelligencer to a private dinner at the White House. The paper was the semi-official voice of the administration, and three days later it printed a lengthy editorial that named no sources but strongly suggested that diplomacy with Great Britain had run its course. Britain had repeatedly refused even to seriously discuss the three paramount demands that the United States could never concede: revocation of the orders in council, an end to blockades that contravened international law, and abandonment of “the practice of impressing whomsoever her commanders chuse to call British seamen.” The editorial flatly predicted that talks with the newly appointed minister from Britain to the United States, due to arrive in Washington soon, would fail and that it would then be up to the people of the United States to “substitute … some measure more consonant to the feelings of the nation” than the peaceful measures so far tried.33
The new minister was Augustus J. Foster, who had served as secretary to the British legation from 1804 to 1808—and who had once declared that he would not take the job he was now undertaking for ten thousand pounds. When the British warship that brought him to America anchored off Annapolis on June 29, one seaman promptly deserted by leaping overboard and swimming three miles to shore, an ominous reminder of the flash points between the two countries.
But Foster swept into Washington all charm and goodwill. Thirty-three years old, handsome, well-bred, he struck a studied contrast to the prickly arrogance of his predecessors. His mother, herself the daughter of an earl, had married the Duke of Devonshire on the death of her first husband and had used her powerful connections to promote her son for the job. “I know you dislike that country, but it is a wonderful opportunity for future advancement,” she wrote him. Foster arrived with the secure confidence of a man who felt himself so far above the taint of vulgarity that he could even rub shoulders with American republicans with natural ease. He brought with him seven servants and a lavish entertainment budget, and proceeded to exhaust his $50,000 expense account in six months, wooing congressmen, giving excellent dinners for as many as two hundred guests at a time three or four times a week, and confining his contemptuous observations about American crudity to his private notes. Even there he seemed more amused than affronted as he recounted the “droll, original but offending” characters he became acquainted with among the Republican members of Congress, such as the one who had been caught in the act of relieving himself into Foster’s drawing room fireplace when he thought everyone had left the room for supper during a ball the minister gave for the queen’s birthday, or the others, not knowing what caviar was, who mistook it for black raspberry jam and crammed in huge mouthfuls that they immediately spat out. He had moved the legation to a new location at the very heart of the city, taking three of the adjacent row houses that made up the Seven Buildings on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue at Nineteenth Street, just three blocks from the White House. Foster immediately let it be known that he had come with instructions to settle the Chesapeake matter by offering compensation to the victims’ families and returning the seized Americans, still prisoners four years after the event—their sentences of five hundred lashes having since been remitted to “temporary” imprisonment.
And when, as the National Intelligencer—or rather President Madison—had accurately foretold, Foster’s charm offensive failed to distract his American hosts from the inescapable fact that Britain was as unmovable as ever on the central issues of impressment or the orders in council, Foster remained serenely unperturbed. Talk of war was simply electoral politics or bluff, he reported to London, and urged that Britain hold firm; an outward show of bland conciliation would soon enough soothe ruffled American spirits. He wrote a comforting reply to the embarrassed note of apology he received from his “poor Guest,” the congressman who had committed the “act of great impropriety” in his drawing room fireplace. “I most graciously answered and hoped to have gained his vote for peace by my soothing.”34
SECRETARY OF the Navy Hamilton took the unusual step of remaining in Washington through the steaming summer of 1811 when all other sane residents of the city fled for the mountains or home. The American navy’s notably more aggressive stance in showing the flag and resisting British encroachments along the American coast had led to several brushes between the two navies since the Little Belt confrontation in May, and Hamilton wanted to stay on top of what could at any moment become a rapidly escalating situation.
On June 9, 1811, Decatur, in the frigate United States, was sailing from Hampton Roads to New York when he encountered two British warships. As the ships lay side by side the captain of the thirty-eight-gun British frigate Eurydice identified himself and said he was carrying dispatches to the United States government. At that moment a gun on the United States went off. “I am happy that a pause followed,” Decatur reported to Hamilton, “which enabled me to inform her commander that the fire was the effect of accident.” No one was injured, the captain accepted Decatur’s apology, and the ships went on their way.
On August 30 a more serious confrontation was barely averted. Off Norfolk the British sloop of war Tartarus seized two American merchantmen—and then put into Norfolk, in violation of not only the order barring British men-of-war from American ports but plain common sense as well. David Porter, in command at the navy yard there, at once moved to carry out Hamilton’s standing instructions of the year before and ordered a force of two gunboats, the brig Nautilus, and the ship’s boats of the Essex to the roads “with an intention of driving her from that place.” Meanwhile, the British consul at Norfolk caught wind of what was happening and sent the Tartarus’s captain an urgent message: “For God-sake if you are not already gone—get to sea as fast as you can.” The ship cut her anchor cable and fled into the night just ahead of Porter’s small flotilla, leaving a local pilot to retrieve her anchor later.
Two weeks later Hamilton reported to Madison that Decatur’s and Rodgers’s squadrons were again at sea continuing their patrols: “There have been three british Cruisers on the coast of New York besetting, for some time past, our commerce”; there were rumors that a British squadron sent to America following the Little Belt affair was planning to retaliate, and after Rodgers’s full exoneration by a court of inquiry in September the rumors intensified. “As [Rodgers] will, no doubt, meet with the British squadron,” Hamilton said, “it will be ascertained, probably, whether their views are hostile or not.”35
Even members of Madison’s own party and administration had been slow to detect the president’s new militancy. His secretary of state, James Monroe, had at first been convinced that the April article in the National Intelligencer was a plant instigated by his predecessor Robert Smith, designed to embarrass and sabotage his upcoming negotiations with Foster, and Monroe furiously upbraided the editor for printing it. Meanwhile, from the small but vocal “malcontent” wing of the Republican party that had begun agitating for war, Madison was being openly attacked for “pusillanimous” conduct and a want of “spirit.”36
But in fact he was working steadily to build a case, and a sense of crisis, that would bring his party and the public along with the momentous decision for war he had already made. In July 1811 he had issued a proclamation summoning Congress to meet November 5, a month earlier than customary. When the legislators arrived, Madison sent them as their first order of business a “war message” that called for raising ten thousand troops on a three-year enlistment and providing for fifty thousand volunteers. He summarized the failed negotiations with Foster, emphasizing the refusal of the British government to concede anything to American claims. He concluded, “With this evidence of hostile inflexibility in trampling on rights which no independent nation can relinquish, Congress will feel the duty of putting the United States into an armor and an attitude demanded by the crisis, and corresponding with the national spirit and expectations.”
Although conspicuously deferring to Congress’s constitutional authority to declare war, Madison followed up with behind-the-scenes lobbying. In a private letter to John Quincy Adams, he said, “The question to be decided therefore by Congress … simply is, whether all trade to which the orders in council are and shall be applied, is to be abandoned, or the hostile operation of them be hostilely resisted. The apparent disposition is certainly not in favor of the first alternative.” He also treated Foster’s concessions on the Chesapeake affair as the too-little-too-late window dressing they were: he passed the agreement on to Congress without any official comment, and to John Quincy Adams dismissed it with the observation that it merely “takes one splinter out of our wounds.” On January 16, 1812, the president sought to keep the momentum moving toward war by releasing the full text of the letters exchanged between Foster and Monroe during their futile negotiations. As further evidence of “the hostile policy of the British Government against our national rights,” they were damningly effective; even Federalists were astounded at the arrogance of Foster’s insistence that the orders in council that barred American trade with the Continent would only be rescinded if Napoleon first opened his ports to British goods.37
John Randolph remained true to the old Republican antiwar faith, lambasting his fellow party members for apostasy and accusing them of wanting war with Britain only because they lusted after Canada’s territory. But he was running against an unmistakable tide. The new Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, of Kentucky, was at the forefront of the war faction and filled key committee positions with like-minded allies. He also was the first speaker ever to dare tell Randolph to stop bringing his dog into the House chamber, a small but telling straw in the wind.
Clay and his fellow war hawks fully reflected the “national spirit and expectations” that Madison had alluded to. As tumbling farm prices drove home the connection between trade abroad and prosperity at home, the war spirit grew sharply even in the traditional frontier strongholds of Jeffersonian republicanism. Cotton prices had dropped two-thirds since 1808, along with an overall 30 percent decline in farm commodity prices, and newspapers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania boldly declared that only war would free America from the British restrictions that had closed off markets to American farmers. “We have now one course to pursue—a resort to arms,” asserted one Kentucky paper. The Ohio legislature adopted a resolution declaring that the report the House Foreign Relations Committee had just issued in response to Madison’s message—and which focused exclusively on British violations of American maritime rights—“breathes a spirit in unison with our own.”38 In western Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, commander of the militia, issued a call for volunteers that began, “For what are we going to fight?”
We are going to fight for the reestablishment of our national charector, misunderstood and vilified at home and abroad; for the protection of our maritime citizens, impressed on board British ships of war and compelled to fight the battles of our enemies against ourselves; to vindicate our right to a free trade, and open a market for the productions of our soil, now perishing on our hands because the mistress of the ocean has forbid us to carry them to any foreign nation; in fine, to seek some indemnity for past injuries, some security against future aggressions, by the conquest of all the British dominions upon the continent of north America.39
If the conquest of Canada was not the reason for war against Britain, it was in the eyes of Jackson and most other war hawk Republicans the most effective means of waging that war. The bill expanding the army was quickly approved and signed into law by Madison on January 11, 1812; a militia bill followed on February 6.
The navy was another matter. Even the war hawks could remain true to the old Republican creed of antinavalism if the coming war was to be fought mainly on land. And then Albert Gallatin, appalled as ever at what the navy was doing to his budget figures—only once during his eleven years as Jefferson’s and Madison’s Treasury secretary had he managed to keep the navy budget under $1 million, as he hoped, and in 1812 it was running $2.5 million—had sent Madison a blistering dissection of the president’s proposed war message to Congress in which he urged Madison to remove any mention of the navy at all. Gallatin argued that to pay for the war the country would have to borrow $6 million at 6 percent interest; adding the navy’s $2 million would not only increase that principal but push the interest rate for the entire loan to 8 percent. The only other option would be to cut the army budget, which Gallatin warned would be a “fatal” misapplication of resources. “Unless therefore a great utility can be proven” for the navy, he admonished Madison, “the employment of that force will be a substantial evil. I believe myself that so far from there being any utility it will in its very employment diminish our means of annoying the enemy.”40
Madison, carefully trying to thread political minefields left and right as he built the case for war, chose the prudent political course and ducked the navy issue altogether. He ended up devoting one sentence to the navy in his message to Congress: “Your attention will of course be drawn to such provisions on the subject of our naval force as may be required for the services to which it may be best adapted.”
In December 1811, Secretary Hamilton had responded to a request from the House Naval Committee asking for an estimate of the expense of building, manning, and equipping for actual service those vessels “most useful and most usually employed in modern naval war.” Hamilton stated that in the event of “a collision with either of the present great belligerent powers,” a force of twelve 74-gun ships of the line and twenty “well constructed frigates” of not less than thirty-eight guns each would “be ample to the protection of our coasting trade” and also “be competent to annoy extensively the commerce of an enemy.”
At $200,000 for each of the new frigates and a third of a million dollars for each of the ships of the line, the total cost of construction would come to a little over $7 million. Repairing the five smaller frigates currently in ordinary (Chesapeake, Constellation, New York, Adams, Boston) so they could join the two small frigates (Essex and Congress) and three large frigates (President, United States, Constitution) already in service would cost half a million dollars.41
The committee prudently scaled back its proposal to ten new frigates and no ships of the line. But even that set off all the old expressions of horror from the Republican faithful when it came before the full House. One alarmed Republican congressman declared that such a navy, once a war was over, “would become a powerful engine in the hands of an ambitious Executive.” The “Navy mania,” warned another, would lead to permanent internal taxes that would fall on the agricultural class while all the benefits would accrue to the mercantile class. Representative Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky ominously observed that of all the great naval powers of ancient times, Tyre and Sidon, Crete and Rhodes, Athens and Carthage, none had ever been able to confine themselves “to the legitimate object of protecting commerce in distant seas,” but had been led inexorably to plunder, piracy, and depredations abroad, tyranny at home: “While their commerce and navy furnished a small part of the people with the luxuries of every country at that time known, the great mass of citizens at home were miserable and oppressed.” Others decried the waste and extravagance of naval expenditures; there were stories of navy yard workers travelling at government expense in stagecoaches, of timber purchased at inflated prices, of ships no sooner built than needing repair, with the frigate Constitution alone running up repair bills of more than $43,000 per year ever since she was launched.42
And then Adam Seybert of Pennsylvania rose to point out that the British navy possessed 1,042 vessels, 719 of those in commission, 111 of those already on the American station; among those were 7 ships of the line and 31 frigates. The entire American navy, by contrast, consisted of 20 vessels carrying a grand total of 524 guns—in other words, half as many guns as the Royal Navy had ships. “We cannot contend with Great Britain on the ocean. It is idle to be led astray by misstatements and false pride—we have no reason to expect more from our citizens, than what other brave people have performed,” Seybert asserted. “I fear our vessels will only tend to swell the present catalogue of the British Navy.”43
Nearly every Federalist and two dozen Republicans supported the frigate bill, but it narrowly lost on a 59–62 vote in the House. A proposal to build a dry dock for repairing navy ships was voted down 52–56. The Senate also narrowly defeated the frigate bill, though the speech of Federalist senator James Lloyd of Massachusetts in favor of the measure was subsequently reprinted and sold twelve thousand copies in Boston. In the end, Congress would agree only to a small appropriation to purchase timber and fit out existing frigates. Most Federalists were so disgusted they abstained from voting on the final bill.
Representatives from the frontier had voted 12 to 1 against the frigate bill; six months later they would vote 12 to 1 in favor of the declaration of war against Great Britain. Representatives from Pennsylvania voted 17 to 1 against the naval expansion and 16 to 2 in favor of war. In all, 53 of the 79 House members who would eventually vote for war voted against preparing the navy to fight one.44
NEWS OF America’s move toward war reached William Bainbridge in Russia. He had gone there to try his fortune once again as a merchant captain, having obtained another furlough from the navy, and had sailed twice to St. Petersburg; on the first voyage he made a considerable profit carrying a load of indigo, but by the time he arrived with a second shipment so many American merchants had the same idea that the market was flooded and prices collapsed. In the fall of 1811 Bainbridge took a house in St. Petersburg to wait for prices to recover as Russian re-exports slowly eased the glut.
Traveling in northern Europe in midwinter was a harrowing ordeal, but Bainbridge decided to return at once. With the northern harbors frozen, his only route lay overland across Finland to Sweden, where he hoped to get passage on a ship for England. Roads and facilities for travelers were equally nonexistent; in Sweden his coach overturned and fell down a thirty-foot embankment, killing the coachman and one horse, but Bainbridge emerged miraculously unhurt.
He arrived in Boston on February 9, 1812, and at once wrote Secretary Hamilton that the desire to serve his country alone had compelled him to take “a very fatiguing journey of 1200 miles on the Continent of Europe, and a dangerous passage of 53 days from Gothenburg.” Hamilton appointed him to the command of the Boston Navy Yard to allow him some time with his family before assuming a sea command.45
The frigate Constitution was swiftly making her way back from Europe at the same time. She had been sent on a diplomatic mission to take to Paris the new American minister, Joel Barlow, deliver to the Netherlands debt payments of $220,000 in specie, and on her return drop the current American chargé d’affaires in France, Jonathan Russell, in England, where he was to take up the same post at the consulate in London.
In command of the Constitution was Isaac Hull, whose novel approach to being the captain of a ship of war was to take unfeigned delight in his job. He was the son of a Connecticut merchant captain and like many American naval officers had begun his career that way. He was short and pudgy where Decatur was tall and slim, kind and trusting where Bainbridge was rough and suspicious. When Gilbert Stuart was going to paint his portrait, he remarked to another artist who had earlier painted Hull, “You have Hull’s likeness. He always looks as if he was looking at the sun and half shutting his eyes.”46
The captain from Connecticut made a point of avoiding personal confrontations and never fought a duel; he disliked corporal punishment and rarely ordered men flogged; he wrote Bainbridge humorous letters about his tribulations over love as a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor and how much he wished he had money. Once, when away from the ship at Christmas, he returned to discover that some men had been flogged, and promptly wrote out an order addressed to all the officers of the ship: “It is my positive orders that they do not punish any seaman, marine, or any other person on board in my absence, and that the punishment for missing muster, or any other trifling offense, shall not exceed three lashes with a small rope over the shirt.”47
There was no mistaking his bravery, though, or his seamanship. In the Quasi War he had led a daring cutting-out expedition that boarded and seized a French privateer in the Caribbean; in the Tripolitan war, as Captain Campbell’s lieutenant on the frigate Adams, he had saved the ship from breaking up on rocks with his quick thinking and cool disregard of his captain’s panicked indecision. Campbell was not known as much of a seaman, and when the ship missed stays while tacking in Algeciras harbor and began drifting rapidly aback toward the rocks of Cabrita Point, Campbell was momentarily struck speechless. Hull, who had run on deck wearing only his nightshirt and carrying a pair of striped pantaloons, grabbed the speaking trumpet out of Campbell’s hands, issued a quick series of orders to wear the ship, and seeing the furious astonishment on Campbell’s face, turned to the captain and said, “Keep yourself cool, Sir, and the ship will be got off.” And then he calmly pulled on his pantaloons. The crew kept a straight face, but a new catchphrase was soon being heard throughout the ship: “Keep yourself cool!”48
Like Bainbridge, he had once almost resigned his commission in anger at being passed over for promotion, and it was not until 1807 that he was made a captain, not until May 1810 that he received command of one of the navy’s plum frigates. He had had the command of the President for scarcely a month when Rodgers, pulling seniority, ordered him to switch with him in the Constitution, which Rodgers thought a sluggish sailer.
But nothing now could dampen Hull’s enthusiasm. Years later, David Porter would look back on his own long naval career and sourly remark, “During the whole thirty one years that I have been in the naval service, I do not recollect having passed one day, I will not say of happiness, but of pleasure.”49 Hull seemed to take pleasure in everything about his new command. “I have now one of the best ships in our Navy,” he wrote his half sister from Boston, “and a crew of 430 men, which you will think a large family, it’s true; but being a good housekeeper I manage them with tolerable ease.… Mary, I have not a word of news to tell you. Indeed, I am so much rapt up in my ship if half Boston was to burn down I should not know it unless I got a singe.” Even when the ship sailed terribly on his first cruise, amply confirming Rodgers’s disdainful assessment, Hull remained exultant in his letters home. Divers inspected the ship’s bottom and discovered “ten waggon loads” of mussels and oysters clinging to her copper sheathing: she had not had her bottom cleaned since Preble had had her careened in Boston in 1803. Hull was confident he could solve the problem by taking the ship up the Delaware River, where the fresh water would kill the clinging shellfish, or by scraping the bottom with an iron drag; then she would sail as well as she ever did, he told Mary, which “would give me great pleasure as she has always been a favourite of mine.”50
There was also no mistaking that Captain Hull’s officers and crew fully returned his devotion to them and to his ship. Charles Morris jumped at the chance to move with Hull to the Constitution as first lieutenant even though Rodgers asked him to stay with the President. “Rodgers is passionate, and we should soon disagree,” Morris wrote his family. But “Captain Hull … gives his first lieutenant every opportunity of displaying taste or talent that they can desire.” When three of the Constitution’s crew drowned in an accident, Hull learned that one of the men was the sole support for his widowed mother and called the crew together to suggest they take up a subscription for her; he told them that they must not put down more than they could afford, but if every man contributed even a small amount, say twenty-five cents apiece, it would come to a tidy sum. When the subscription was complete Hull was astonished to find it totaled $1,000—an average of $3 a man, or one to two weeks of a seaman’s pay.51
On August 5, 1811, the Constitution rode at anchor in Hampton Roads preparing to sail for France, and there was no doubt in any American captain’s mind now of the proper drill when passing a British warship: The ship was cleared for action, fully prepared as if heading into battle in earnest, her crew at quarters and guns run out, powder horns filled, slow matches smoking in tubs, the decks cleared from fore to aft, even the walls of the captain’s spacious quarters at the stern of the gun deck knocked out by the carpenters and the furniture struck down to the hold below so that guns which occupied the captain’s dining cabin could be freely worked. The marines manned the tops, muskets and cartridges at the ready, fire hoses rigged to the pumps, chains slung to the largest yards to hold them in place if their rigging was shot away. The surgeons were in the cockpit on the orlop deck down below the waterline, their knives and saws and other grisly instruments laid out. So prepared, the Constitution sailed out of Hampton Roads past the British frigates Atalanta and Tartarus. The ships exchanged polite greetings; the band on the Atalanta even serenaded the American ship with “Hail Columbia.”
Minister Barlow’s widowed sister-in-law, Clara Baldwin, was traveling with the diplomat to Paris; Hull wrote his half sister Mary, “I find I am to take out a buxom widow. Take care: at sea is a dangerous place to be with ladies.” The ship made nine, ten, eleven knots; day after day the crew exercised at the great guns, or at small arms and boarding, or at trimming the sails for battle maneuvers. Mrs. Baldwin’s two pet mockingbirds and a raccoon and caged squirrels kept the wardroom entertained; David Bailie Warden, another member of the minister’s retinue, who was going to take up the post of consul in Paris, each day took notes about the Gulf Stream, recording the color and temperature of the water. On the night of August 28 he noted a phosphorescent sea around the ship, and the next day they were surrounded by dolphins.
Just after noon on September 1 the lookout from the masthead sighted Lizard Point, the southernmost tip of England. For several days they beat up the Channel against contrary winds to Cherbourg, and on the afternoon of the fifth the ship was again cleared for action and at battle stations as they ran through the British squadron blockading Cherbourg, two ships of the line and two frigates. Again all was polite and correct.52
At Cherbourg, Hull had to wait two weeks for Russell to appear. He exchanged dinners with the French admiral, toured forts and the shipyard and the naval hospital, and went to Paris and played tourist, escorting the “buxom widow” to galleries, buying items friends had asked him to purchase, and speculating $3,000 of his own money on Parisian goods that were in demand at home owing to the British blockade—satins, laces, gloves, ribbons, watches, razors.
On the voyage to England they now beat down the Channel fighting contrary winds. Approaching Portsmouth on the night of October 9, they were followed by the British brig of war Redpole. Suddenly at 2:30 a.m. the British ship ran down on them and fired two shots, one striking the quarter and one amidships. “What sloop is that?” Hull furiously hailed, and once identifications had been exchanged, he ordered the British ship to send a boat aboard.
“How dare you fire on us?” Hull shouted at the officer as he came aboard.
“O!—we beg pardon. We mistook you for French.”
“French! French! You’ve been in sight all night and yet can’t tell who we are? I’ve a good mind to sink you on the spot.”53
At anchor at St. Helen’s Roads, another incident occurred to increase tensions. On the night of November 12 a British officer came aboard to report that a deserter from the Constitution had swum across to the British ship Havannah. Captain Hull was gone to London, accompanying Russell, and so Lieutenant Morris received the officer, thanked him for the information, and said a formal demand for the man’s return would be made the next day. The next day, perhaps predictably, Morris was given a runaround reminiscent of the treatment the Halifax’s captain had been given in Norfolk four years earlier. Finally, Morris called on the port admiral, who refused to discuss the matter without first receiving an answer to the question of “whether we would surrender British deserters who reached our ship,” Morris said.
The admiral got his answer four days later. Morris was wakened the night of November 16 by the sound of the sentries firing their muskets and the cries of a man in the water near the ship. When the man was pulled out and brought on deck, he identified himself as a deserter from the Havannah. “On being asked his country,” Morris said, the deserter answered “in the richest Irish brogue, ‘An American!’ This was sufficient.” A boat was immediately sent across bearing with excruciating politeness a reciprocation of the message the British had sent about Constitution’s deserter.
The humor of the situation was lost on the British, who the next day moved two frigates close to the American ship, making it almost impossible for her to get under way without running afoul of one of the anchored vessels. Morris nonetheless brought the Constitution to a new anchorage outside the British ships, slipping down with the tide and barely avoiding getting foul of the blocking ships. On November 20, cleared for action even before weighing anchor, the Constitution put to sea without further challenge.54
Back in Cherbourg again, this time to pick up dispatches for Washington from Barlow, Hull was for the first time beginning to feel vexed. The brushes with the British had given him only satisfaction: “I have again had my troubles in England but luckily got off with flying colors,” he noted on his arrival in Cherbourg. “It was whispered about on shore that they intended taking [the deserter] out at sea, but they made no attempt of that sort. If they had, we were ready for them.” But the wait for Barlow’s dispatches dragged on for seven weeks, and every American in France who had something he wanted to send safely home was besieging Hull with requests for passage. Russell and Warden sent box after box of goods, “sufficient to load a ship of sixty tons,” Hull fumed. “I find I am about to make many enemies by endeavoring to serve my friends.” He flatly refused Russell’s request to transport a flock of merino sheep, a gift to the United States from the empress of France, and further angered Russell by sending back to him dozens of boxes of stuff that kept arriving. Running a ship of war and facing down a hostile enemy were fine, but even Hull’s normally relentless optimism was being beaten down by these troubles from friends. “I have everything to trouble me: detained far beyond my calculation; fifty men on the sick list; constant bad weather; a cold and unpleasant passage to make, &c. &c. &c. &c. If I get home safe you need not calculate on seeing me soon on a voyage of this sort,” he wrote home. It was a sign of his uncharacteristic mood that on December 19 he ordered two men flogged for sneaking rum aboard.
Not until January 9, 1812, did the ship weigh anchor at last; once again the crew was ready for action as they bore down on the British blockading squadron, but the swift forty-day voyage was uneventful, despite tempestuous weather, and the Constitutionanchored at Lynnhaven Bay at 11:00 p.m. on February 19. She had been away six months.55
Standing in the roads when she arrived was the British frigate Macedonian, Captain John Surman Carden. The British warship had come in nine days earlier and was permitted into American waters upon her informing the collector of the port that she was carrying diplomatic dispatches.
CARDEN HAD last been to America thirty years before. His family belonged to the minor Anglo-Irish gentry that conspicuously filled the ranks of the British army and navy of the era. During the American Revolution, while still a very young boy, he had been commissioned an ensign in a loyalist regiment raised in South Carolina by his father, a British army major. Three months after Carden’s arrival in America in 1781 his father and uncle were killed at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse; another uncle was wounded in the same battle, and Carden had been allowed to accompany him on “a long & tedious Journey” by litter and cart to Norfolk and then on a transport home to Ireland. Carden’s mother died ten days after he returned, overcome with the news he and his uncle had carried with them. Yet Carden’s view of America was not black and white despite this melancholy history; in his memoirs years later he referred to the “blind Injustice” by which the war against American independence had been commenced on Britain’s part.56
Whatever apprehensions Carden entertained about setting foot on American soil again, though, were maliciously inflamed by the local pilot who brought the Macedonian in. He gravely assured Carden that he and his officers could not possibly pass through the country to Washington safely; they would be insulted every step of the way, and most likely injured or killed. But the British consul in Norfolk laughed off Carden’s fears, assuring him in any event that there was no need to send an officer to Washington to carry his dispatches since the United States mails were completely trustworthy. Meanwhile, Stephen Decatur put on a fine show of chivalrously welcoming his visitor, and Carden was soon a regular guest at Decatur’s dinner table. On one occasion the two captains had a friendly debate over the relative merits of the twenty-four-pound long guns on Decatur’s frigate United States versus the eighteen-pounders that the Macedonian and other British frigates carried. Carden maintained that the Royal Navy’s superior experience proved the smaller guns more than made up for their shorter range by the efficiency and speed with which their crews could handle and fire them.
But Carden’s visit to Norfolk would not end on so pleasant or convivial a note. A few days after sending his dispatches to Augustus Foster in Washington, Carden told his dinner companions of his outrage at what had happened: Foster had just written back to say that the dispatches had been opened in public and their contents made known. Decatur and Littleton Waller Tazewell, a local lawyer and a close friend of Decatur’s, were among the company, and the Americans said they were much concerned by this reflection “upon the integrity of our public officers, if not upon the government itself,” and promised to look into the matter. Tazewell asked the Norfolk postmaster to write his counterpart in Washington to inquire what had happened. On February 26 a reply came back that put an entirely different light on the story.
In fact, no one had tampered with Carden’s package; rather, when the parcel arrived in Washington along with a $39 charge for postage, Foster himself had gone to the post office and told the postmaster that he thought the large packet must contain just newspapers, which carried a much lower postage rate. The postmaster offered to let him open the package and see if that was the case. When Foster did, he and the postmaster found themselves staring at a huge sheaf of bills of exchange, hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth.
When the Washington postmaster’s explanation arrived in Norfolk, Tazewell called on Carden that same day to give him the news, whereupon Carden abruptly blurted out, “Then the cat is out of the bag at last,” adding after a short pause, “I shall lose £1,800 sterling by the blunder.”
Tazewell found this mystifying, to say the least, but after several questions Carden revealed the whole thing. The “sealed dispatches” he was carrying had indeed consisted of nothing but £600,000 in government bills of exchange, which Foster was to have sold to U.S. banks for specie, and which the Macedonian was then to have carried to Lisbon. The £1,800 Carden ingenuously referred to was the customary “freight money” the captain of a man-of-war received as a fee for transporting specie. It was a huge windfall he had lost, about a decade’s regular pay for a frigate captain.
It was also a distinctly unfriendly business, not to mention a violation of the diplomatic privilege that permitted British warships to continue entering American ports to carry dispatches. Tazewell wrote to Secretary of State Monroe the next day relating the whole incident, and adding that it appeared the British government had been carrying on this kind of business for some time: manipulating the American currency markets with rumors designed to drive up the exchange rate of the pound against the dollar and then quickly distributing British government bills to agents who would exchange them for gold at banks across the country at the temporarily higher rate. In part, the British were trying to offset a huge drain of specie from Lisbon to the United States that had resulted from keeping Wellington’s army on the Iberian Peninsula fed; a flotilla of American grain ships was plying the trade under British licenses, and with nothing worth purchasing in Lisbon to carry back to America, the ship captains insisted on payment in cash. Yet coming just at a moment when Congress had approved Gallatin’s plan to borrow $11 million to finance anticipated war expenses, this undercover British scheme to drain American capital markets of $3 million of cash in a single blow was clearly an act of economic warfare as well.57
No official action was taken against Carden, but he did not wait to find out; two days later the Macedonian weighed anchor and was gone.
SECRETARY HAMILTON was caught by surprise by the vehemence of the attacks in Congress on the navy’s expansion plans, and after the rejection of the frigate bill in January 1812 he retreated into vacillation, accompanied by bouts of defeatism. In February he suggested to Madison that perhaps it might be better to do as Gallatin wanted and keep the entire small navy in port in the coming war, rather than risk losing it all—possibly in one throw—to the British. The rest of the cabinet appeared inclined to agree.
William Bainbridge and his fellow captain Charles Stewart were in Washington at the time and caught wind of what Hamilton was saying and at once wrote an impassioned remonstrance to the secretary. Not only would such an order have a “chilling and unhappy effect” on the spirit of the officers of the navy, they wrote, but it would imperil the entire future of the service: the people of the United States would never again “support the expense of a navy which had been thus pronounced useless during a time of national peril.” Frigates and smaller ships of war sallying out singly would be able to “materially injure the commerce of the enemy”; it was at least worth trying.58
Madison thought his aggressive-minded captains had the better of the argument and, overruling Hamilton and the cabinet, agreed the navy had to be used. Suggesting perhaps a bit facetiously that given how small the American navy was it was not risking much, he told Hamilton, “It is victories we want; if you give us them and lose your ships afterwards, they can be replaced by others.”59
But there remained the question of how the ships ought to be used, and faced with such a momentous decision, the secretary became almost paralyzed with self-doubt as the nation inched toward war. The demands of his office, his inexperience in naval affairs, the difficulties of living in the half-built capital city, and his rapidly unraveling personal affairs were all taking a toll. For the last year and a half he had been helplessly reading notices in the Charleston newspapers of forced sales of his slaves by his creditors. “Nothing short of ruin can be the consequence to me,” he wrote his son-in-law upon reading of “another sale of 22 of my Negroes”; “I do not now expect that I shall be left a shelter for myself and family, or a Servant to hand them a cup of water.” At one point he thought he might be sent to jail if his creditors demanded security, as he had none to offer; at another point he spoke of resigning his office as soon as he could, “for I am too deeply wounded to remain here with any degree of ease. I shall then … wholly retire from the world.” In the spring of 1812 he lamented, “To me and mine this place is unhealthy, for we have not had a week since November last in which I could say that every one of us has been well.… generally, this city is not favorable to health—and I believe it is to be ascribed to the circumstance that the whole extent of it has been cleared of Trees calculated to afford shade, while not one thousandth part is covered by buildings.”60
On May 21 he finally roused himself to send a short note to Rodgers and Decatur seeking their advice:
As a war appears now inevitable, I request you to state to me, a plan of operations, which, in your judgment, will enable our little navy to annoy in the utmost extent, the Trade of Gt Britain while it least exposes it to the immense naval force of that Government. State also, the Ports of the US which you think the safest as assylums for our navy, in time of war.61
The two captains each replied in early June with their plans to “annoy” the enemy. Over the years many historians, following the lead of the late-nineteenth-century American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, would characterize their views as sharply diverging on fundamental strategy, Rodgers advocating operating the navy in a concentrated force while Decatur wanted ships to disperse in ones or twos. But in fact the two captains agreed much more than they disagreed. Both saw that the only way to overcome Great Britain’s huge numerical advantage at sea was to divide the small American force and send it far and wide to attack British merchant shipping in a manner calculated to be “the most perplexing,” as Rodgers put it, and so keep the British navy chasing in multiple directions after this hydra-headed annoyance.
Decatur argued that cruising in ones or twos played to American strengths and minimized the small navy’s obvious weaknesses against the British:
Two Frigates cruising together would not be so easily traced by an enemy as a greater number, their movements would be infinitely more rapid, they would be sufficiently strong in most instances to attack a convoy, & the probability is that they would not meet with a superior cruising force; If however, they should meet with a superior force & cannot avoid it, we should not have to regret the whole of our marine crushed at one blow.
Rodgers similarly underscored the importance of splitting the American force. While “such dispersion” might seem counterintuitive, he wrote, it was in fact the most effective way to tie up a hugely disproportionate number of British warships. “It would require a comparatively much greater force to protect their own trade … than it would to annihilate ours,” he told Hamilton. The Royal Navy would be so distracted swatting at this swarm of gnats that it would not be able to turn its might against American shipping and the American coast. Rodgers allowed that there might be limited circumstances when very slightly larger squadrons might come together, such as two or three frigates and a sloop of war to maraud against the English coast; but the only time he foresaw all the American frigates operating together in a single powerful force would be to stage a single strike against Britain’s large East India convoys. He added with pugnacious relish that he was looking forward to playing the role of “Buccaneer”—a title, he observed, he had already been honored with by the British “in their lying naval chronicle.”62
In fact, Rodgers was never the Mahanian proponent of unity of force that Mahan tried to make him out to be. Mahan was writing at a time when American navalists were trying to make the case for a large blue-water fleet, and a central tenet of Mahan’s sea power theory was that a navy was most effective when structured to threaten the enemy’s navy—and the best way to do that was to sail in powerful squadrons or fleets. Dispersion of force was by the same reasoning a fundamentally unsound military strategy. In his analysis of the War of 1812, Mahan insisted that had the American navy followed Rodgers’s views on concentration of force—or rather what Mahan said were Rodgers’s views—Britain would have been forced to keep her warships sailing in company for self-protection and so been unable to spread out along the American coast to prey on American commerce.63
But Rodgers and Decatur had a keener grasp of the hit-and-run strategy they needed to adopt, and the David-and-Goliath odds that dictated it. The fact was that in a fleet action even the whole American navy operating together would not stand a chance against a concentrated force of the vastly more powerful and vastly more experienced Royal Navy. Decatur pointed out that what mattered above all was to draw the British off, and distant cruising by small detachments was perfectly well suited to attaining that end. The effect, he told Hamilton, “would be to relieve our own coast by withdrawing from it a number of the hostile ships, or compelling the enemy to detach from Europe another force in search of us,” and probably also drawing off the greater part of the British cruisers that were at the moment lying wait in Bermuda, ready to go pounce on American commerce with the start of hostilities.64
If America did have an advocate for the concentration of its naval force in June 1812 it was Albert Gallatin, but his ideas of naval strategy remained strictly defensive. Gallatin pointed with alarm to the revenues that stood to be lost if American merchant ships returning to port were captured after war was declared. He began urging that the frigates all be sent to sea off New York to protect them. “On the return of our frigates, keep them on our coast, which will best promote our commerce and prevent any but properly defensive engagements with enemy,” Gallatin argued to Madison in a memorandum a few weeks later.65
For nearly two weeks Rodgers’s and Decatur’s letters sat on Secretary Hamilton’s desk unanswered. But everything about the move toward war seemed enveloped in hesitation and uncertainty, if not outright confusion. Even many Republicans in Congress still confidently predicted that talk of war was merely saber rattling. As late as May, Augustus Foster reported that he was at a total loss as to what to make of the contradictory signals coming from various officials in Washington.
On June 1 Madison finally issued what was at last an unmistakable call for a declaration of war; in a secret message to Congress he reiterated America’s long-standing grievances against Britain and asserted that British actions already constituted a state of war against America. But his timing in many ways could not have been more off. Throughout the spring, acting under new orders to avoid any clashes with the American navy, British warships had been staying well clear of the American coast. Rumors of impending British concessions arrived almost daily. In place of the war fever that had swept the nation in the wake of the Leander and the Chesapeake–Leopard incidents, the march to war, now that it was finally happening, was bloodless and even at times surreal, unimpelled by any immediate air of crisis.66
For the next two weeks Congress met in secret session to debate a declaration; still Hamilton delayed making a decision on deploying the navy. Finally, he took the temporizing step of ordering Decatur to sail for New York to join Rodgers and await further instructions there. Decatur left Norfolk on June 16, with the frigates United States and Congress and the brig Argus.
More days passed but still no orders came to put to sea. On June 20, two full days after Congress had passed and Madison had signed the declaration of war, Gallatin complained to Madison about Hamilton’s incomprehensible dithering. The Treasury secretary calculated that a million to a million and a half dollars’ worth of shipping a week would arrive from foreign ports for the next four weeks. Orders sending the combined American squadrons off the coast to protect these ships “ought to have been sent yesterday, & that at all events not one day longer ought to be lost.”67
On Monday, June 22, after a cabinet meeting hastily called to render a decision on the matter, Hamilton sent an express rider galloping to New York with as confusing a set of orders as probably ever came from the pen of a military commander. Hamilton instructed Rodgers that the two squadrons should focus on protecting returning commerce, as Gallatin wished, but operate independently—Rodgers off the Chesapeake eastward, Decatur southward—not as a single large squadron, as earlier implied by the decision to send Decatur to New York. But the two squadrons could come together whenever the captains thought it “expedient”; on the other hand, when “a different arrangement may promise more success,” they could detach their vessels “either singly, or two in company”; it also “may be well for all vessels occasionally to concentrate—& put into port, for further instructions,” and to that end he would direct his letters to New York, Newport, Boston, “& sometimes Norfolk.”
“May the God of battles be with you,” the secretary concluded, “& with all our beloved Countrymen.”68
It was all so contradictory and vague and confusing that perhaps it was just as well Rodgers never received it. On June 20 news of the declaration of war reached New York. The next day Rodgers put to sea with his combined squadrons, the large forty-four-gun frigates President and United States, the smaller thirty-six-gun frigate Congress, the eighteen-gun sloop Hornet, and the sixteen-gun Argus. He had his sights on a large convoy of 110 merchantmen reported to be sailing from Jamaica for Britain. Left behind were the frigates Essex (in New York) and the Constitution (in Washington), both undergoing frantic last-minute repairs that were still expected to take a few more days.
As he waited through the ensuing days to learn the fate of the force under his care but now beyond his control, Hamilton wrote his son-in-law, “In our Navy Men I have the utmost confidence, that in equal combat they will be superior in the event, but when I reflect on the overwhelming force of our enemy my heart swells almost to bursting, and all the consolation I have is, that in falling they will fall nobly.”69