CONSTRUCTION AND QUASI-WAR (1794-1801)
Displayed below are the images of USS Constitution and her people during her earliest years, as recorded down through the years, arranged in approximate chronological order of the event or person depicted. Undatable, general, images are grouped at the end. Where appropriate, commentary is provided to put the image in context and evaluate its accuracy.
Record Group 19, National Archives
The builder's draught from which USS Constitution was constructed. The design was the inspiration of Philadelphia ship builder Joshua Humphreys. The original document is about five feet long. The Boston copy was prepared by William Doughty, his clerk of the yard, and forwarded to the building yard in November 1794, together with a descriptive list of structural parts.
William Doughty, the son of shipwright James Doughty, began his career working as Joshua Humphreys’ clerk of the yard. In that capacity, he made copies of Humphreys’ master draughts that became the builders’ plans for Constitution, President, Constellation, and Congress. In 1813, he became the Navy’s first career Naval Constructor, creating the plans for all construction during the War of 1812, and for most of the ships in postwar years. He retired in 1837 and died in 1858.
Courtesy Michael Haywood, all rights reserved
Briton Michael Haywood’s romantic "Eagle of the sea takes wing" (2005) seeks to portray Constitution when first she went to sea in July 1798.
Boston in 1800. The Hartt Yard, where Constitution was built, appears to the left of the large "R" in the upper right.
St. Simons Island, as seen on an 1847 map. Live oaking for the new frigates was done at the northern end of the island.
Josiah Fox, shortly before his death in 1847. Fox, an English Quaker born in 1763, with some shipyard training, came to the United States in 1793. He was hired as a War Department clerk in July 1794 to assist Naval Constructor Joshua Humphreys in the preparation of builders' draughts and moulds for the construction of the six frigates authorized by Congress in March of that year. He proved to be both opinionated and unimaginative, and actually impeded the work until Humphreys read him the riot act and limited his participation to mould preparation.
Appointed Assistant Naval Constructor and assigned to Norfolk in 1795, in 1804 he was appointed as Naval Constructor and served in that capacity until 1809, when his contentious relationship with Captain Thomas Tingey, Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard, finally resulted in his dismissal.
Three decades later, Fox attempted to get himself reinstated as a Naval Constructor, inflating his role in the original effort in supporting papers. He was unsuccessful in his effort, but those materials have inspired at least two generations of his descendants to claim a primary role for him in the design of Constitution. In fact, he was the junior of Humphreys' two assistants.
U. S. Navy
A fanciful depiction of the launching of USS Constitution on 21 October 1797 from the Edmund Hartt shipyard in North Boston. As launched, the ship had no bulwarks around the forecastle, these being absent until raised in 1808. From what is known of the event, the ship was launched without any masts having been stepped, and so with no bunting flying. Her flagstaff astern or some temporary pole had been erected, for the Stars and Stripes were hoisted shortly after the launch. Too, there was no pier on the ship's larboard hand. The official christening party was on the ship's forecastle, and the general public is said have crowded every available vantage point to witness the big moment.
U. S. Navy
Captain Samuel Nicholson, first captain of USS Constitution, 1798-99. Led her through her first cruise, to the Leeward and Windward Islands of the Caribbean. His service was unsatisfactory, and he was removed as soon as arrangements could be made.
Nicholson was born in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1743, and was the second of three brothers who served in the Continental Navy. He was a lieutenant in Bon Homme Richard under Captain John Paul Jones, and later commanded the frigate Deane. Whatever talent he had in the Revolution seems to have been lost in the two decades that followed, for as the second senior captain in the new U. S. Navy he regularly misinterpreted his orders and had poor rapport with his subordinate officers. It was said of him that to have him in command of Constitution, a 44-gun frigate, was to reduce her to the equivalent of a 20-gun ship.
Nicholson left the big frigate ostensibly to oversee the construction of a 74-gun ship of the line at the new Boston Navy Yard and then take her to sea. The ship was cancelled early on, and Nicholson ended up as the first commandant of the Boston Navy Yard and the first occupant of its commandant's house. He died there on 29 December 1811. He is buried under the floor of the Old North Church in Boston.
A torpedo boat and two destroyers have since been named Nicholson, honoring five members of the family in service over three generations
U. S. Navy
Captain Silas Talbot commanded USS Constitution from 1799 until 1801. Twice served as squadron commander of the Santo Domingo Squadron. During the 1799-1800 cruise, he had the ship underway an amazing 359 of 376 days!
Talbot was born in Dighton, Massachusetts, on 11 January 1751, and served on land and sea during the Revolution. At war's end, he held commissions as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and as a captain in the Continental Navy. (At one point, he skippered a privateer, as well.) In peacetime, he entered politics, serving first in the New York legislature and then (1793-5) in the U. S. House of Representatives. It was from there that President Washington commissioned him as the third of six captains for the new navy. He was assigned to oversee the construction of a frigate at New York, which was cancelled in 1796. After that, he oversaw the purchase of at least one merchant ship for conversion to naval service before receiving orders to Constitution. Sadly, an argument over seniority led him to resign his commission in 1801, and he never returned to the sea.
Talbot died in New York City on 30 June 1813 and was buried in Trinity churchyard.
A torpedo boat, a destroyer, and a guided missile escort ship have since been named in his honor.
Robert Salmon, courtesy the Boston Athenaeum
This painting by expatriot English artist Robert Salmon, done in the 1830s, depicts the cutting out of the French privateer (one-time British packet) Sandwich at Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo, on 11 May 1800. A party of Constitution sailors under First Lieutenant Isaac Hull and Marines under Captain Daniel Carmick entered the port in broad daylight aboard a recently captured trafficker, Sally, and took the ship without casualties. While Hull prepared the ship for sailing, Carmick took his Marines ashore and spiked the local fort's guns, again without injury. Although this cutting out operation drew praise for its participants, foreign relations led the U.S. Government to repudiate it and return the ship. Proceeds from the sale of Sally went to pay damages.