Original six frigates of the United States Navy

USS Constitution Departs.jpg
USS Constitution, the last of the original six frigates of the United States Navy still in commission
Class overview
Operators:United States Navy
Built:1794–1800
In commission:1797–present
Planned:6
Completed:6
Active:1
Lost:2
Retired:3
General characteristics (Constitution, President, United States)
Class and type:44-gun frigate[1]
Tonnage:1,576[2]
Displacement:2,200 tons[2]
Length:
Beam:43 ft 6 in (13.26 m)[1]
Draft:
  • 21 ft (6.4 m) forward
  • 23 ft (7.0 m) aft[2]
Depth of hold:14 ft 3 in (4.34 m)[3]
Complement:450 officers and enlisted, including 55 Marines and 30 boys[1]
General characteristics (Congress and Constellation)
Class and type:38-gun frigate[4]
Tonnage:1,265 tons[4]
Length:164 ft (50 m) between perpendiculars[4]
Beam:41 ft (12 m)[4]
Complement:340 officers and enlisted[4]
General characteristics (Chesapeake)
Class and type:38-gun frigate[5]
Tonnage:1,244[5]
Length:152.8 ft (46.6 m) between perpendiculars[5]
Beam:41.3 ft (12.6 m)[5]
Draft:20 ft (6.1 m)[5]
Depth of hold:13.9 ft (4.2 m)[6]
Complement:340 officers and enlisted[5]

The United States Congress authorized the original six frigates of the United States Navy with the Naval Act of 1794 on March 27, 1794, at a total cost of $688,888.82. These ships were built during the formative years of the United States Navy, on the recommendation of designer Joshua Humphreys for a fleet of frigates powerful enough to engage any frigates of the French or British navies yet fast enough to evade any ship of the line.

Purpose

After the Revolutionary War, a heavily indebted United States disbanded the Continental Navy, and in August 1785, lacking funds for ship repairs, sold its last remaining warship, the Alliance.[7][8] But almost simultaneously troubles began in the Mediterranean when Algiers seized two American merchant ships and held their crews for ransom.[9][10] Minister to France Thomas Jefferson suggested an American naval force to protect American shipping in the Mediterranean, but his recommendations were initially met with indifference, as were the recommendations of John Jay, who proposed building five 40-gun warships.[9][11] Shortly afterward, Portugal began blockading Algerian ships from entering the Atlantic Ocean, thus providing temporary protection for American merchant ships.[12][13]

Piracy against American merchant shipping had not been a problem when under the protection of the British Empire prior to the Revolution, but after the Revolutionary War the "Barbary States" of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis felt they could harass American merchant ships without penalty.[14][15] Additionally, once the French Revolution started, Britain and France each began interdicting American merchant ships suspected of trading with the other. Lacking a proper navy, the American government could do little to resist.[16][17]

The formation of a naval force had been a topic of debate in the new American republic for years. Opponents argued that building a navy would only lead to calls for a navy department, and the staff to operate it. This would further lead to more appropriations of funds, which would eventually spiral out of control, giving birth to a "self-feeding entity". Those opposed to a navy felt that payment of tribute to the Barbary States and economic sanctions against Britain were a better alternative.[18][19]

In 1793 Portugal reached a peace agreement with Algeria, ending its blockade of the Mediterranean, thus allowing Algerian ships back into the Atlantic Ocean. By late in the year eleven American merchant ships had been captured.[12] This, combined with the actions of Britain, finally led President Washington to request Congress to authorize a navy.[20][21]

On January 2, 1794, by a narrow margin of 46–44, the House of Representatives voted to authorize building a navy and formed a committee to determine the size, cost, and type of ships to be built. Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted proposals to the committee outlining the design and cost of warships.[22][23] To appease the strong opposition to the upcoming bill, the Federalist Party inserted a clause into the bill that would bring an abrupt halt to the construction of the ships should the United States reach a peace agreement with Algiers.[24][25]

The bill was presented to the House on March 10 and passed as the Naval Act of 1794 by a margin of 50–39, and without division in the Senate on March 19.[24][25] President Washington signed the Act on March 27. It provided for acquisition, by purchase or otherwise, of four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each.[26] It also provided pay and sustenance for naval officers, sailors and marines, and outlined how each ship should be manned in order to operate them. The Act appropriated $688,888.82 to finance the work.[27][28]