U.S. Navy’s Six Original Frigates
In the wake of the American Revolution, the Continental Navy was slowly dispersed, with the last American warship, Alliance, sold in Philadelphia on 1 August 1785. However, sailing the important trade routes remained a dangerous enterprise, especially for the American merchant service. Before the American colonies had gained their independence from Great Britain, American shipping had depended heavily on the protection of the British Royal Navy. After the Revolution, this was no longer the case. In 1789, the French Revolution began with the overthrow of King Louis 16th. By 1792, Europe had erupted into war with France and Britain in renewed conflict. American merchants were now accused by both France and Great Britain of not maintaining the United States’ official neutrality stance as American merchant vessels continued trading with both warring countries. As the war in Europe raged on, the British blocked American ships from the French West Indies and also harassed American vessels as part of a wider effort to choke the economy of France.
Along with the rising trouble with France and Great Britain, Barbary corsairs continued to sweep the Mediterranean and capture American merchant vessels, holding the ships, the crews, and the cargoes for ransom. The corsairs were privateers working for the North African states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco. U.S. attempts at stemming the Barbary depredations on its fleet and their crews included both diplomacy and tribute, with little success. Seeing threats to its merchant fleet on several maritime fronts, U.S. lawmakers debated the issue of funding a new American navy.
On 2 January 1794, the Third Congress of the United States resolved to create “a naval force, adequate to the protection of the United States against the Algerine corsairs.” A committee was formed, and it ultimately recommended that six frigates be purchased or constructed. Congress approved the recommendations and on 27 March 1794, President George Washington, signed “An act to provide a naval armament,” which established the U.S. Navy.
So that the original six frigates could be built simultaneously, six different ship yards along the U.S. Atlantic coast were requisitioned to do the work. Ultimately, spreading out the building led to an increase in the overall costs of the frigates, but as Secretary of War James McHenry stated on 29 March 1798:
“The [Naval Armament Act]…appears to have intended that the
vessels…be built and got ready for sea with as little delay as possible….
It would have been desirable…on account of saving the
expense of several establishments, to have built the vessels at one
place…To this measure…several objections may have presented. Could
Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Portsmouth, Baltimore, or Norfolk, or
any other of our maritime towns, have furnished the necessary
complement of workmen, to have carried on the building of six large
frigates at the same time, without its [sic] putting a stop to, or sensibly
interfering with, their merchant-ship building?....
I find…a report of a predecessor, in…1794, that it was thought
the money to be expended on the armament would produce greater
efforts in the different constructors and workmen of each town, to
get their respective vessels first into the water, whilst it would serve
as a criterion to judge where, and by whom, such ships, on future
occasions, could be best, cheapest, and most expeditiously built.”
The following port towns were chosen as the building sites for the frigates: Philadelphia for United States; Baltimore for Constellation; Boston for Constitution; New Hampshire for Congress; New York for President; and Gosport (Norfolk, Virginia) for Chesapeake. By 1797, United States, Constellation, and Constitution were launched and ready for sea. Congress and Chesapeake were launched in 1799 and in 1800. Of the six original frigates that began the United States Navy, only Constitution—homeported at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston—remains and is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat and the world’s oldest sailing vessel still capable of sailing under its own power.
This page provides links to information on the six original frigates of the U.S. Navy. In addition, check out the infographic by NHHC’s Communication and Outreach Division, U.S. Navy Six Original Frigates, which was recently published. It provides a visual snapshot of the U.S. Navy’s six original frigates.
For additional content on the U.S. Navy’s six original frigates, explore Historians Michael J. Crawford and Christine F. Hughes,’ The Reestablishment of the Navy, 1787–1801: Historical Overview and Select Bibliography.
 James McHenry, “Naval Expenditures, and the Disposition of Materials, Communicated to the House of Representatives,” March 22, 1798, American States Papers: Naval Affairs 1: 37.