Fighting Ships by Subscription

  • Prosperity
  • 1799

In the late 1700s, when the newborn U.S. was exchanging blows with Barbary pirates and fighting repeated engagements against revolutionary France, private donors joined together to build fighting ships for the nation. Boston, Baltimore, Salem, New York, Philadelphia, and other towns took up subscriptions. Salem, for instance (with a population of less than 10,000 but a proud seafaring tradition), built the famous 32-gun frigate Essex, which wrought repeated retribution on behalf of its nation over two decades following its 1799 launch. In donations ranging from $10 given by Edmund Gale to $10,000 each from Elias Derby and William Gray, citizens of Salem contributed a total of $74,700 to create their warship for the common defense.

The donors didn’t just provide cash; they honed the weapon. Subscribers met at the Salem courthouse and voted on the exact kind of vessel they would build. Residents who couldn’t donate funds were asked to supply building materials. This newspaper advertisement ran in the Salem Gazette:

True lovers of the liberty of your country, step forth and give your assistance in building the frigate to oppose French insolence and piracy. Let every man in possession of a white oak tree…hurry down the timber to Salem…to maintain your rights upon the seas and make the name of American respected among the nations of the world. Your largest and longest trees are wanted. 

Later, locals selected the captain who would command the ship when she was presented to the U.S. Navy three months after being launched.

  • Frances Robotti and James Vescovi, The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy (Adams Media, 1999)