USS Constitution Museum Acquires Rare Collection of Early U.S. Navy Documents

The USS Constitution Museum recently acquired at auction an outstanding collection of significant correspondence related to the first years of USS Constitution’s career under sail. The collection, encompassing more than 150 individual documents, sheds light on the fledgling U.S. Navy’s participation in the nation’s first international conflict, the Quasi-War with France. This lot has remained in private hands for over 225 years. It is exceedingly rare, and both the size and scope of the collection are extraordinary.

The papers cover a diverse array of topics, including the construction of the first six frigates of the U.S. Navy, strategic plans in the Caribbean, and secret signals used between the U.S. Navy and friendly British ships. The documents offer an opportunity to pursue previously unaddressed questions and fill in large gaps in current knowledge of Constitution and her sister ships.

This acquisition is the largest the USS Constitution Museum has made in nearly a decade. “I have been looking for collections for this Museum for over 30 years and have never seen anything like it,” said Museum President & CEO Anne Grimes Rand. “The USS Constitution Museum is actively pursuing its mission in tough times by acquiring these documents that shed light on previously unknown aspects of the construction, outfitting, and first movements of USS Constitution.”

These documents will be unveiled during the virtual celebration for the Ship’s 223rd birthday on Facebook Live, Wednesday, October 21, 2020, 12:30 p.m. ET.  This free virtual birthday party is open to the public. “This is the best birthday present for the Ship and Museum we could have imagined,” said Rand.

This collection belonged to Capt. James Sever, first commander of USS Congress, one of the other initial frigates constructed at the same time as Constitution in the 1790s. Sever had supervised construction of Congress and was deployed with the ship to the Caribbean to protect U.S. merchant ships from French privateers. “Old Ironsides” served alongside USS Congress in the conflict, and this collection includes correspondence and papers from Constitution’s commander, Silas Talbot. It is also possible (though not confirmed) that Captain Sever christened USS Constitution before the Ship’s launch. 

The collection includes handwritten correspondence and documents from:

•Henry Knox, appointed Secretary of War by George Washington, who oversaw the appropriations for the construction of USS Constitution and the other frigates. 

•Timothy Pickering, Knox’s replacement, who oversaw the final construction and launch of the original frigates, shaping how they were outfitted.

•Benjamin Stoddert, Secretary of the Navy who led operations during the Quasi-War and in the process shaped the future direction of the U.S. Navy.

•Toussaint Louverture, the formerly enslaved leader of the early Haitian Revolution, who corresponded with U.S. Navy commanders on station about U.S. support of his government.

•Dr. Edward Stevens, U.S. consul-general in St. Domingue, who represented U.S. interests and encouraged Haitian independence from French colonial rule.

•Captains Edward Preble, Silas Talbot, and Thomas Truxtun are among the many other naval officers whose correspondence and/or papers are also included.

Vice Admiral George W. Emery, USN (Ret.), a Museum Life Trustee, noted the rarity of such an acquisition. “This may be the best ‘find’ the Museum has ever, and will ever, discover,” he said.

The USS Constitution Museum will publicly share collection documents via email newsletters and social media posts. These papers are also being processed into the Museum’s archival collection. Digitized copies and a full finding aid will be available on the Museum’s website

The USS Constitution Museum is currently open to the public Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The Museum is also offering digital experiences in its Virtual Museum through its social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and the website

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