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“the Beauty And Chivalry Of The United States Assembled …”
… aboard the Navy’s experimental new warship: the President, his lovely fiancée, members of the Cabinet, and most official Washington. The Captain pulled the landyard …
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
Ericsson (who eighteen years later was finally to become man of the hour in his own right when his ironclad Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads in the nick of time) had come to New York in 1839. The younger son of a mathematician, he grew up in a household filled with engineering talk, and went on to serve in the mechanical corps of the Swedish Navy, and later in the Army. Emigrating in 1826 to England, then the engineering center of the world, Ericsson already entertained ideas so advanced as to be beyond the ability of the age to accept. He was full of designs and inventions—an efficient screw propeller, a steam fire-engine that pumped water faster than London hydrants could supply it, a light and incredibly speedy railroad engine. He had devised steam engines that operated on forced-draft fireboxes and recondensed the used steam to conserve water and make possible high-pressure boilers. All these schemes aroused temporary interest, but, in the end, conservative and uncomprehending officials declined or ignored every one of them. Ericsson became increasingly frustrated—that is, until one day in late 1837.
Francis B. Ogden, the American consul at Liverpool and the bank roll behind a little Ericsson-designed screw-propeller tugboat which the British Navy had rejected, was a friend of Stockton’s, who was one of the wealthiest men in Ogclen’s home state of New Jersey. In 1837 Stockton went to England on personal business, and Ogden decided that Ericsson and Stockton should get together. He arranged for Stockton to see a demonstration of the tugboat and have a talk with its designer. Though in many ways opposites, the two men hit it off remarkably well. In Ericsson, Stockton was quick to see an inventive genius who could further his own ambitions for fame and power. In Stockton, Ericsson recognized a potential ally who had not only the brains and imagination to grasp a new and untried idea but also the money to see it through and the oratorical ability to promote it.
Before leaving England Stockton asked Ericsson to build him a small screw steamer, the Robert F. Stockton , which was later sailed across the Atlantic and put into service on the Delaware and Raritan Canal, in which the Stockton family held a majority of the stock. At the same time, Ericsson described his idea for a large warship with a screw propeller, an iron hull, and a steam power plant; it was unlike anything then in existence, and at Stockton’s request the Swedish engineer turned out a small model, which Stockton shipped back to New Jersey.
… and then tragedy struck
After a brief tour of duty in the Mediterranean, Stockton returned to the U.S. With Ericsson’s model and drawings in hand and nothing but an idea in mind, Stockton went to work on the Navy Department, which had traditionally resisted the horrifying idea of steam in the Navy. Steam, though, had powered ships then for thirty-five years, and finally penetrated even the Navy Department; in 1839 it got Congress to authorize three new steam warships: two conventional ocean-going side-wheelers and a third vessel of undetermined design.
To Ericsson the congressional authorization to build a steamer of so-far-undecided design, and Stockton’s haranguing of the Navy Department—lobbying that would have gotten any less rich and influential naval officer cashiered—made the United States look like a far greener pasture than Britain. At Stockton’s urging, he departed England forever and arrived in New York in November, 1839.
To keep himself eating—and living in his accustomed lavish style while he worked on plans for his 2,000-ton steam frigate—Ericsson designed and built several successful coastal steamers. And to the naval proving ground at Sandy Hook went another new development he had brought to America with him, a unique 12-inch naval cannon that probably not even Stockton then knew about.
As the presidential campaign of 1840 got underway, Stockton went politicking through New Jersey for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler against Martin van Buren. Still thinking of a ship which had so far hardly enthused the Navy, Stockton was playing a dose and cagey game, but he held a reasonably safe hand: Van Buren’s chances were slim, and Harrison was elected, carrying nineteen of the twenty-six states, New Jersey among them. When Harrison died within a month of his inauguration, John Tyler of Virginia took office. A Democrat whom Henry Clay had unilaterally read out of the Whig party, Tyler inherited a Cabinet that consisted of Clay sympathizers almost to a man, and he needed every supporter he could get. In the late summer of 1841, when all the Cabinet members but Daniel Webster resigned, he probably offered Stockton, as a solid partisan, the job of Secretary of the Navy. Whether the offer was actually made is uncertain, but Stockton reputedly declined: He was more interested in the new steamer, whose design he was now in a position to dictate and whose command was his for the asking.
Tyler’s fellow Virginian, a day opponent named Abel P. Upshur, became the new Secretary of the Navy, and within days Stockton had authority to go ahead with the ship that was to become the Princeton . Original ambitions for a 2,000-ton frigate, though, were doomed to disappointment. Ericsson, who hadn’t heard from Stockton in months, suddenly got a message from him to work up drawings as quickly as possible for a 600-ton steamer. Preliminary plans were finished by the end of September, and Stockton had himself appointed to superintend construction of the vessel at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.