“the Beauty And Chivalry Of The United States Assembled …”

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Though it was only February in muddy and unfinished Washington, D.C., balmy breezes and mild weather had given the air a touch of spring. The year was 1844, and the capital—indeed, the country as a whole—was in an exuberant mood, filled with optimism and looking eagerly toward the unlimited horizons promised by the prophets of manifest destiny. The proposed and hotly argued annexation of independent Texas, at the risk of almost certain war with Mexico, was perhaps the foremost topic of the day, though President John Tyler was also of a humor to twist the British lion’s tail a bit over the Oregon boundary.

On February 3, however, the Texas and Oregon questions were temporarily shoved aside while official Washington prepared to enjoy the newest national status symbol. Preceded by an extraordinary amount of publicity, the most technically advanced and perhaps most powerful warship the world had ever seen, the U.S. Steam Sloop Princeton , had arrived at Washington and lay anchored off Alexandria, visible evidence of the nation’s growing naval power and ambition. Every day her dashing, glory-seeking commander, Captain Robert F. Stockton, welcomed streams of influential sight-seers. On February 19, with almost the entire Congress and Cabinet on board, as well as all the newspaper reporters Stockton could collect, the Princeton for a day became an excursion ship.

As she ran down the calm Potomac, the representatives and senators, among them gruff old ex-President John Quincy Adams, enthusiastically inspected Stockton’s new toy from stem to stern. As soon as Washington had been left behind, Stockton gave the assembled throng a demonstration of the new guns, including a monster 12-inch columbiad named the “Peacemaker,” the largest cannon ever mounted on any ship. The Captain talked of Oregon and of how, with the Princeton alone, he could keep the Columbia River clear of the British. Meanwhile, his guests devoured a lunch guaranteed to win votes and influence congressmen. Tables in the main cabin groaned under ducks, turkeys, hams, and fruits. Champagne, sherry, and brandy flowed copiously. The dinner, according to Stockton at least, was provided at his own expense.

Stockton’s charm, and his bottled public relations, quickly dissipated whatever opposition might still have existed to the idea, and the cost, of the Princeton . The reporters glowed. A correspondent for the Ohio Statesman , who had accompanied two Ohio congressmen on the voyage, afterward wrote: ”… it is impossible to tell you the half that we saw and heard and enjoyed in the excursion. … A nobler and a hardier man—a man whose appearance more favorably impresses you with his qualifications as a man and a sailor—is not to be found than Captain Stockton.” The lunch and the libations had not been wasted.

The first inspection trip was, in fact, such a resounding success that Stockton immediately scheduled a second for February 28, this one for an even more select party, including President Tyler himself. He could not have hoped for a more auspicious day or a more distinguished gathering. S. J. Bayard, his biographer, described the scene:

On the 28th of February, the President, Cabinet, and a large number of members of Congress, and distinguished strangers in Washington, went on board the Princeton for an experimental excursion. The beauty and chivalry of the United States assembled at die seat of government were also present. A more gay, joyous, or delighted company seldom before were ever gathered together on the deck of any one of our national ships. It was a beautiful, bright day, and the resplendent sun blazed upon the firmament without a cloud to threaten his effulgence. The Potomac was unruffled by a breeze, its glassy surface presenting the lustre and serenity of a perfect mirror. As the Princeton, without the aid of wind or current, smoothly pursued her way as if moved by some unseen agency, no cloud of smoke marked her progress, no uncouth sounds of jarring machinery mingled with the voice of festivity which rose in pleasant harmony from the deck of the gallant vessel. There were grave matrons, mothers of the naval and army heroes of the country; there were illustrious senators and curious statesmen; and there were youth and beauty, light-hearted and joyous. There, too, were gallant post-captains, generals, distinguished engineers, and men of science, come to feast their eyes on this nautical wonder, this gem of the ocean, this last effort of American genius, skill, and architectural ingenuity.

Washington and the whole country lauded Stockton as the man of the hour—the conceiver, designer, and builder of the world’s first screw-propelled warship. Stockton gobbled up the adulation and never once mentioned in his speeches the name of the Swedish engineer without whom the Princeton would never have existed—John Ericsson.