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Uss Boondoggle

June 2024
6min read

Many historians have argued that whatever their function in the state religion, the pyramids of Egypt were also politically useful make-work projects. By employing peasants during the season when the Nile flooded the fields, pyramid building provided an income to the poor and thus helped secure political tranquillity for those in power. If this is the case (and Egyptology is hardly my field), then the pyramids are not only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World but the earliest surviving government pork-barrel project as well.

Despite the ancient history of the concept, however, the term itself is at least forty-five hundred years younger than the pyramids. Pork barrel first entered the American language only in 1904, when the Republicans were in the ascendant. Given the phrase’s Southern origin (it refers to the custom of regularly handing out joints of salted pork, stored in barrels, to each slave family on a plantation), it is highly likely that it is a Democratic coinage. Thirty years later, by the time of the New Deal, boondoggle had become popular, doubtless courtesy of disgruntled—and now out-of-office—Republicans.

By their nature, of course, these terms are employed by politicians only when their own constituents are not beneficiaries. Some such phrase as “vital national project” is preferred by the rest. And here’s the rub. At least since the end of the age of the godkings, a real, or apparent, utility has been a sine qua non of every well-designed vital national/pork-barrel project. That’s why the true motivation behind so many has been impossible to ascertain, at least until the dust of history settles.

Complicating matters still further, many projects that start out clearly justified by circumstances turn into pure pork barrel when circumstances change but the projects roll on relentlessly anyway. The new Seawolf attack submarine, for instance, is now considered too big, too heavy, too complex, and so costly that even the Pentagon—hardly the Vatican of selfdenial—wants to cancel it. Regardless, Congress has forced the Defense Department to complete keep spending billions on the boats.

For one very early example of this, consider the Navy’s ship-of-the-line program that followed the War of 1812. Ships of the line were so called because they were large enough and powerful enough to stand in the line of battle and slug it out with any ship afloat. For two hundred years they were the ultimate instrument of naval power. By the mid-eighteenth century the standard ship of the line carried 74 guns on three decks and required a crew of nearly seven hundred men to sail and fight it. A few behemoths carried as many as 110 guns on four decks. HMS Victory , the most famous ship of the line ever built, is one of these so-called first-raters. Being the largest and most powerful ships, ships of the line were, of course, also the most expensive to build and to operate, especially given the fact that they were intended to function only as a part of a fleet of similar vessels.

When the American navy came into existence in the Revolution, it was, naturally, almost entirely an improvised affair of privateers and converted merchant ships. One ship of the line, however, was built. Called the America , she was launched at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1782, a year after the war had effectively ended at the siege of Yorktown. Far too expensive for the nearly bankrupt confederation government to operate, she was immediately given to the French navy to replace a ship that had been lost in Boston Harbor, thanks to an incompetent local pilot.

Indeed, from 1785 until 1797 the new United States had no navy at all. But in 1794, with war raging in Europe and our relations with both France and Great Britain deteriorating, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, and the Navy was born again, this time permanently. Frigates were smaller than ships of the line and far better sailors than the lubberly battleships. They were intended primarily for showing the flag, commerce raiding, and reconnaissance.

Although money was appropriated for six ships of the line in 1799, and material for their construction gathered—a lengthy process when trees of exactly the right size and shape had to be located—they were never built. It was frigates that would give the U.S. Navy its first taste of glory.

But while the victories of the American frigates early in the War of 1812 were a cause of national rejoicing, they didn’t affect the vastly larger Royal Navy’s control of the seas one bit. British fleets sealed off American ports and brought American foreign trade to a standstill. The American Navy was powerless to do anything about it, for it lacked the one thing capable of attacking ships of the line: ships of the line.

Six months after war was declared, with the British noose tightening inexorably around American commerce, Congress authorized the building of four ships of the line, utilizing the materials already gathered for such a purpose. None of these could be completed before the war ended, and one, built for use on Lake Ontario, was never finished at all.

With the return of peace, Congress determined that the Navy needed a fleet of ships of the line to defend the country in any future war with Great Britain. It could not hope to match the Royal Navy ship for ship, of course, but any reasonable fleet in being would vastly complicate British strategic planning in the event of war. Moreover, skillfully handled and with the homeground advantage, such a fleet might well at least temporarily break any British blockade.

So Congress, on April 29, 1816, “authorized to cause to be built, nine ships to rate not less than 74 guns each.” All nine were eventually laid down, in shipyards from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Norfolk, Virginia, and four of them were completed in a timely manner by the end of 1820. None of these ships ever saw action, of course, for the world had entered an extended era of peace.

As the risk of a naval war diminished nearly to the vanishing point in the years after the War of 1812, and as the Industrial Revolution ended the age of sail, the five remaining ships in the program lost all military justification but not, of course, their pork-barrel potential to provide construction jobs. Indeed, their history is so laden with pork, it positively oinks.

Although work on them slowed to a crawl (it was usually heavily concentrated in the few weeks preceding elections), none was ever actually canceled. The USS Virginia , laid down in Boston in 1822, was left unfinished after 1839, its construction having cost the taxpayers $197,400. (To put that figure in perspective, the Navy’s budget in 1839 was only slightly over five million.)

The USS Alabama was the only ship of the five not to be started in an election year, work beginning in 1817 in Portsmouth. She lay on the stocks for forty-six years, however, before being finally launched in 1863, one year after the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack had demonstrated beyond a doubt that the days of fighting sail were over. (The Alabama , understandably enough under the circumstances, was launched as the USS New Hampshire .)

The fattest ham in the Navy pork barrel was the Pennsylvania . She took fifteen costly years to build, never fought, and hardly even sailed.

The New York , started in Norfolk in 1818, was burned, still unlaunched, by retreating Federal forces in 1861. And the Vermont , laid down in Boston in 1818, was launched only in 1848. No sooner did she at last have water under her keel than she was mothballed until 1862. At least she was the only one of the five to see action after a fashion, serving in the blockading squadron off Port Royal, South Carolina, during the Civil War.

But the fattest, juiciest, most nourishing ham in this whole barrel was the USS Pennsylvania . When Congress specified only that these ships be “not less than 74 guns,” the Board of Naval Commissioners, the policy-setting arm of the Navy, saw a political opening of irresistible potential. It ordered up a leviathan.

The Pennsylvania had gunports for no fewer than 136 guns, 36 more than the Victory herself had carried into the Battle of Trafalgar. At 3,366 tons she was the largest wooden warship ever built in the United States, by far, and by some measures the largest ever built anywhere. Laid down in 1822, she monopolized the resources of the Philadelphia Naval Yard for the next fifteen years, like a cuckoo hatchling in a wren’s nest. Fully armed, the Pennsylvania would have needed a crew of at least 1,100 men to fight her. Yet in the year she was begun, the personnel of the entire Navy was only 3,774.

And she never fought. In fact, she hardly ever sailed. Finally completed in 1837, she proceeded down the Delaware River, stopped briefly in New Castle, Delaware, to pick up gun carriages, and then sailed on to the Norfolk Naval Yard in Virginia. Her skeleton crew was immediately transferred to other vessels, and she never again spread an inch of the thirty-three thousand square yards of canvas she was designed to carry. She was burned to the waterline in 1861 during the ignominious Federal retreat from Norfolk.

Even in her one week’s sail down the Atlantic seaboard, her officers found her “cumbersome, leewardly, and crank.” This is hardly surprising given her size and the fact that she was, in a very real sense, a movable pyramid and not a warship at all.

But if the first Pennsylvania was, at best, an embarrassment to democratic government, her twentieth-century namesake redeemed the honor of the name. Commissioned in 1916, the later, third USS Pennsylvania saw no action for twenty-five years until she survived the disaster at Pearl Harbor. In the next three and a half years, however, her great guns hurled fully fifty-five hundred tons of shells at the enemy, more than any other battleship in the history of naval warfare.

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