Thomas Read (1740-1788) was the middle son of the Read family of New Castle, Delaware. His older brother George was a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Marine Committee. His younger brother James was, over the years, paymaster for the first ships of the Continental navy; lieutenant colonel in the Continental army; clerk and paymaster of the Marine Committee of the Navy Board at Philadelphia; later member of that board; and finally, when Robert Morris was Superintendent of Finance and Naval Agent he served as his principal assistant.
Thomas, on the other hand, chose to make his life at sea. As he did so, in October 1775, he brought news from England that caused the Second Continental Congress to take the first cautious steps toward creating the Continental navy.
When the First Continental Congress had concluded its session it adopted the Continental Association. That agreement banned the import of goods from Great Britain, Ireland and the British Caribbean colonies after December 1774. It put off on imposing a ban on exporting there until September 1775.
While the freedom to export continued, the Philadelphia firm of Willing and Morris employed their two foremost captains and ships, Thomas Read in Aurora and John Barry in Black Prince on several trips to Britain. They began their last trip from Philadelphia on May 6, 1775, just after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord and as the Second Continental Congress was about to convene. They reached London together on June 27.
As their cargos were slowly sold and unloaded and as they negotiated to get their ships refitted and ballast aboard they learned that, during their passage out, a Continental army had been created under Gen. George Washington, Fort Ticonderoga was captured and the Battle of Bunker Hill had been fought. They found that they were languishing in the capital of the enemy, the den of the British lion.
Thomas Read’s Aurora and Barry’s Black Prince were the last American ships to leave London on August 11. They carried with them letters from English friends to Americans and the latest British newspapers. Taking different courses home they both arrived off Cape Henlopen on October 4. To their surprise, the two ships were not met by pilots. In their absence, the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, as one of its actions in preparing the defenses of Philadelphia, had directed
that all Pilots of the Bay and River Delaware ought to lay up their Boats, on or before the 20th day of September . . . until such Merchant Vessels as arrive send their Boats on shore for a Pilot, when one may repair on board, provided there is no man of war in sight.
Read did not wait for a pilot and took Aurora up the channel, arriving in Philadelphia on October 5. Barry’s Black Prince was a much larger ship having a deeper draft and he had to wait and send a boat ashore to get a pilot. “Aurora beat Black Prince into port by a day.”
As Captain Read arrived in Philadelphia and called on Robert Morris with the news from London he learned that on October 3, the Rhode Island delegation laid before the Congress the resolution that their state assembly had passed on August 26. It called for “building at the Continental expenses a fleet of sufficient force for the protection of these colonies.” That was clearly a proposal for creating a Continental navy. Consideration of the Rhode Island resolution was put off until Friday, October 6. The delegates continued to debate how to implement the export resolution of the Continental Association. During that debate delegates frequently expressed their views on the need and propriety of having a navy.
On October 5, after some debate Samuel Ward, chair of the committee on trade, relinquished the chair and “a member [probably Robert Morris] produced a number of letters from England, which were read, and Captain Thomas Read just arrived, and the gentleman to whom the letters were written desired [were invited] to attend.” From those letters it was learned of “the Sailing of two north Country built Briggs, of no force [unarmed], from England, on the 11 of August last, loaded with Arms, Powder and other Stores for Quebec, without Convoy.”
In response to that intelligence it was
Resolved that a Committee of three be appointed to prepare a Plan for intercepting two Vessells . . .and that the Committee proceed on this Business immediately . . . [Soon] the comee appointed to prepare a plan for intercepting the two vessels bound for Canada brought in their report.
The Committee consisted of “Mr. Deane, Mr. Langdon, and myself [John Adams], three members who had expressed much zeal in favor of the motion.” The motion was “carried, not without great difficulty.”
The congress resolved:
That a letter be sent by Express to Genl Washington, to inform him, that . . . he apply to the council of Massachusetts bay, for the two armed vessels in their service, and despatch the same . . . to intercept s[ai]d two Brigs and their cargoes, and secure the same for the use of the continent; Also, [intercept] any other transports. . . . Also that the General be directed to employ sd vessels and others if he judge necessary. . . . That the sd ships and vessels of war to be on the continental risque and pay, during their being so employed. [Emphasis added.]
The letters that Read brought gave the committee of naval advocates, who undoubtedly already had given considerable thought to establishing a navy and had apparently prepared materials in advance, the first opportunity to pursue their agenda. Realizing the opposition, they recommended a number of first cautious steps that started movement toward a Continental navy. Washington was authorized take naval action, not only against the two brigs but against other transports as well. He was authorized to call on state ships and acquire other ships. In short, congress had, unwittingly to most members, authorized Washington to establish a Continental navy under his command. Little did they know that he already had begun a month earlier.
Historian William Bell Clark has pointed out that, “This was the first naval legislation enacted by the Congress and, as such, is a truly significant event in the genesis of American naval power.” Committee member Silas Deane believed this was the first step toward creating a Continental navy.
In addition to the letters, Read also personally brought intelligence that “transports were taken up by Government to carry several regiments from Ireland to New York, that 17 of the transports lay at Deptford [in the Thames] when he left England; that he expected they would sail from Ireland by the last of Septr.” John Hancock passed that intelligence to General Washington in a separate letter.
The next day the Rhode Island resolution on establishing a navy had been scheduled to be debated. At the outset of the session, however, a resolution was introduced to recommend to the governments of the colonies that they “arrest and secure every person in their respective colonies, whose going at large, in their opinion, endanger[s] the safety of the colonies or the liberties of America.” In response, Samuel Chase of Maryland raised the issue of Lord Dunmore, Royal colonial governor of Virginia, who had fled Williamsburg and was aboard a British frigate blocking Maryland trade in and out of Chesapeake Bay. He pointed out that the recommendation would be a mere piece of paper without a naval force and asked, “Have the Committee a naval Force? Is there Power in the Committee to raise and pay a naval Force? Is it to be done at the Expense of the Continent? Have they Ships or Men?”
That started a debate and arguments among delegates that threatened to get out of hand. Adams took the initiative and the “Committee appointed to prepare a Plan &c. brought in a further [emphasis added] report which was read. Ordered to lie on the Table for the Perusal of the Members.” The debate was put off until the next day.
On October 7 “Congress resumed consideration of the resolution submitted by the delegates of Rhode Island. Debate began with Samuel Chase, who had obviously perused the plan that the committee put on the table the previous day, stating, “It is the maddest idea in the World to think of building an American Fleet . . . we should mortgage the whole continent.” Yet he also indicated that the plan on the table was acceptable.“We should provide for gaining Intelligence—two swift sailing Vessells.” That initiated an extended debate. Some delegates were for the plan, others feared it created a navy and were against it, some wanted to put off debate and others wanted a new committee to prepare a plan and costs. Others ridiculed that idea. Delegate John Joachim Zubly of Georgia moved that the Rhode Island delegates prepare a plan. Adams declared that motion out of order and the debate was put off a week until October 16.
Meanwhile, while congress delayed, Read and Barry “walked the streets together to make their reports, visiting Morris, the Committee of Safety, and finally the newspaper offices.” It turned out that they were too late for the weekly Wednesday issue of the Pennsylvania Journal. It wasn’t until the next Wednesday, October 11, that the newspaper was able to report that:
Since our last, arrived here the Captains Reed [Read] and Barry from London, by whom we have the following advices (culled from various issues) . . . August 4 . . . Eight men of war, from forty to fifty guns each are ordered for the American station . . . To keep cruising the American Coast three squadrons, each consisting of three 74-gun ships, three armed sloops, three schooners, three bomb vessels and a battalion of Marines . . . These three maritime pendulums moving upon the American Coast, would support the three garrisons, maintain the power of government, prevent illicit trade, and give full protection to fair and just Commerce.
Despite that alarming news of a naval blockade, the Congress continued to argue trade on the 12th and into the 13th. Meanwhile, the plan to have Washington intercept the two brigs had failed and President Hancock and the Rhode Island delegates knew it.
Finally, on October 13, as the debate on trade dragged on, President Hancock interrupted to read “A letter from Genl Washington, dated 5th of Octr.” That letter began by “requesting the determination of congress as to the Property and disposal of such vessels as are designed for the Supply of the Enemy and may fall into our Hands. There has been an event of this kind at Portsmouth.” That letter also contained the same news about transports carrying several regiments of troops from Ireland that Read had given to Hancock personally on the 5th. The delegates resolved: “That part of this letter wh. relates to the capture of a vessel in N. Hampshire [be] referred to the committee appointed to bring in regulations for navy.” The delegates evidenced no notice of the impending blockade provided in the newspaper two days earlier.
The committee again took advantage of the referral concerning the captured vessel to again bring in the plan that had already been put on the table and to which even anti-navy delegate Chase agreed. Adams said that the opposition was “loud and vehement;” in the eyes of the opposition the plan was
represented as the most wild, visionary mad project that ever had been imagined. It was an Infant, taking a mad Bull by his horns. And what was more profound and remote, it was said it would ruin the Character, and corrupt the morals of all our Seamen. It would make them selfish, piratical, mercenary, bent wholly upon plunder, &c. &c. &c. These formidable Arguments and this terrible Rhetoric, were answered by Us by the best Reasons We could alledge, and the great Advantages of distressing the Enemy, supplying ourselves, and beginning a System of maritime and naval Operations, [emphasis added] were represented in colours as glowing and animating.
The committee’s reasons prevailed. It was:
Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruize of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.
That a Committee of three be appointed to superintend the fitting the said vessel to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.
Resolved, That another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.
The ballots being taken and examined the following members were chosen, [for the committee] viz: Mr. [Silas] Deane, Mr. [John] Langdon, and Mr. [Christopher] Gadsden.
Those resolutions were the first formal steps in the creation of a Continental navy. Today October 13 is considered the birthday of the United States Navy.
Congress, or the majority of its members, never intended to establish a Continental navy. John Adams, rightly, deserves the credit for its creation. He was committed to the effort, he prepared in advance with other like-minded delegates. He used seemingly minor news as opportunities to shrewdly introduce incremental steps of a plan toward that goal. Unfortunately, from the makeup of the committee, he may not have been present to enjoy his victory. Yet, he got to write to his friend James Warren that day “We begin to feel a little Seafaring Inclination here.”
William Bell Clark assumes that “Neither John Barry nor Thomas Read ever realized that their intelligence, secret and public, was instrumental in committing Congress to a policy of sea operations against the enemy.” Thomas Read, however, has some claim to the credit as having been the person who delivered the news to Congress that offered to Adams his opportunities to get congress to “weigh anchor” and “get underway” toward creating a navy.
“Journal of the Continental Congress, [Philadelphia] Thursday, December 14, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution Naval History and Heritage Command, history.navy.mil, 3: 100 (NDAR); “George Read to his Wife, December 15, 1775,” NDAR,3:117.
“Continental Naval Committee in Account with James Read,” NDAR, 3:961-962; Charles Oscar Paullin, The Navy of the American Revolution: Its Administration, its Policy and its Achievements (Chicago, IL: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1906), 100-101, 195-196, 226-227, 250.
Tim McGrath, John Barry: American Hero in the Age of Sail (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2010), 48-49. McGrath’s accounts of the voyages are based on the “Log of Black Prince,” in the library archives of the Independence Seaport Museum on the Philadelphia waterfront.
McGrath, John Barry, 53. The draft of Black Prince was eighteen feet. “American Privateer Ship Black Prince,” threedecks.org/index. American War of Independence at Sea, Awiatsea.com/continental navy. “Deposition of John Nixon concerning Merchant Ship Black Prince,” NDAR, 1: 36. William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry 1745-1803: The Story of an American Hero of Two Wars (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1938), 40 gives the tonnage of Black Princeas 200.
Journals of the Continental Congress, Tuesday, October 3, 1775, Volume III, 1775 September 21-December 30 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1905), 273. (JCC). The Rhode Island resolution is quoted. “Journal of the Continental Congress, [Philadelphia] Tuesday, October 3, 1775,” NDAR, 2: 285 does not quote the resolution. It is “Journal of the Rhode Island General Assembly, [Providence, August 6, 1775],” NDAR, 1: 1236.
“Diary of Governor Samuel Ward,” 5th [October] NDAR, 2: 314. Only Ward cites the presence of Read. “Thursday, October 5, 1775,” JCC, 3: 227 mentions the debate and Samuel Ward as reporting for committee on trade and the arrival of the letters. “Journal of the Continental Congress, [Philadelphia] October 5, 1775,” NDAR, 2: 307 only states “Sundry letters recd from London were laid before Congress.”John Adams Notes on Debates of the Continental Congress.[Philadelphia] Octr 5,” NDAR, 2: 309 only recorded the debate on trade that occurred before Samuel Ward stepped down from the chair and the arrival of the letters was announced. Fortunately confirming evidence that Read attended on October 5 is delegate Rutledge stating, on October 6, that “The Captn. Reed [Read] told us Yesterday.” John Adams, “[Notes of Debates, Continued] Octr. 6.,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0005-0004-0003.
Clark, Gallant John Barry, 61 states that “Private letters from London were delivered by both ship masters [Thomas Read and John Barry] to members of the Continental Congress. Several of these dated about August 11 and which could only have come from Black Prince [commanded by John Barry.]” Barry’s log notes the ship sailed on August 11, McGrath, John Barry, 49 also notes that Barry himself had been down river and came aboard on the 9th, i.e., he was not in town to get letters from someone dated the 11th. Further, as cited below in the Journal, the letters brought by Read were dated August 11. Black Princedid bring letters, but they arrived in town later. “Diary of Christopher Marshall [Philadelphia] 8 [October, 1775],” NDAR, 2: 363. “About two, was brought to town, Christopher Carter with a number of letters from on board the brig Black Prince.”
John Adams, “[Thursday, October 5, 1775] [From the Autobiography of John Adams],” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0016-0034.Only Adams records the committee members and that there was any debate following the report of the committee preceding the resolution and he does so only in his autobiography. No mention of Read’s arrival or the resolution or any subsequent debate appears in his diary for October 5. “[Notes of Debates continued] Octr. 5. In [October 1775] [from the Diary of John Adams] Notes of Debates in the Continental Congress, “[October 1775],” Founders Online, National Archives,founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0005-0004. “John Adams Notes on Debates of the Continental Congress. [Philadelphia] Octr 5,” NDAR, 2: 309. There he only recorded the debate on trade that occurred before Samuel Ward stepped down from the chair and the arrival of the letters was announced. In his autobiography it is clear that he is referring to the Journalof the 5th while writing and, for his introductory and concluding paragraphs, he copies the words of the Journalof the 5th. However, he states that he is relying on memory. Therefore, it is possible that when Adams described the debate on the 5th as “passing not without great difficulty”hecombined views expressed in any debate on the committee’s report that may have occurred on the 5th with the debate that certainly occurred on the 7th, when the Rhode Island resolution was debated. (See Paullin, The Navy of the American Revolution, 37n1). Nevertheless, given the views of many delegates there must have been some strong opposing debate.
Continental Congress, Thursday October 5, 1775, 276. “Journal of the Continental Congress, [Philadelphia] October 5, 1775,” NDAR, 2: 307-308. John Adams, “[Thursday, October 5, 1775] [From the Diary of John Adams],” “[Notes of Debates, Continued] Octr. 5,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0005-0004-0002.
“John Hancock to George Washington, [Philadelphia] Octobr 5th 1775.” NDAR, 2: 311. “Thursday October 5, 1775,” JCC,3:276 and “Journal of the Continental Congress, [Philadelphia] October 5, 1775,” NDAR, 2: 307-308 use less descriptive but essentially the same words. “John Hancock to the Council of Massachusetts, [Philadelphia] Oct 5th 1775,” NDAR, 2: 312. “John Hancock to Nicholas Cook, Octr. 5 1775,” NDAR, 2: 312.
The portion of the resolution quoted is only the key pertinent extracts. The resolution itself was 437 words long. It contained specific instructions for fitting out the ships, providing orders to commanders, recruiting sailors and division of prize money. These details must have been prepared in advance by members of the committee. It would not have been possible to do so in the short time they had during the session. They certainly could not have been developed by Congress in debate. That cannot be said with certainty because the report has not been found (see note 1 to “Resolutions of the Congress on Intercepting British Vessels,” John Adams, “[Thursday, October 5, 1775] [From the Diary of John Adams],” “[Notes of Debates, Continued] Octr. 5.,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0005-0004-0002.
Further suggesting the committee had prepared materials in advance is that the letter Hancock sent to Washington contained an enclosure that provided other guidance, which he said he didn’t have the time to copy into the letter as he was ordered to send it immediately.
See “George Washington’s Instructions to Nicholson Broughton, 2 Sept.” NDAR,1: 1287-1289. Broughton was to command Hannah, acknowledged to be the “first Armed Vessel to be fitted out in the Service of the United States.” See note 3. Washington had been acquiring and fitting out ships with vigor. See “Colonel Joseph Reed’s Report on Washington’s Armed Vessels, Salem and Marblehead, October 29, 1775,” NDAR,2: 637. See also “George Washington to John Augustine Washington, [Extract] Camp at Cambridge, October 13, 1775,” “I . . . am fitting out, several Privateers with Soldiers (who have been bred to the Sea).”NDAR,2: 436. The Washington navy was all schooners: Hancock commanded by Capt. Nicholson Broughton, Franklin commanded by Capt. John Selman, Lee commanded by Capt. John Manley, Warren commanded by Capt. Winborn Adams of New Hampshire, Washington commanded by Capt. Sion Martindale of Rhode Island, and Harrison commanded by Capt. William Coit of Connecticut.
Committee member Silas Deane recognized that Congress had made the first step toward establishing a navy. He wrote: “A Naval Force is a Favorite object of mine, & I have a prospect now, of carrying that point, having succeeded in getting Our Connecticut and Rhode Island Vessels into Continental pay; which motion I was seconded in beyond my expectations.” “Silas Deane to Thomas Mumford, Philadelphia, Octo. 15th, 1775,”NDAR,2: 464. From the context, clearly describing the action of the 5th, although dated later. That it was just a first step became clear the next day when the Rhode Island resolution was to be debated and the Committee brought in a “further” report.
John Adams, “[Fryday October 6. 1775],” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0016-0035.“Journal of the Continental Congress, [Philadelphia] October 6, 1775,” NDAR,2: 328-32. While the Journaldoes not indicate that the report brought in by the committee was a “further” report, as a committee member Adams knew that it was and said so. Like the report of the previous day, that report has not been found. That plan was a “further” step toward a Continental navy in that it called for congress to have its own two ships. That is based on Samuel Chase’s remarks on October 7.
John Adams, “[Notes of Debates, Continued] Octr. 7,”Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0005-0004-0004. “Journal of the Continental Congress, [Philadelphia] October 7, 1775,” NDAR,2: 340-341.
That was Thursday, October 7. McGrath, John Barry, 53-54. The Philadelphia Journal was a weekly paper published on Wednesday. Thus, the news from British newspapers missed the Wednesday October 6 edition. Robert Morris would have read it earlier and may have shared it with the committee members and some other delegates.
First of all, the ships had probably already arrived under British protection in Canadian waters The two “northern briggs” were reported to have sailed from Bristol for Quebec, the same day as Read and Barry left London for Philadelphia. The former is a shorter ocean voyage. Barry, according to McGrath and, perhaps, Read encountered storms that delayed them. See McGrath, John Barry, 49 and “Pennsylvania Gazette, Wednesday, October 11, 1775,” NDAR,2: 408 which reports that Read had encountered a severely storm-damaged ship on August 24. No matter. Rhode Island could provide no ships. “Nicholas Cook to the Rhode Island Delegates in Congress, Providence, Oct 10th 1775,” NDAR:2: 390. Washington also reported that Massachusetts could not help and that his ships were not yet ready. “George Washington to John Hancock, [Camp at Cambridge] Octbr 12th, 1775,” NDAR,2: 415.
“George Washington to John Hancock, Camp at Cambridge, October 5, 1775,” NDAR, 2: 301-302. The ship was Prince George, Richard Emms Master, which was sailing from Bristol with barrels of flour for the British army in Boston when it sailed into Portsmouth by mistake and was captured. “Portsmouth Committee of Safety to George Washington,” NDAR, 2: 300.
John Adams, “[Thursday, October 5, 1775] [From the Autobiography of John Adams],” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0016-0034.As noted above, these are recollections in which Adams likely merged the debates of October 5 and 7 together. This recollection more likely represents the more vigorous debate of the 7th.