A six page letter, approx. 900 words, apparently in a secretarial hand, signed by Stoddert, and directed to John Templeman, a Georgetown shipping merchant. Docketed "Mr. Stoddert's directions about timber." United States Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert's three years as the first Secretary of the Navy led to his being considered by many "the father of the American Navy." Stoddert composed this letter, to the best of our knowledge unpublished, six months after taking office in May 1798, and four months after the beginning of the "Quasi Naval War with France." During his three-year tenure which ended on March 31, 1801, Stoddert proposed plans for a robust expansion of the Navy, which, through no fault of his, were only partially achieved. He oversaw the successful establishment of six U.S. Navy yards needed to build the additional war vessels authorized by Congress. When he took office, Congress had already approved a considerable program to build new vessels. Stoddert persuaded Congress to authorize the construction of six additional large ships; at the same time he obtained approval to build the navy yards. Stoddert's ambitious program faltered with the ending of the "war" with France, in Sept. 1800, and with an incoming republican administration as hostile to the expansion of the Navy as it was to the idea of large government in general.
This letter was likely written in anticipation of Stoddert's proposals, made in early 1799, for enlarging the fleet and building a system of navy yards. The letter consists of detailed instructions to Templeman to acquire timbered lands along the Potomac as cheaply, and as inconspicuously as possible. Presumably, the timber was to be allocated to at least some of the yards, but particularly to the Washington Navy Yard, which in fact was built under Stoddert's supervision, near the Anacostia River, in 1799. It is regarded today as "the oldest shore establishment of the U.S. Navy." Templeman is instructed to act discreetly, as a private citizen, in purchasing lots, in order not to arouse the interest of land speculators. He is also to prepare a report so thorough as to persuade Congress to go forward with the purchase of lands acquired on his account without the need for public scrutiny, lest partisan opposition become an obstruction.
Templeman was an ideal choice, being a successful speculator in lands in the Federal City in the early 1790s, equipped with a good business sense, having become a prosperous shipping merchant in Georgetown. Stoddert, too, would have been well-suited to the job. A successful merchant himself at Georgetown, he did for George Washington, the first president of the United States, what he was now asking Templeman to do for himself, the first Secretary of the U.S. Navy. Soon after he was elected, Washington, with great foresight, asked Stoddert to purchase lots discreetly on his own account, later to be transferred to the government, while land prices in what would soon become the Federal City were still cheap. Item #64512
Stoddert begins his letter to Templeman: "It is not unlikely that the public may want to purchase this winter a body of land on Potomac well cloathed with timber proper for building ships of the largest size. Well knowing your public spirit and activity and... your knowledge of the country, I have the pleasure to solicit the favour of you to examine as early as you can, the quality of the land, and the timber growing thereon between Cape Capen and Poto[sic] river, and enquire at what rates the land can be purchase, and what quantity can be obtained, convenient to the water... and if you can secure the refusal of the land for two months, as if for your own account, it may be a desirable circumstance...."
Stoddert goes on to inform Templeman of possible purchase: "a grant of land laying on sidling hill creek, the property of John H. Stone... it is said to contain 20, or 30,000 acres, and to abound with the first kind of timber, and laying convenient to the creek, where it is navigable for rafts." He gives detailed instructions for determining the greatest distance of the land from the creek. "There is another grant of 21,000 acres adjoining this land... which was sold by Pigman and now belongs to Capt. Campbell and Zach. Berry... said to be... such land as Stones and may deserve attention. There is another grant belonging to Stone laying about 20 miles... westward of the town of Cumberland... this tract also abounds with fine timber, though at a greater distance from navigation...." He mentions another body of land with large size timber "on the Virginia side of the Potomac above Stony river... 30,000 acres, rugged, stony and only valuable for the timber... also a tract... near Smith's on the Maryland side, of 5 or 6000 acres. I mention those tracts because... I know they can be purchase cheap." He urges Templeman to "extend your examination... to every body of uncultivated and well timbered land adjacent to the Potomac, on the navigable streams...."
He continues: "It is possible... however valuable and cheap the lands may be, the Public may buy no part of it, but it is I think probable that a purchase may be made of perhaps 50,000 acres or more, and that it will be made on no other information than your report. It will be of importance then that your report... shall be as full and particular as possible. The species of timber, the size... number of logs and trees to the acre...." He asks "to receive your report as soon as possible... [and] to provide yourself with a book, and to note... all particulars.... This book... with such observations as you chuse to make will be the most acceptable kind of report."
He reminds Templeman: "This is a confidential business which on many accounts... you should keep entirely to yourself. A suspicion that you were imployed by the Public might excite extravagant expectations in the holders of the lands...." He assures him that all his expenses will be paid. "If I had not the fullest confidence in your judgment as well as zeal to serve the Public well, I would have not trusted a business... so important to the public interest, as well as my own reputation in your hands...." For good measure he adds a few more tracts worthy of attention. "I fear however that the timber on those lands may not be so good as I have heard represented." He closes, "I have the honor to be / with great respect / yr most humbl svt / Ben Stoddert."