Crowninshield was born in Salem, Massachusetts the son of a sea captain and merchant of the Boston Brahmin Crowninshield family. He worked in the family shipping business, Geo. Crowninshield & Sons, served at sea, and was also active in politics. His family owned the lands near Mineral Spring, where the first Crowninshield family was cradled in the country. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1811 and the state Senate in 1812.
Crowninshield was a prominent benefactor of the first Gerrymander. The redistricting of Essex county into two separate State Senate districts had lead to the term Gerrymander, with Crowninshield, who had lost the previous year's Senate seat in a combined Essex County, being placed in the new district specifically designed to favor Republicans over Federalists. Crowninshield would win his Senate seat by only 8 votes, over 100 votes less than the other Republican candidates. Crowninshield would lose his seat in the State Senate the next year, with the Newburyport Herald printing an editorial cartoon of a dead Gerrymander and listing "B.W.C." as a "chief mourner."
In 1810, Crowninshield, with Salem’s premier architect Samuel McIntire, built a mansion at 180 Derby Street on the Salem Waterfront.Robert Brookhouse purchased the house and in 1861 deeded it to the Association for the Relief of Aged Women. Located at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the house is now called the The Brookhouse Home for Aged Women. and provides quality support to senior women.
Crowninshield became Secretary of the Navy in January 1815, a position almost held by his brother Jacob Crowninshield ten years earlier, and managed the transition to a peacetime force in the years following the War of 1812. This included implementation of the new Board of Commissioners administrative system and the building of several ships of the line, the backbone of a much enhanced Navy. He also oversaw strategy and naval policy for the Second Barbary War in 1815.
After leaving Navy office in 1818, Crowninshield returned to business and political affairs in Massachusetts, prospering in both. In addition to serving two more terms in the Massachusetts House, he was also elected to four terms the United States Congress from 1823 to 1831.
Crowninshield was the great-great-grandfather of Charles Francis Adams III, also Secretary of the Navy from 1929 to 1933.
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