On the Fourth of July, 1804, Commodore Truxtun was in New York, having traveled the •twenty-five miles from Perth Amboy in order to celebrate the day with his "brothers in arms," members of the Society of the Cincinnati. At Ross's Hotel, a dinner and "suitable entertainment" were given, the usual toasts were drunk, and the hall resounded with the noise of convivial fellowship.1 General Alexander Hamilton presided at the dinner; seated next to him was Vice-President Aaron Burr, one of the guests of honor. The two men did not speak. Burr was glum and morose during most of the celebration; but when the General, in good voice, favored the company with a song, the Vice-President seemed to rouse himself from his thoughts. He raised his head and watched intently as the General performed.2
Commodore Truxtun knew that Hamilton and Burr were violently opposed to each other in politics. The Vice-President's political ambitions had been thwarted by Hamilton many times during the past dozen years or more. It was the General, for example, who tipped the scales in Jefferson's favor when the House of Representatives, as the result of a tie in the electoral college vote, had to decide between Jefferson and Burr for President; and it was he who most lately had caused the defeat of Burr for governorship of New York. But when the Commodore saw them side by side at dinner, he had no remote idea that they were already committed to a meeting on the field of honor.3 An indiscreet publication by Hamilton had come to Burr's attention, and Burr had issued the challenge.
Just a week later, Wednesday the eleventh of July, Alexander Hamilton lay dying on the dueling ground at Weehawken on the Jersey shore, while Aaron Burr, the man who killed him, was being rowed back across the river to New York.4
p234 Commodore Truxtun, who was in New York not long after the duel was fought, caught the spirit of the situation in the opening line of his next letter to Charles Biddle. "There is the devil to pay in this city," he wrote, "about the late duel."
"I am abused," he add, "as being a friend of Col. Burr."5
Indeed, any friend of Colonel Burr was thoroughly castigated in the newspapers. The press of New York, which the day before had damned or praised General Hamilton and his Federalist principles according to the principles or pleasure of the various editors, sprang as a body to attack the man whom all of them hated. In the newspapers, Colonel Burr was charged, indicted, and convicted of murder, all without even so much as a sidelong glance at the truth.
Pistol duels between gentlemen were commonplace in a society that maintained a meticulous and elaborate code of honor. Both of the principals in this contest had been on the field before, and the son of the loser had been killed in a duel. "There is no doubt," Commodore Truxtun said, "but the duel was a fair one according to the laws in such cases."
"Why," he demanded, "this abominable persecution?" I detest and dispise it."6
A New York Coroner's jury, disregarding the fact that the duel did not take place in New York, was called when public clamor had reached alarming proportions. It sat day after day, trying to arrive at the verdict that had patently been reached in advance. The Coroner's jury had not been called until after the dead man was shut up in his coffin, when even the corpse could no longer be positively identified. Commodore Truxtun recounted that not one of the jurors recognized the corpse when it was examined, "owing to its having been painted with Lamp black & tar as also the winding sheet, to insure its keeping without being offensive, untill the desired arrangements for the procession were made."
"I found a great disposition," he told Charles Biddle, "to have me up and examined before the inquisition." All the while he was in New York, he kept receiving calls from men who thought he might have heard Colonel Burr say something that could be used to insure an indictment. But he gave no comfort to those who cried murder.7
"I lament the death of Hamilton," he wrote, "as much as I could the death of a brother of equal talents and worth to human society, p235but I must at the same time justify Burr, and will everywhere justify him. . . ."
"If the laws of honor in any case between man and man will justify the practice of duelling," he continued, "(and there are some cases in which I think a devout Bishop would almost countenance it) surely [this] must be admitted as one of those cases, and if men and soldiers once go to the field there ought to be no trifling."8
On Saturday, July 14, the funeral procession moved slowly up Broadway to Trinity Church; on Sunday the Anglican churches of New York were hung in black, and funeral orations were said for the late departed.9 Some read a portent in the thunderbolts that were released by an angry heaven just as churches were beginning the evening service.10
By the following Sunday, July 22, 1804, cities all up and down the coast were half-masting flags, tolling muffled bells, and listening to the melancholy rite of minute guns.11 Here was a national misfortune that the people could participate in and enjoy. The public orgy of grief was to be sustained for as long as possible. Finally, the cry for vengeance that had accompanied the lugubrious wailing of the public prints had had its effect. Colonel Burr was afraid to remain any longer in New York.
Shortly after breakfast on this Sunday morning, Commodore Truxtun busied himself in his study at "Pleasant View."12 A servant interrupted to tell him that a gentleman outside would like to see him. Thinking that it was a neighbor making a call, the Commodore sent the servant back to show the visitor into the drawing room and to tell him that he would be down in a few minutes. Before he had reached a stopping place, his wife halted his train of thought abruptly by telling him that the Vice-President of the United States was waiting to see him.
Downstairs he found only a negro boy, who told him that his master was waiting outside and would he please come outside to see him. Hurrying down the lawn toward his landing place, the master of "Pleasant View" at last caught sight of his caller. In a boat, lying off a short distance from shore, was the fugitive Aaron Burr. The watermen rested on their oars, prepared to pull away at once if the reception of their passenger was hostile. Here was the Vice-President, second officer in the government of the United States. He had spent p236most of the night on the water; he had abandoned his house in New York; and even now, at the home of an avowed friend, he was acting with extreme caution.13 He had already learned that his wide circle of acquaintances, attracted to him by his worldwise charm, had shrunk alarmingly when he found himself in trouble.
Commodore Truxtun was still friendly, however. Within a few minutes, the Vice-President was warming himself with a hot dish of coffee. He informed his host that he was fleeing southward, that he had been assured a haven in Philadelphia by Charles Biddle, and that he might go on from there to South Carolina, where his daughter Theodosia — wife of one of the prominent Alstons — lived.14 He did not wish to intrude himself upon his host's hospitality, he said, and if the Commodore would just hire him horses and a carriage, then he would be gone at once. But it was Sunday and no conveyance was to be had, so Colonel spent the rest of the day and the night at "Pleasant View."
In their conversation that day, the duel was avoided for a while, but Commodore Truxtun could not keep away from the painful yet attractive subject. He told his distressed visitor that he "had esteemed as an invaluable friend, statesman, and soldier" the dead man, adding as an afterthought that he "always had an unfeigned and sincere regard" for Colonel Burr. While he extended to the Colonel a "hearty welcome," he told him that had the fates been reversed he would as readily have welcomed General Hamilton. The day must have been something less than restful for Colonel Burden.15
On Monday morning, Commodore Truxtun ordered up his own carriage. Together the two men rode out of Perth Amboy, bound for Cranbury, a village located not far from Trenton. In Cranbury, the Vice-President hired a light wagon to take him on the next stage of his journey. Perhaps before nightfall he could be safe across the Delaware River, in Pennsylvania, out of the state where the duel was fought, and far from New York, where the shrill public outcry had changed his status from that of a gentleman who had satisfactorily settled a point of honor to that of a common murderer who had taken the life of one of his country's first citizens.
This was by no means the last to be heard of him, nor was this the last journey that Commodore Truxtun would undertake because of his association with the brilliant but troublesome Colonel Burr.
p237 Although the Commodore and his lady had wanted for years to move away from "Pleasant View," it was not until the next spring — 1805 — that he was able to rent the place and to move his family to one of his houses in Philadelphia. He had wanted to go to Washington or Norfolk, to New York or Baltimore — anywhere but Philadelphia. There was something about that city that made him vaguely uneasy. It was as though by public agreement he was being ignored, ostracized. "Never," he told Charles Biddle, "was I in a town City or place in any part of the world where I felt my self so uncomfortable and so humble as in Philadelphia." But he owned property in Philadelphia, he had been unable to sell it, and he had no ready cash to buy a house in another city. "In this world," he wrote dejectedly, "we can have Nothing exactly as it is most desirable."16
As his fretful retirement dragged on into its fourth year, his correspondence with friends — among them Colonel Burr — sustained him and at the same time kept all of his doubts and resentments alive. In the fall of 1805, when the Colonel was making an extended tour through the western country, he commented upon seeing the Commodore's name in Nashville.
"Who would have thought," he wrote, "that Naval Talents were in such estimation at •600 miles from salt water?" He had just heard of the racehorse named "Truxtun," which had been recently acquired by Andrew Jackson. "General Jackson, who is the owner of this celebrated quadruped," he continued, "is one of the most distinguished men in that State. He says that as the Commodore stands unrivalled at sea, so is the horse Truxtun on land, and that if he should ever be beaten, he will change his name."17
Unrivaled at sea. This letter was idle chatter, of course, but that phrase was a reminder to Commodore Truxtun. The Navy was still fighting the Barbary Wars. Perhaps he still could bring that seemingly endless affair to an expeditious end — if only he could get back into uniform.
Strangely enough, there were signs that the Administration had changed its mind and that it was preparing to make amends for the anguish it had caused him. It appeared to him that he might soon be on his way to the Mediterranean to take command of all American forces there.18
1 John Schuyler, Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati (New York, 1886), p100.
2 Guardian, or New Brunswick Advertiser, August 16, 1804; S. H. Wandell and Meade Minnigerode, Aaron Burr (New York, 1927), I, 285.
3 Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia, 1883), p303.
4 Wandell and Minnigerode, op. cit., I, 288‑89.
5 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, July 26, 1804.
7 Ibid., July 30, 1804.
8 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p406.
9 Wandell and Minnigerode, op. cit., I, 298.
10 NYPL: Elizabeth de Hart Bleeker MS. Diary, 1799‑1806, July 15, 1804.
11 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, July 21, 24, August 2, 1804.
12 Philadelphia Gazette, August 10, 1804.
14 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, pp406‑407; Wandell and Minnigerode, op. cit., I, 222‑23.
15 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, August 1, 1804; Philadelphia Gazette, August 10, 1804.
16 Barbary Wars, V, 544; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, December 5, 1804, December 24, 1805 "(highly confidential)."
17 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p408; Marquis James, Life of Andrew Jackson (New York, 1938), pp105‑106.
18 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p311.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 22 Aug 13