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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p47  Chapter 12

Commerce and Dry Goods

A shipmaster, if he has been able to put aside a fair amount of money from his earnings and his share of prize monies, may at some time  p48 begin to consider critically the lot of his employer. He sees the owner of his ship as a merchant who is always at home, who visits the quarter-deck of his ships only when the weather is fair and a voyage has been safely completed. He is able to sleep clear through a night, undisturbed by shifting winds or changes in the weather. The merchant is accustomed to profits of ten to a hundred per cent and more for doing nothing but issue orders to buy things and to sell things. His profits from a single cargo may be as much as a shipmaster's earnings for half a lifetime. He proves that money is the seed from which money grows. He is a respected, if not particularly esteemed, member of the community. When all of the advantages are added together, the lot of the merchant seems to approach, at the very least, a sinecure. When this line of thinking engages the mind of a prosperous shipmaster, he is well on his way to becoming a merchant.

While he was sailing for the Caldwell brothers, Tom bought shares in vessels and cargoes whenever he had the money and the opportunity.​1 After his last voyage in the St. James, he put all the money he could spare in the business house of Randall and Company. During a hot Philadelphia summer he attended closely to the task of fitting and sending out a small schooner, the Harlequin, owned by Randall and Truxtun,​2 and he looked out for the owners' interest in a new ship being built for the two of them in Joshua Humphreys' shipyard.

In September, 1782, the schooner Harlequin was captured in Delaware Bay by refugee galleys.​3 That venture was, therefore, a dead loss. When the new ship was ready for sea, there would be perhaps enough business to keep Randall occupied in Philadelphia, but Tom could be spared nicely. He could assume one more command.

The Commerce, a square-sterned ship of one hundred and fifty tons burden, made one voyage to the West Indies under the auspices of the house of Randall and Company. That was voyage enough, however, to get Tom involved in another sea fight.

While sailing near the Virgin Islands in company with two smaller vessels from Philadelphia, he was attacked by two enemy privateers, a brig and a copper-bottomed schooner, each mounting fourteen guns. The action was close — at some thirty yards, severe — and lasted for about twenty minutes. Tom broke off the engagement when two more enemy vessels came up to join battle. By that time the two American vessels accompanying him had had time to run for safety into a nearby port. The enemy's vessels were badly shattered; their  p49 losses of men totaled fifteen killed and twenty-four wounded. Tom had one man killed and two wounded.4

For this action Tom and his crew were publicly applauded by the masters of the other American vessels. They, with their owners, sent Tom a "tribute of our thanks . . . for your gallant and disinterested conduct in engaging two privateers off Tortola, on the 14th of November, of superior force, in order to preserve these vessels from capture."

"Gentlemen," Tom replied, "nothing gives me more sincere satisfaction than to have it in my power to render any service to my fellow-citizens, more especially when I can at the same time check the common enemy."​5 There is a hint of pompousness here; but pompous or not, Tom Truxtun never hesitated to fight when to fight seemed the right thing to do.

He returned to his fireside in time for the Christmas, 1782, holiday season. A few days before his coming, Mary was delivered of a fine set of twins, a boy and a girl. There were now four children: Sarah, four; Mary, two; and the new twins, Thomas and Elizabeth.6

The Truxtuns probably were happier at this time than they would ever be again. The years of the Revolution were about at an end. Peace and Britain's recognition of the United States were being discussed, and word of a treaty was expected soon. If Tom should go to sea again, Mary would no longer have sea fights to worry about; she would have only her usual anxieties about the perils of the sea. And whatever happened, she would have a comfortable home.

They had moved from the lower part of Dock Ward uptown to a house in the vicinity of Christ Church.​7 Mary had Hannah, a young negro woman whom Tom had bought for £160 hard money, to help with the house and the children.​8 Their home was well furnished, and as their fortunes were enlarged it was increasingly adorned by expensive pieces of silverware. They owned a phaeton and two horses. Only such prominent men as Dr. Benjamin Rush with his chariot rode in more elaborate conveyances; most families owned simply a two‑wheeled "chair."​9 The Revolution had been kind to Tom Truxtun. He had come a long way in the few years since he had been prize master of one of the ships captured by the Congress and Chance. He was well known in Philadelphia, and his reputation as a brave and skillful ship commander was spreading.

The talk of this Christmas season was full of his next adventure.  p50 What seemed to be an opportunity to multiply his fortune manyfold had just presented itself. James Collins, who was reported to be "a genteel man, of a good family, and . . . strongly recommended," had come to town.​10 He proposed a partner­ship of Truxtun, Collins, and Charles Biddle, the latter a shipmaster whose judgment of people was sharper than Tom's would ever be, and of whom much more will be heard. Captain Biddle declined to enter the partner­ship, later making the observation that "Without you can place the utmost confidence in the honor, integrity, and prudence of your partner, your mind must be always uneasy, for it is in the power of a partner to ruin you."​11 If only he had made this observation to Tom now, before the house of Collins and Truxtun was formed.

Collins and Truxtun opened a large dry goods store in Water Street, down near the wharves.​12 Since the war was so near to an end they, like most other merchants in the United States, were busy with schemes to import British goods that had been scarce during the war and for which the markets were now starved. This new firm bought out Thomas Randall's interest in the Commerce, and presently it was decided that Tom would take the ship to London at once to buy a fresh stock of goods for the new store. He sailed in June, 1783, three months before the definitive treaty of peace ending the Revolution was signed, and brought back "A Great variety of Dry Goods Suitable for the ensuing season."​13 He turned his ship around within a month and was off again for London to take full advantage of this trade before the American market became saturated with British wares.

During the year and a half following his first departure from Philadelphia, in 1783, Tom was home from the sea for only a few weeks. For all the rest of the time, Collins handled the business alone. Tom made three voyages to London, remaining in Philadelphia only long enough to unload his cargoes of dry goods, to have voyage repairs made by Joshua Humphreys' ship carpenters, and to load for London his burden of tobacco, rice, tar, flax, and pig iron.14

The house of Collins and Truxtun moved from Water Street to another store in Front Street, five doors above the Market. Even a partial listing of their stock of dry goods required more than forty lines in the newspapers. They had an endless variety of piece goods: flannels, corduroys, swanskins, serges, velveteens, dorseteens, calimancoes, and many more. And handkerchiefs, gloves, shoes, hats, buckles  p51 and buttons, pins, needles, and combs; chinaware, writing paper, locks and hinges, window glass and nails, sailcloth and gunpowder, bellows and sconces, "With a variety of other hardware, ironmongery, &c, &c."15

The possibilities of trade after the end of the war seemed unlimited. The manufactured goods of the British Isles rolled across the sea in an ever increasing flood. Within one six weeks' period more than two hundred vessels brought foreign goods to the port of Philadelphia alone.​16 But the American people could not be forever buying and never selling. Markets at length were glutted; and when buying stopped, merchants frequently had to sell their stocks at a loss to pay their creditors. When the bubble of speculation burst, late in 1784, the house of Collins and Truxtun tottered and threatened to collapse.

Tom and his partner were forced to sell the Commerce to pay their creditors; but even that did not help much, since they were able to salvage only a quarter of their original investment in her.​17 Their situation was serious. Not only did they stand to lose their business; but their friends, who had endorsed notes for them at various times, would become liable for the full amount of the notes if the business failed. The partners could resort to the legal procedure of bankruptcy, and for them the slate would be wiped clean. Their friends would be losers, but Collins and Truxtun could start over again with no outstanding debts.

Charles Biddle, who had endorsed some of their notes, had this to say about the eventual end of the partner­ship: "Collins not having the means of doing anything for his creditors, took the benefit of the Bankrupt Law; but Truxtun would not do this. . . . declaring that not one of the endorsers should be a loser by him, and he was as good as his word, paying the endorsers every farthing due from the house." But not until after many years and many voyages.

"Such conduct," Biddle concluded, "will always make a man esteemed and respected, and every one will endeavor to push him forward in the world."18

The month of January, 1785, when Collins and Truxtun dissolved their partner­ship, became more bleak than ever when the Truxtuns' fifth child, a girl, died before she was three weeks old.19

The pain of this disastrous winter was softened a bit when spring came once more to Philadelphia. Tom had failed as a merchant, at  p52 least in his choice of a partner, but he had lost none of his stature as a mariner. The shipbuilder, Joshua Humphreys, had just completed another new ship, this one for the house of Donnaldson and Coxe.​20 The command of the ship, the London Packet, was offered to Tom and he accepted it at once.

In the newspaper of February 18, 1785, the thirty-year‑old shipmaster could read an advertisement that announced the sailing and proclaimed the virtues of his next command. "This ship," said the notice, "is built in the strongest and best manner, is well found, has very elegant and convenient accomodationsº for passengers, and is intended for a regular London trader."21

Those elegant accommodations were ready at precisely the right moment. Before the summer was over they would house a most distinguished passenger. Venerable old Benjamin Franklin, Minister Plenipotentiary to France, was nearly ready to come home.

The Author's Notes:

1 U. S. Library of Congress, Naval Records of the American Revolution 1775‑1788 (Washington, D. C., 1906), p327; Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, April 21, 1780.

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2 Naval Records, p327. For other business of Randall and Truxtun, see LC: Robert Morris Diary in Office of Finance, II, 190, 193, 220‑21, 227‑28.

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3 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, September 24, 1782.

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4 Ibid., December 12, 1782; Independent Gazetteer, Philadelphia, December 14, 1782.

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5 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, January 7, 1783.

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6 Truxtun Family Bible.

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7 Samuel Hazard, et al., eds., Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg, 1852, 1949), 3rd ser., XVXVI — Effective Supply Tax for 1780 and 1782.

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8 HSPa: Society Collections, Truxtun to Hannah, September 22, 1793.

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9 HSPa: Assessment Books of Philadelphia, vol. 617 (entries regarding Truxtun in 1781‑83). See also ibid., vol. 96 (1783 Tax on Carriages).

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10 Autobiography of Charles Biddle . . . 1745‑1821 (Philadelphia, 1883), p189.

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11 Ibid.

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12 Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, October 1, 1783.

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13 Ibid.; Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, June 3, 1783; Connecticut Courant, Hartford, October 14, 1783.

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14 HSPa and Philadelphia Bourse: Customs House, Outward entries, April 21, 1784, Inward entries, March 22, September 14, 1784; Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, June 3, 1783; Independent Gazetteer, Philadelphia, September 27, 1783; Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, October 1, 1783; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Account Books (1784‑1813), V, January 21, April 26, 1785.

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15 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, January 11, 1785.

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16 Ibid., June 24, 1783.

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17 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p189.

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18 Ibid.

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19 Truxtun Family Bible.

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20 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Account Books (1784‑1813), V, March 23, 1785.

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21 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, February 18, 1785.

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