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Chapter 16

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 18
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p77  Chapter 17

Summer at Home

After a homeward bound voyage of a hundred and thirty‑six days, Captain Truxtun brought his ship up the Delaware River on a Sunday afternoon in May, 1787.​1 An experienced China hand now, the first from Philadelphia, he was back home after an absence of more than sixteen months.

The Canton was moored to her wharf and the unloading began. The tea chests and bales of nankeens and boxes of chinaware were swayed up out of the hold, loaded into wagons, and conveyed to the stores of the ship's owners and to stores and warehouses of those who, like Benjamin Fuller, had ordered goods on their accounts. As the wagons rumbled and careened through the uneven cobblestone  p78 streets passersby paid them scant notice.​2 It was no novelty in Philadelphia to see the wagon loads of chests and bales with the Chinese markings; the only novelty was in the fact that they had come directly from China; it was no longer necessary for China goods to come to America by way of Europe.

Sixteen months was a long time to be away from home; and this had been in China, according to the American consul there, "the worst year for trade ever known before or expected again";​3 but when the returns from this voyage were totted up, there was no question about where Captain Truxtun's next voyage would take him. He would go to China again. First, however, he would have several months at home, his departure being regulated by the season of the southwest monsoon in the China seas. But he would not be idle; it was not his nature to be idle.

When he was not completely occupied by the business of his ship, he was apt to become involved in affairs that he would do better to avoid. For example, his sense of honor had been affronted by John Green, captain of the Empress of China, while they were both in Canton. The nature of the controversy cannot be divined from surviving documents, but a letter written by a Philadelphia newspaper editor gives an idea of the reaction that could be expected from Captain Truxtun when he imagined that his good name was in jeopardy. "You have doubtless heard," the editor wrote to a friend in New York, "that Capt. Truxtun did not escape the general and particular insinuations which, it is alledged, Capt. Green threw out, on various Occasions, to the Disadvantage of almost all the other American adventurers to that distant Country."

"Capt. Truxtun," he continued, "since his arrival here, has behaved with becoming Spirit, and commenced the avenger of his own injuries. He possesses such Materials as would, if published to the World, render Capt. Green quite odious and contemptible — but his Employers have prevailed on him to suppress them, at least for the present."4

The American consul in China characterized Green as "a diabolical scoundrel";​5 and Captain Truxtun certainly was not the aggressor in the Canton affair; but when he was attacked, or when he fancied that his name might be besmirched, it was all his friends and well-wishers could do to keep him from publishing "to the World" his side of any controversy. It was probably just as well that this  p79 altercation never reached the public prints. His energies could be better spent on plans for his second China voyage.

The owner­ship of the Canton was expanded to include seven new shareholders, and all of those who invested money in the first voyage held on to their shares; so a total of thirteen persons were now interested in the ship.​6 Two new supercargoes, identified only as Wilcox and McCall, were appointed to replace John Frazier, who had made the first voyage.​7 Frazier wanted to go out to China again, but this time he contracted to go with Captain Truxtun's friend John Barry, who was also preparing to leave in time for the next trading season. Barry, a former captain in the Continental Navy and now in his early forties (Captain Truxtun was thirty‑two), was commander of the Asia, a new ship slightly larger than the Canton and owned by no less than seventeen shareholders.​8 Another ship, the Alliance, an aged vessel that had served during the war as a frigate in the Continental Navy, had already sailed for China, attempting by its early departure to gain a trading season.9

Captain Truxtun may have found time to call on his friend and neighbor, Benjamin Franklin, who was spending his free time in the pleasant little garden at the rear of his home just off Market Street, near Third. The old man, now eighty‑one, would want to know how the sea anchor had worked out; he would be interested in the results of Captain Truxtun's taking the temperature of the Eastern oceans; and he would surely have many questions to ask about people and customs in Canton; all of this in order to increase his already tremendous fund of information about a wide variety of subjects.

During the summer, Captain Truxtun could see the old philosopher in his sedan chair, carried on the shoulders of trusty convicts, going to and from the State House, where the Constitutional Convention was attempting to fashion an instrument that would help make the United States — united by the exigencies of war — into a permanent republic.​10 There were other great men of the age on the streets of Philadelphia that summer. General Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and many others were attending the convention. While Captain Truxtun, like everyone in Philadelphia except the members of the convention, heard little of its secret proceedings, he was still present in September when the Constitution was finally published and the great public controversy arose over  p80 whether it should be ratified by the several states. Many thousands of words by the Federalists, in favor of the Constitution, and the Antifederalists appeared in newspapers and pamphlets; public meetings were held; occasional clashes between factions were marked by physical violence and the flinging of rocks.​11 It was not until after he had been out to China again that he could learn that the Constitution was ratified, and that the issue had finally been settled in favor of "a more perfect Union."

It was during this summer of 1787, also, that John Fitch demonstrated, in the presence of many members of the Constitutional Convention, that his steamboat would go through the water under its own power.​12 Captain Truxtun must surely have seen the contraption that Fitch had put together, but he no doubt dismissed the scheme of the inventor as a chimerical one. Indeed, it was not until twenty years later, when Fulton's boat was running on the Hudson, that it began to be generally realized that the steamboat might become anything more than an ingenious toy.

As the chill days of autumn marched by and the lamplighter went his rounds earlier and earlier in the short afternoons, Captain Truxtun was completing preparations for his second voyage. Old Benjamin Fuller gave him seven hundred Spanish milled dollars to be spent for tea, nankeens, chinaware, and nutmegs. "The China that I rec'd last voyage," he told Captain Truxtun, "was packed very badly, and I lost a considerable part in Breakage; therefore have to request your care in haveing this (now order'd) pack'd in the most Carefull Manner." Mrs. Fuller wanted some chinaware, too: a 160‑piece set of the most fashionable kind of blue and white porcelain, with the Fuller coat of arms to be skillfully reproduced in full color on every piece. His commission, about twenty dollars, paid him small return for the time and trouble he had to expend in fulfilling the tedious instructions of the aging merchant and his wife.​13 Fuller insured his little adventure through a London broker. When he arranged for coverage, he told the broker that Captain Truxtun was "a Gentleman well known at Lloyds."​14 He referred, of course, to the group of maritime underwriters, formerly customers of Lloyd's Coffee House in London, who now had rooms in the Royal Exchange.

Charles Biddle, sometime sea captain, who had just completed a term as Vice-President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania,  p81 was a friend and admirer of the young mariner. When Captain Truxtun was away from home, he depended on Biddle to attend to his personal affairs. On the first of December, he left with Biddle a list of bills to be collected when they came due and a number of other accounts, still remaining from his partner­ship with Collins, to be settled. "What Mrs. Truxtun wants for Family Use," he said, "I will thank you to supply."15

On the eighth of December, 1787, the Canton dropped down the river to New Castle, where the livestock was put on board; and on the thirteenth, holding a fair wind, Captain Truxtun discharged his pilot at the Delaware capes and took his departure from the light on Cape Henlopen, laying down his course once more for the far lands.16

The Author's Notes:

1 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, May 23, 1787.

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2 John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1927), I, 583.

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3 HSPa: Misc. Coll., Samuel Shaw to Winthrop Sargent, January 12, 1787.

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4 J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1884), I, 425; MassHS: Eleazar Oswald to Gen. Henry Knox, June 23, 1787.

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5 HSPa: Misc. Coll., Samuel Shaw to Winthrop Sargent, January 12, 1787.

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6 HSPa: Philadelphia Customs House Record Books, Outward entries, December 6, 1787.

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7 Josiah Quincy, ed., Journals of Major Samuel Shaw (Boston, 1847), p303.

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8 William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry (New York, 1938), pp329‑30.

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9 NDA: Alliance, Indiaman, Log Book of Richard Dale (1787‑88).

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10 Carl Van Doren, The Great Rehearsal (New York, 1948), p10.

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11 Ibid., pp180‑82.

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12 Scharf and Westcott, op. cit., III, 2167.

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13 HSPa: Benjamin Fuller Letter Books, IV, December 8, 1787.

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14 Ibid., IV, p55.

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15 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, December 1, 1787.

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16 HSPa: Philadelphia Customs House Record Books, Outward entries, December 8, 1787; NYPL: Constable-Pierrepont Collection, William Constable Shipping Papers, Box 1, Canton and New York folder; HSPa: Benjamin Fuller Letter Books, April 18, 1788.

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Page updated: 9 Aug 13