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Chapter 19

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 21
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p91  Chapter 20

Owner of the Good Ship Delaware

It always took a few days to bring Captain Truxtun up to date on the Philadelphia story when he returned home from his China and India voyages. This time there seemed to be so much news; so many things had happened while he was gone. He could agree completely with the man who had recently written, "We live in a day, when one year of life is worth many in dull common times."1

To be sure, the most important event was the arrival in May, 1790, of his second son, named William, who was now almost a year old. His wife and other children — Sarah, Mary, Thomas, Elizabeth, and Evelina — were all well. He had to renew his acquaintance with Evelina, now three; he had been home only for seven months of her lifetime thus far; and unless his present plans were changed, he would be home for just another seven months before time to leave again. Sarah, twelve, was becoming quite worldly with all her learning at Mr. Brown's academy. Thomas, eight, was old enough now to be an attentive audience when his father told him about Tipoo Sahib, who was fighting against Captain Truxtun's friend Lord Cornwallis way off there in India, about all the strange animals in the zoo at Cape Town, and about the thousands of  p92 little boys in China who were born and reared in sampans on the Canton River.

He learned that his friend Benjamin Franklin had died at the age of eighty-four. It was already more than a year since his body had been laid to rest in the Christ Church burying ground. Although the population of Philadelphia was less than 30,000, some twenty thousand people had watched the ceremony or followed the funeral procession.

The government of the new republic had moved from New York to Philadelphia during the winter just past. George Washington was again in the city, this time as President of the United States, living in the Morris mansion on Market Street, going about the city in his elegant cream-colored carriage, drawn by two — and sometimes four — handsome Virginia bays, driven by a proud German coachman.2

The State House again was at the center of the national stage, having been given over to Congress and the Supreme Court. Across the street, on the north side of Chestnut, was the War Office, presided over by General Henry Knox, an enormous paunchy gentleman who carried a gold-headed cane, flourishing it as he talked to add emphasis to words that rolled out in a voice "deep as a thunder-growl."​3 He was charged with management of the land and naval forces of the United States. His Army was small, his Navy non‑existent.

There had been talk of a naval force to be used against the Barbary pirates, in order to reduce the price of ransom for a number of American seamen who were being held in slavery at Algiers. They had already been there six years, ever since their vessels were captured by the Algerines in 1785. This Navy talk had raised a storm of opposition. One congressman wrote in his diary: "Eleven unfortunate men, now in slavery in Algiers, is the pretext for fitting out a fleet to go to war with them. . . . it is urged we should expend half a million dollars rather than redeem [ransom] these unhappy men."​4 Secretary Knox had inquired into the cost of building a fleet, and even those who favored a Navy agreed with him that the government could not yet afford one.​5 Eleven Americans remained in slavery while plans for the Navy were quietly laid aside.

Throughout the summer months, Captain Truxtun followed the  p93 progress of his new ship, being built in Joshua Humphreys' shipyard. Named the Delaware, she measured nearly 400 tons, was 105 feet long on deck with a beam of 29 feet, larger than the Canton by 150 tons.​6 The new ship incorporated a basic improvement in steering; instead of ropes, usually used to transmit motion from wheel to rudder, she was fitted with cast iron gears. Positive action was assured; there were no ropes to fail at a crucial moment when the safety of the ship depended upon the rudder's instant response to the helmsman's will.7

In December, as usual, Captain Truxtun stood out to sea, this time bound for England, where he was to have his new ship coppered. While there, he loaded a cargo of attractive luxury goods for British gentlemen and their ladies in India; then he departed on his fourth Eastern voyage. In distant Madras, on the coast of Coromandel, he traded this cargo for one of pepper, sugar, and rich India piece goods.​8 Finding that he had more than the Delaware would carry, he dispatched over a hundred tons of pepper and piece goods in a French ship, the St. Jean de Lone, sending his purser along to insure their safe arrival in Europe. He sailed his own ship to Hamburg, Germany, where he disposed of most of his cargo, and then he returned with his ship to London.9

He left the Delaware in London under the care of his associate, William Constable, who had just come from New York; and then, in the unfamiliar role of passenger, he took passage for America in another man's vessel.​10 While he was yet upon the ocean, his family was saddened by the death of the second eldest girl, Mary, age twelve. Before he arrived home, she had been buried in St. Peter's churchyard.

Coming back to Philadelphia in the spring of 1793, Captain Truxtun was too late to see the French aeronaut Blanchard astound the inhabitants by making several ascensions in his hot air balloon, but there was excitement aplenty in the city when he did arrive. The French craze had captured the popular imagination. Within the memory of all but the very young, the Army and Navy of France — and timely supplies from her shores — had made possible the success­ful outcome of the American Revolution. Now the French Revolution was in full flood. The king had been put to death; gory tales of the Reign of Terror were just beginning to be heard when  p94 the new French envoy, Citizen Genêt, arrived in Philadelphia. Even if the United States could offer no material assistance, its citizens thought they should lend moral support to the citizens of their "sister Republic." Citizen Genêt was warmly received; his entry into the city was a triumphal procession.

Enthusiasm for everything French was displayed by old and young alike. A liberty pole, reminiscent of those put up by the Sons of Liberty, were erected, and the "bonnet rouge," red cap of liberty, was placed atop it. Gangs of boys wearing French cockades, shouting "Vive la République" and singing popular French airs, marched through the streets at all hours of the day and night. The populace was excited to a frenzy when the crew of a French frigate, then lying in the river, manned the yards and gave a stirring rendition of the "Marseillaise."

Citizen Genêt was royally entertained on the first of June, 1793, at Oeller's Hotel; presiding at the banquet was none other than Captain Truxtun's friend Charles Biddle. Many bizarre toasts were proposed and drunk; each toast was answered by the roar of a park of artillery drawn up in the street outside. As the climax of the occasion, the "bonnet rouge" was solemnly placed on Genêt's head and as solemnly passed from head to head, all around the table.11

But France was at war with Great Britain. For Americans to continue in this vein would sooner or later invite war with the British. Three hundred merchants and traders, protesting this fad of republicanism, celebrated the birthday of King George III, on the fourth of June, with a dinner at Richardet's tavern.​12 Unshaken by popular clamor, President Washington steadied the ship of state by issuing a proclamation of neutrality.

Captain Truxtun, who did not share the passion for liberté and égalité, welcomed the President's proclamation, because his ship was lying in a London dock. When a letter from William Constable reached him in July, he was doubly certain that war with Great Britain would be a calamitous blow to his fortunes. The St. Jean de Lone, still carrying his pepper and piece goods, had been captured by a British privateer!13

To confound the situation still further, Philadelphia was visited late in the summer with a disastrous epidemic of yellow fever. Perhaps, as one witness believed, the plague was a sign of divine disapproval of the "unhallowed orgies" celebrating "the dismal butcheries  p95 in France."​14 It might well have been so: men could agree neither upon its cause nor its cure. Some reasoned that the fever was caused by "the torrid sun acting upon a moist soil, or upon impure and stagnant water." Others thought it might follow the breathing of the foul exhalations of one already infected.15

The deaths each day were counted in scores; the carters made their rounds by night, furtively hauling the dead to their graves. Bonfires were built, bells were rung, and guns were discharged from morning until night to clear the air. A small cannon was hauled through the streets, the men with it loading and firing, loading and firing. Indoors, householders burned gunpowder and sprinkled vinegar on their furniture and themselves.​16

For a patient who had suffered an attack of the fever, the treatment was often as violent as the disease. The most moderate believed in "bleeding, keeping the body open, and the patient cool and clean."​17 Others, equally sincere, thought calomel, "a greater poison than the fever," would drive out the disease, since "it is difficult for any two poisons to exist in the human frame at the same time."​18 There were as many modes of cure as there were doctors — even more. One need not be a physician to invent a cure for a disease whose cause seemed impossible to discover. One traveler noted that "mosquitoes torment the whole city of Philadelphia," but that was merely an observation that neither he nor anyone related to the fever.19

"It is not easy to describe," Charles Biddle wrote, "the consternation of the inhabitants at this time; the streets were almost deserted."​20 The federal government was in the van of the exodus. President Washington retired to Mount Vernon; others flew in all directions. By the first of September, possibly half of the residents had gone from the city. Terrified of the fever, Captain Barry, living several miles out in the country, barred his door to anyone who had been near the city.21

Captain Truxtun had seen the fever at work in the Indies. He thought he had learned how to avoid its evil effects; but his flight with his family was headlong nevertheless.​22 He took Mary and the children to Perth Amboy, his wife's girlhood home. When they had reached safety, he wrote to his friend Biddle, "the Malady, with which our city is visited, has obliged me to leave it, with my affairs much deranged, but I am always, I am afraid, to be unfortunate in  p96 America, for I never come into it, without meeting with some disagreeable rub or other — which is not the case elsewhere."23

In October, 1793, he took passage from New York to London, expecting to join his ship and take her out to India again; but after he had talked to William Constable he began to reconsider his plans.​24 Constable painted for him a dark picture and predicted that it would grow darker. The possibility of war between Great Britain and America seemed much more serious in London than it had in Philadelphia. He advised Captain Truxtun against embarking on a voyage lasting a year and a half; the war might start long before his ship was safely home again. Besides, they were short of capital because of the loss of their cargo in the St. Jean de Lone. That ship had been condemned and her cargo sold at auction, the part belonging to them having brought near £25,000.​25 Constable had entered a claim for this amount immediately, but the claim had yet to go through the courts; indeed, he would be surprised if it were settled in less than a year.​26 The uncertainty of war or peace and the gnawing doubt as to the ultimate outcome of the St. Jean affair finally caused the harassed Constable to exclaim, "I hate ships & every thing belonging to them!"27

At length they decided to abandon their plans for the next voyage and, if possible, to rid themselves of the whole business and close their accounts. They would sell their one liquid asset, the Delaware. Accordingly, in an auction at Lloyd's, the ship was knocked down to the highest bidder for a little over £3,000; the highest bidder was Captain Truxtun.​28 The net result was that he had bought out the shares belonging to Constable, Morris, and Hazelhurst, the auction serving merely to place a fair value on the whole.

The end of 1793 found the Captain, now thirty-eight years old, in an enviable position. He was owner, as well as master, of a fine copper-bottomed ship. He was by this time out of debt to the creditors of the house of Collins and Truxtun, and he was beginning to build up an estate for the protection of his already large and still growing "young helpless family."​29 He was well known in business houses in England, in America, and in the Orient. By his determination to stand responsible for his debts and by his exertions in going "over and over the Globe" to pay them off, he had established unlimited credit in many ports of the world.​30 His industry and integrity  p97 were recognized by merchants and traders everywhere; he was widely known as a skillful and prudent mariner.

President Washington, among many others, had occasion to mention his superior "character and talents." Alexander Spotswood, husband of the daughter of Washington's half-brother, was in the habit of asking favor upon outlandish favor of his illustrious relation.​31 One day he decided that his son John should go to sea. With the naïveté that sometimes comes of gentle birth, he sent off to a letter to the President, requesting that he arrange for his son to sail with Captain Truxtun.

Patiently, President Washington explained to Spotswood that Captain Truxtun was away at present and was not expected to return for a year and a half; but he was sure that if his son John still wanted to go to sea when he did return, a berth could be arranged. "But," he added, "he must not expect the place of Chief mate in his first voyage to India; for great dependance [is] placed on the Chief mate of those Ships in respect to Seamanship and Experience." If he did not care to wait for Captain Truxtun's return, then the President felt sure that he might find a place in another ship, but he enjoined him to be sure that the captain was a capable seaman and a good commander.32

From surviving accounts of expenditures for the Delaware and from Captain Truxtun's personal account in London, one is able to follow the Captain as he went about the routine of preparing his ship for the voyage home to Philadelphia.33

From his lodgings near the Royal Exchange, he could easily make his daily rounds on foot. He would first visit Lloyd's, and the New York Coffee House, where he usually found the captains and traders with whom he had business;​34 then he might go to the hairdresser's; or visit John Troughton's shop to have his sextant cleaned and adjusted; or take three tickets for the Irish state lottery and one for the English state lottery; or make sundry purchases of clothing, including sixteen shirts complete with neck handkerchiefs, two hats, boots and shoes, stockings and socks, and razors, hair powder, and medical supplies.

Just before Christmas, 1793, he purchased the bulk of his cargo, which consisted of 100 hogsheads of Shone's best porter (to be ripe  p98 in April or May), 300 dozen of Shone's best bottled port, four trunks of hosiery, and 1,000 grindstones which ranged in size from one to seven feet in diameter. On the bill of lading he described these items as the "Captain's Private adventure." In addition, he arranged to carry a few odds and ends of freight for several Philadelphia merchants.

Repairs to his ship, lying in a dock at Limehouse, required the skills of ship carpenters, riggers, blacksmiths, ropemakers, sailmakers, blockmakers, painters, and plumbers; and the water-casks were overhauled by a cooper. Throughout the time she was in the Thames above Gravesend, there was no evidence of a crew for the ship. She was attended by watermen, who moored and unmoored her and moved her from place to place. The watermen also carried workmen back and forth in their boats and brought supplies and provisions alongside.

Captain Truxtun ordered a dozen barrels of corned beef and pork for the crew and "1 Barrel nice corned Beef picked pieces for cabbin use" and "1 ditto corn'd pork Nice pieces with legs &c." He sent the old ship bread ashore to be repacked, bought several barrels of new ship bread and three hundredweight of cabin bread. His list of provisions for cabin use was a long one, including fifteen dozen bottles of sundry spirits, several hampers of fresh vegetables, a dozen varieties of condiments, tea, coffee, chocolate, butter, cheese, a hamper of red herring, and a keg of tripe.

He engaged first, second and third mates and a purser. He arranged to carry, as passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Potter in the cabin and four nameless persons in the steerage — a man and wife and two other men. His crew, consisting of a carpenter, captain's steward, ship's steward, cook, ten seamen — six of whom were able to sign their names to the articles — and a boy, was being recruited with the indispensable help of crimps and boarding-house keepers. Because of the war between Great Britain and the French republic, press gangs were active up and down the river, and it was customary to hire crimps to procure men for the crew — no questions were asked about methods employed — and boarding-house keepers to conceal them ashore until almost time for the ship to sail.

When the Delaware was ready for sea, early in February, the first mate, assisted by watermen, took her down the river to Gravesend, where the livestock — sheep, pigs, chickens, and ducks — was loaded  p99 on board. Captain Truxtun then applied to the Lord Mayor of London for "protections," which would permit him to sail away with his men after the crimps had delivered them on board at Gravesend.​35 When Captain Truxtun had completed his business in London, he settled his board bill, paid his washerwoman, left gratuities for his cook and for servants at the coffee houses, and took a postchaise down to join his ship.

He had sailed as far as the Downs, at the eastern end of the English Channel, when contrary winds arrested any further progress for nearly a fortnight.​36 While he waited impatiently for a change of weather, he sent ashore several time for more rum and gin, more butter, eggs, and fresh provisions, in order to keep his inventory of sea stores intact. It was nearly the end of February, 1794, before he was able to sail through the Channel and into the Atlantic toward home.37

While he was yet in London, he had agreed with Thomas Mills, a merchant there, to make another voyage in the Delaware after this one was completed. Mills wanted a shipload of French brandy, but since Britain and France were at war, he could not have carried it in an English bottom. Therefore, Captain Truxtun was to sail from Philadelphia to France and take the brandy back to Philadelphia, where it could be reshipped to Mills.​38 Although this contract caused trouble later on, it was neither illegal nor unusual. Trading with the enemy was seldom frowned upon as long as the profits were commensurate with the risks involved.

When he sailed his ship up the river toward Philadelphia it was early spring. His mind no doubt buzzed with plans for a quick departure for France. It is quite unlikely that he had any suspicion that the present voyage was the last he would ever make as master of a merchant vessel.

The Author's Notes:

1 Charles R. King, ed., Life and Correspondence of Rufus King (New York, 1894‑1900), I, 222.

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2 John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1927), I, 581‑82.

Thayer's Note: But cp.  Ford, Washington and His Colleagues, p13.
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3 Thomas M. Griffiths, Maine Sources in the House of the Seven Gables (Waterville, 1945), pp33, 34, 36.

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4 The Journal of William Maclay, 1789‑91 (New York, 1927), p371.

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5 Navy 1790‑98 LB, October 30, 1790; Harold and Margaret Sprout, Rise of American Naval Power, 1776‑1918 (Princeton, 1946), pp26‑28.

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6 Carl C. Cutler, Greyhounds of the Sea (New York, 1930), p393.

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7 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, November 19, 1791; HSPa: Dreer Collection, Joshua Humphreys shipyard notebook, pp224‑30.

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8 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepont Collection, William Constable Shipping Papers, Box 1, Delaware folder, bill of lading, Madras, September 20, 1792.

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9 Ibid., St. Jean de Lone folder, Truxtun to George Lawson, October 4, 1792; ibid., William Constable Letters, Truxtun to Constable, March 12, 1793.

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10 Ibid., William Constable Letter Book, Aug. 23, 1793.

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11 Watson, op. cit., I, 179‑80; J. T. Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1884), I, 473‑74; Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia, 1883), pp252‑53.

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12 Scharf and Westcott, op. cit., I, 474.

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13 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepont Collection, William Constable Letter Book, July 14, 1793. Refers to advice sent on May 29, 1793.

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14 Alexander Graydon, Memoirs of a Life (Edinburgh, 1822), p383.

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15 Ibid.; Philadelphia Gazette, October 5, 1797.

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16 J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead (Philadelphia, 1949), pp22‑24, 65, 99, 106, 114; Mufford Stough, "The Yellow Fever in Philadelphia, 1793," Pennsylvania HistoryVI (January, 1939), 6.

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17 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p259.

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18 Philadelphia Gazette, October 5, 1797.

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19 Kenneth and Anna M. Roberts, ed. and trans., Moreau de St. Méry's American Journey, 1793‑1798 (New York, 1947), p325.

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20 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p256.

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21 Ibid., p257.

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22 Philadelphia Gazette, October 5, 1797.

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23 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, October 2, 1793.

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24 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepont Collection, William Constable Letter Book, William Constable to H. F. Constable, June 17, 1793.

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25 Ibid., William Constable Shipping Papers, Box 1, St. Jean de Lone folder.

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26 Ibid., William Constable Letter Book, Constable to Truxtun, September 27, 1794.

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27 Ibid., (1793‑94), p167, Constable to S. Ward, October 10, 1793.

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28 Ibid., p198, Constable to Truxtun, November 20, 1793; HSPa: Delaware ship Papers, deposition by William Constable re owner­ship of vessel.

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29 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, June 29, 1799.

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30 Ibid., December 16, 1789; MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, February 1, 1806.

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31 George Washington, Writings, J. C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, D. C., 1931‑44), XXXII, 29; XXXIII, 109‑10, 294; XXXIV, 34, 47.

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32 Ibid., XXX, 475; XXXII, 40.

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33 HSPa: Delaware ship Papers.

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34 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepont Collection, William Constable Letter Book (1793‑94), p198, November 20, 1793.

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35 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State, December 1, 1796.

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36 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, April 21, 1794.

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37 For arrival in Philadelphia, see ibid.

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38 HSPa: Delaware ship Papers, agreement with Thomas Mills, December 24, 1793.

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