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Chapter 20

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 22
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p100  Chapter 21

Captain, United States Navy

The "eleven unfortunate men, now in slavery in Algiers" were still there in the spring of 1794, enduring their ninth year of imprisonment; and recently over a hundred more Americans had been added to this number. The Algerine corsairs were loose in the Atlantic, and within another year they were expected to be cruising on the American coast. Several attempts to ransom the captives and to make peace with Algiers had been made, but to no avail. The Barbary powers were forever at war with some country or other. Since he had just declared a truce with Portugal and Holland, the despotic Dey of Algiers was in no mood to treat with the Americans.1

"If I were to make peace with every body," he said, "what should I do with my corsairs? What should I do with my soldiers? They would take off my head, for want of other prizes."2

 p101  Soon after the first American vessels were captured, in 1785, Thomas Jefferson had advocated war as the only way to arrive at a lasting peace. "Honor favors it," he wrote, and "I think it least expensive."​3 The idea of a Navy to bring the arrogant Barbary rulers to terms had been gaining a few adherents through the years, but opposition to any naval force was still strong. Because the European powers were reconciled to paying tribute to the Barbary states, it was argued that the United States, as an infant nation, would do better to follow the lead of the older and more experienced nations and not be quite so independent. Alas, it was feared that a Navy formed to suppress the Barbarians would be but the opening wedge for a standing Navy, which, in the opinion of one congressman who spoke for many, "would hereafter involve this country in immense debts and maritime wars."4

After a long and bitter debate, Congress finally, on March 27, 1794, agreed to the building of a small Navy; but in order to obtain support for its passage, the Navy bill contained an important proviso: if peace were established between the United States and Algiers, then the Navy would immediately be abandoned. Without this proviso, the bill would not have passed.5

By the time Captain Truxtun came home, in May, the broad outlines of the new naval force had been sketched in. Congress had authorized six ships — four of forty-four guns and two of thirty‑six — to be built or purchased and fitted out; and President Washington, for reasons that will appear later, had decided to have the ships built.

When it came to finding qualified officers for the Navy, it was natural for the President to turn to survivors of the Continental Navy, men who had fought in the sea service during the Revolution; accordingly, a list of these officers was prepared for his information.6

As soon as it was first hinted that a naval force might be raised, a deluge of importunate applications began to descend on the Executive and his Secretary of War.​7 Many of the requests for commissions came from Continental officers, but there were dozens of others who would be happy to serve — for example, Alexander Spotswood's son John. Alexander naturally wrote directly to the President, from whom he got this slightly chilly reply: "It is impossible he can be contemplated by me as commander of one of the Frigates." John  p102 might qualify as second or third lieutenant, Washington added, but even that he would not promise.8

John Barry, one of the senior surviving officers of the Revolution, informed the President that he would be glad to take chief command of the proposed squadron. Sam Nicholson, of Boston, asked Barry to mention his name to those responsible for appointments "after establishing yourself in such command as may be pleasing to you."9

No record of Captain Truxtun's application, if indeed he wrote one, has been found. Being at the seat of government, he may have enlisted the aid of Robert Morris, whose influence upon the President was well known; he may have accosted Secretary Knox, marching up Chestnut Street, and he may have been told with a flourish of the gold-headed cane that his name would be considered. He must have known that he might be appointed to the Navy, because, near the end of May, he dispatched his ship, the Delaware, on the voyage to France under another master.10

Early in June, 1794, the appointments were announced. Captain Truxtun was duly notified that

"The President of the United States by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, has appointed you to be a Captain. . . . It is understood that the relative rank of the Captains are to be in the following order —

"John Barry

Samuel Nicholson

Silas Talbot

Joshua Barney

Richard Dale

Thomas Truxtun."​11

The first five men on the list had all held Continental commissions during the Revolutionary War. Captain Truxtun, who during the Revolution had been commander of privateers and merchantmen only, was in a class with those whom John Paul Jones had called "those licensed robbers . . . actuated by no nobler principle than that of self-interest."​12 But Jones's opinion was not shared by all naval officers, since at least four of the five ranking captains had served in privateers at some time during the Revolution.

Nevertheless, Captain Truxtun's appointment was a reflection of his unimpeachable reputation as an able mariner and gallant ship  p103 commander. If any of his friends championed his cause when the selections were being made, it was because they were convinced that he would serve his country with distinction, not because they felt that his past services obliged the government to employ him. Nor was any accident of geographical location involved. The commissions were not distributed by states or sections of the country. Three of the captains were Philadelphians.

It is quite remarkable that he was invited to enter a service so conscious of rank and seniority. Had he not been appointed, the War Office would have suffered no embarrassment in explaining the omission. As it was, there were dozens of former Continental officers who would be wounded by the appearance of an outsider on the list. One can only conclude that his character and ability were highly regarded by the men who picked him.

It was nearly three weeks after his notification that he took the oath of office; but his decision to serve could not have required more than a few minutes.​13 Probably he was with his family in Perth Amboy when he heard of his new post.

The pay of a naval captain was no inducement. Seventy-five dollars a month and six rations a day — the rations brought his monthly pay to less than 120 dollars a month — would not maintain him and his family in their accustomed manner; but he was free of any considerable debts, and his ship and other traded interests would provide him with a comfortable income. In the best tradition of arms, therefore, he repeated the rhetorical question, "Does any man enter into that profession for the sake of subsistence? Are not glory and fame the grand incentives?"14

The Author's Notes:

1 Ray W. Irwin, Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers 1776‑1816 (Chapel Hill, 1931), pp60‑61; Charles W. Goldsborough, United States' Naval Chronicle (Washington, D. C., 1824), I, 53; Barbary Wars, I, 25.

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2 Goldsborough, op. cit., p50.

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3 Barbary Wars, I, 10.

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4 [Annals of Congress.] Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1789‑1824 (Washington, D. C., 1834‑56), 3 Congr., 485‑98; quotation from p494.

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5 Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776‑1918 (Princeton, 1946), pp28‑32; Barbary Wars, I, 70.

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6 G. W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (Boston, 1913), p704.

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7 William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry (New York, 1938), pp366‑67.

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8 George Washington, Writings, J. C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, D. C., 1931‑44), XXXIII, 294.

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9 Clark, op. cit., p367.

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10 HSPa: Delaware ship Papers, Truxtun's orders to William Hawks, May 26, 1794.

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11 Barbary Wars, I, 75.

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12 Lincoln Lorenz, John Paul Jones (Annapolis, 1943), pp88, 152.

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13 Navy 1790‑98 LB, June 24, 1794.

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14 NYPL: U. S. Navy Collection, Truxtun to Richard Dale, August 3, 1805.

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