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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 25

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 27
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p119  Chapter 26

Captain in a Quandary

Peace with Algiers, the latest hindrance to the building of the United States Navy, left Captain Truxtun in a quandary. He had trimmed his personal affairs to the convenience of the service; and now, according to law, the service had expired.

During his first summer in the Navy, he was still deeply immersed in trade. He employed his own ship, the Delaware, and he was interested in at least two other vessels. He sent the Delaware to France for a cargo of brandy to comply with the agreement he had made with Thomas Mills in London.​1 This venture was complicated by Mills' attempt to break his contract, but eventually the cargo was procured, brought to Philadelphia, and reshipped in another vessel. To avoid payment of duties, the brandy was sent to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, whence it might be smuggled into England. Since there was some doubt were the smugglers could safely handle it, the vessel carrying it was, by his order, "to call at Guernsey, as for water, and if she is suffered to land it is well. If not, she is to proceed to Hamburg."​2 Although there was no opprobrium attached to such dealings, the contract was one that a careful merchant would have shunned; it caused Captain Truxtun much trouble and  p120 anxiety; and to complete his distress, Mills turned out to be dishonest. He had already admitted to his friend Biddle that "I have too often misplaced my confidence."​3 It probably never occurred to him, but this was another way of saying that he was not a shrewd judge of men.

With the Steretts, Navy Agents in Baltimore, and William Patterson,​a another Baltimore merchant, he had invested money in the ship Friends' Adventure and the snow John and Joseph.​4 He made an agreement with the French envoy in Philadelphia to ship a cargo of sorely needed flour to France, but he relied heavily on the envoy's assurances that he would be paid in specie by the shaky French government, still in the throes of revolution.​5 Again, he found he had misplaced his trust, and he ended up with a bundle of assignats, nearly worthless paper money.

He had already recovered, through the High Court of Admiralty of England, at least a part of his money tied up in the cargo of the captured St. Jean de Lone; but he was again to have trouble with the British. The John and Joseph was detained by the British in Bermuda, and he spent many an anxious day before he managed, remote from the scene, to recover his vessel and cargo.6

As the building of the frigate had demanded more and more of his time, he had at length decided to withdraw himself from trade altogether and to invest his money in real property and securities, in order to give his full time and attention to the service.​7 Having done so, he now found to his dismay that there might be no service.

While he pondered the situation, he spent the Christmas holidays of 1795 with his family. They usually spent winter (the "dreary season") in Philadelphia, but by now they had, in addition to their home in town, a place in Cranbury, New Jersey, on the Brunswick Road fifteen miles beyond Trenton — Captain Truxtun sometimes styled it his "villa" — and a fine waterfront estate in Perth Amboy, where his wife and children stayed during the summer months.8

His family was growing up as well as still increasing in numbers. There were six girls, ranging from Mary, not yet two, to Sarah, just turned seventeen and soon to be married, and the two boys. Young Tom, thirteen years old, was the only child away from home. It was a foregone conclusion that he, being the first male child, should have the best possible education; to obtain it he was spending several years in England.9

 p121  Their Negro servant, Hannah, was still with the family; but Captain Truxtun, influenced by his late friend Franklin's stand on slavery, had set her free on condition that he should never be called upon to support her, should she leave his employ.​10 Apparently she had chosen to stay on.

Captain Truxtun, at forty had reached another turning point in his career. Unquestionably, he could resume command of a merchant ship whenever he chose. On the other hand, the naval service, uncertain as it was, exerted a strong attraction. The conferences with the heads of state, the building and working of great ships, and perhaps the opportunity for fame and glory: all these were power­ful incentives.

During the year and a half following the commencement of the Navy in March, 1794, the administration had paid scant notice to raising a force designed exclusively to harass Barbary corsairs. All of the emphasis had been on size and durability of the ships. Drawing on his experience with the refugee galleys, Captain Truxtun had long ago suggested a naval force that could be raised quickly, at little cost, and one that was well calculated to hit the piratical enemies hard and often on their own shores. His idea was to build a squadron of small gunboats, whose frames could be carried to a friendly Mediterranean port for assembly. These boats, carrying the fight home to the enemy by negotiating the shoal and treacherous harbors, could attack the corsairs in waters that large ships could never enter. This was no visionary scheme. Gunboats eventually were used success­fully on the Barbary coast, but when he first outlined his plan in a conference with President Washington and Secretary Knox, he enjoyed only their polite attention; nothing came of the scheme.​11 True, these heads of state were engaged at home by the western insurrection over whisky taxes; nevertheless, they found time to attend closely to the many details of building a durable Navy worthy of the "national character."

Now, at the beginning of 1796, there was talk of merely curtailing instead of abandoning the building program. In spite of the words in the original Act, which stipulated in case of peace with Algiers "that no farther proceeding be had under this act," it began to appear that the President might somehow find a way to keep opponents of the Navy from bringing to naught all the work expended on it. Perhaps a compromise, calling for completion of one  p122 of the forty-fours and one thirty‑six, could be reached.​12 In any case, Captain Truxtun decided to see the thing through to its conclusion. He would stake his future on the Navy.

The Author's Notes:

1 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Phyn, Ellice and Ingalls, September 13, 1795.

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2 Ibid., Truxtun to Thomas Mills, March 27, 1795.

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

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4 Ibid., Truxtun to Biddle, August 3, 1799, August 14, 1800; HSPa: Gratz Collection, Truxtun to Willing and Francis, February 14, 1796; Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to John Blackburn, January 3, 1797; Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser, March 16, 1796.

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5 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Fauchet, August 7, 1794: Truxtun to Secretary of State, April 7, 1795.

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6 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepont Collection, William Constable Letter Books, December 10, 1795; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, August 3, 1799; HSPa: Thomas Truxtun Letter Book, 1798‑99, p52.

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7 LC: Washington Papers, vol. 274, Truxtun to Edmund Randolph, July 27, 1795.

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8 Middlesex County Deeds (Court House, New Brunswick, N. J.), II, 58‑59; V, 881, 884‑85, 889‑90, 892; Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Fauchet, August 7, 1794.

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9 HSPa: Delaware ship Papers, Truxtun's personal account in London, 1793; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, December 19, 1799.

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10 HSPa: Truxtun to Hannah, his slave, September 22, 1793; HSPa: Dreer Collection, Book of Rush Letters, Benjamin Rush to Truxtun, March 5, 1813.

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11 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, November 27, December 8, 1807.

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12 Barbary WarsI, 70; PMS: Fox Papers, Truxtun to Fox, January 4, 1796.

Thayer's Note:

a For a quick summary of his career, see Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America, pp19‑20. (His daughter Elizabeth would marry Jerome Bonaparte, about which that book has a lot more to say.)

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