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Chapter 28

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 30
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p135  Chapter 29

More Delays

Work on the Constellation was halted when the fever hit Baltimore. On the very weekend of the launch it was reported that the carters were hauling away a dozen bodies a night from Fell's Point.​1 As soon as he heard the alarm, Captain Truxtun sent out for a box of calomel pills, which he proceeded to take morning and night to keep his "bowels perfectly open." Harking back to his experience in Batavia, he watered his gin and porter and seldom exceeded two or three glasses of wine after dinner. In going to and from the yard, he gave a wide berth to every place where the fever had appeared. He carefully avoided breathing the noxious effluvia generated in the closed spaces of his ship because they were believed by many to cause  p136 deterioration of the human frame as well as rotting of ship timbers.2

When work was resumed more than a month later, news of another launch was arriving from Boston.​3 The Constitution, being built there, was ready for launching two weeks after the Constellation. John Adams, who was now President of the United States, was one of the huge crowd of spectators present in Boston when all the blocks and stanchions were removed and when — nothing happened.​4 Resting only on the tallow, the ship moved not an inch. Urged by "screws and other machinery," she grudgingly slid a few yards, but when the President went home that day, the ship was still resting on her ways in midpassage. Two days later, after another attempt to shove her into the water, she was thirty‑one feet closer to it but still embarrassingly on dry ground. It took a third try, late in October, 1797, to get her safely afloat.​5 The Constitution's launch was as deliberate as that of the United States, in Philadelphia, had been precipitate. Of the first three frigates, the one in Baltimore was the only one to be launched without incident.

Although Captain Truxtun's Constellation was off the ways, she was in no sense ready for sea. The masts, rigging, and guns all had to be put on board before the ship could leave her berth in the Patapsco; a very long list of supplies, stores, and provisions was required before she could go to sea. Throughout the fall and into the winter, her outfitting proceeded under Captain Truxtun's watchful eye. He attended her constantly, checking off hundreds of items of equipment and supplies as they were carried on board.​6 He had expected to take his ship down the bay early in December to the sheltered mouth of Patuxent River, halfway between Baltimore and Norfolk, where she would not be troubled by ice, but an early freeze thwarted his plans, and she remained in Baltimore all winter. Therefore, her captain went home to his family.7

In the diplomatic arena, the posture of foreign affairs was, as usual, tense. A treaty had been made with Great Britain, halting for a time her Navy's frequent insults to the unprotected American flag at sea. But the French government, construing the treaty as a threat to its security, had set out on a systematic program of retaliation. American vessels suffered unconscionable delays in French ports, and many were captured on the high seas by French naval vessels and privateers. In all, more than two hundred cases of French spoliations had been reported.8

 p137  Sympathy for the French revolutionists was subsiding in America. Charles Biddle, for example, had made the full swing away from the French mania, saying, "War [with France] in my Opinion would be infinitely better than remaining in the situation we are in at present";​9 but the steps being taken to protect foreign commerce from such depredations were halting and uncertain. The opponents of the Navy were still sniping at the Administration. In the opinion of one congressman, there was never "such a sink of expense as that of fleets." Another said he would rather see the ships burnt than completed and manned. A third claimed that it was well known that there had been "an extraordinary waste of public money on these frigates."10

Relations with the Dey of Algiers were still carried on in an atmosphere of meek submission. The Crescent, the frigate built to placate the Dey, already had sailed for the Mediterranean; there she was to be added to his piratical fleet. The Secretary of State was relieved to see her go, because he was anxious to comply with all the Dey's demands. "Nothing," he had said, "is to be done to hazard the good opinion of the Dey, or to excite the most distant idea of trespassing on his distinguished benevolence towards the United States."11

John Adams had been President for just a year when, in March, 1798, he heard ominous news from the peace commissioners he had sent to France. They had not been recognized officially by the French government as envoys of a free, independent, and power­ful nation. They had been affronted and humiliated; they were forced to carry on their business with three nameless Frenchmen X, Y, and Z; finally they found that their negotiations were blocked until they would agree to the payment of bribes and gifts of money — "a great deal of money."​12 Within a few days, President Adams, the short, round man who looked like a drab little country squire, decided that the United States had tolerated French insults long enough. He would maintain American dignity, even though such a course might lead to war. Even before he consulted Congress, he made his policy known to his heads of department.13

Accordingly, by the middle of March, Captain Truxtun had his orders from the President, conveyed to him by Secretary of War McHenry. He was to return at once to Baltimore, to take his ship into deep water, fit her out, provision her, recruit a crew, and in  p138 every respect prepare her for sea.​14 This was the first link in a chain of events that, within a twelvemonth, was to find a formidable United States Navy at sea, with Captain Truxtun's fame shining above all, like the proud stars of the Constellation.

The Author's Notes:

1 Maryland Historical Magazine, XXVIII (1933), 197 ff., September 10, 1797.

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2 Philadelphia Gazette, October 5, 1797.

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3 American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive (Washington, D. C., 1832‑61), Naval Affairs, I, 37‑39.

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4 Columbian Centinel, Boston, September 20, 1797.

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5 American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 56; Columbian Centinel, Boston, October 25, 1797.

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6 HSPa: U. S. Frigate Constellation Orders, Muster Rolls, Stores, etc.

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7 NDA: War Dept. Letter Book, Arming and Equipping Frigates, 1795‑98, November 15, 1797.

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8 American State Papers, Foreign Relations, I, 748‑59.

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9 HSPa: Governors of Pennsylvania Collection, Charles Biddle to Truxtun, March 15, 1797.

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10 [Annals of Congress.] Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1789‑1824 (Washington, D. C., 1834‑56), 4 Congr., 879, 2050, 2140.

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11 Barbary Wars, I, 202‑203, 224, 232.

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12 James Brown Scott, ed., Controversy over Neutral Rights between U. S. and France, 1797‑1800 (New York, 1917), p17.

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13 Thomas Twining, Travels in America One Hundred Years Ago (New York, 1894); John B. McMaster, A History of the People of the United States (New York, 1888‑1913), II, 374.

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14 Quasi‑WarI, 42.

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