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Chapter 34

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 36
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p178  Chapter 35

Talbot, Dale, and Truxtun

It had been nearly a year since Secretary Ben Stoddert had told President Adams that a decision on the ranking of Talbot, Dale, and  p179 Truxtun would shortly be needed. Finally the President had determined the ranking in that order — Talbot, Dale, and Truxtun — and exactly as Stoddert had predicted, Truxtun had instantly resigned. Stoddert, in conveying the President's decision to Captain Truxtun, told him to "take at least one day to consider before you answer this Letter."1

Captain Truxtun took no day to consider. In an unused room of his mind, a letter of resignation, fully composed, had been gathering dust for a year or more. It took only a glance at Stoddert's letter to bring all the full round phrases expressing pain and indignation together; in an instant they were crowding to get out, to be put down on paper, to be scrawled out in immoderate haste in order to be finished in time for return of the post.

President John Adams, who was accused by responsible Federalists of "shifting conduct . . . indiscretion, vanity, and jealousy,"​2 and of governing "by fits and starts — without the advice of friends around him . . . in order to be characterised as an independent man,"​3 had certainly lived up to his critics' estimates in handling this affair of Talbot, Dale, and Truxtun.

In 1794, when the first captains were appointed, Silas Talbot had ranked ahead of Richard Dale, and Dale ahead of Truxtun. Captain Truxtun was without any doubt or question junior to Captain Talbot then. But the building of three of the frigates was halted, and Captains Dale and Talbot were returned to private life. Later, when the first commissions were signed by President Washington, Captain Truxtun's bore the notation "No. 3." He was the third ranking captain of those still active, junior only to Barry and Nicholson.

When, in 1798, Adams asked Talbot and Dale to return to the Navy, he sent their appointments to the Senate for approval.​4 This was as though they had never served at all.

Ben Stoddert, looking at the affair from this angle, had decided that Captain Truxtun's claim to rank ahead of Talbot and Dale was justified, and his opinion was seconded by those of the Secretaries of State, War, and Treasury.​5 President Adams' cabinet, then, had agreed on an answer to the question. But Adams chose to be "an independent man."

Stoddert had already informed Captain Truxtun of his own opinion. "My register stands," hot water, "Barry — Truxtun — Talbot &c. Nicholson is well content to remain on shore [as superintendent of  p180 Boston Navy Yard] where I think he will certainly remain, as long as I remain in Office."​6 For two years now, ever since he had received his commission, Captain Truxtun had believed that he was indeed "No. 3." Now he had learned otherwise. Therefore, he could see no other course to follow, compatible with his honor, except the one he had immediately chosen.

John Adams was summering, as he always did, in Braintree, ten miles from Boston, when Captain Talbot was ordered to relieve Captain Nicholson as commander of the Constitution. Stoddert sent to Adams, in Braintree, a commission for Captain Talbot, since none had been issued to him previously, and the President forwarded it to him with "as handsome a letter from myself as I could pen."7

Captain Talbot had the President just where he wanted him. He was close at hand, and the President was anxious to get the Constitution to sea again. Talbot, deciding to force the issue, returned his commission to Adams because he had not been restored to his original rank.

Soon he received another letter from the President, asking him to come down to Braintree. Adams started out with the admission that "I know not the facts at present, with precision enough to decide between your pretensions and those of Captain Truxtun." From that statement he went on to a promise. "If you would accept the commission," he wrote, "altered so as to leave the question of rank undecided, to be determined hereafter by a council of officers, this shall be done." And finally came the invitation: "It will be impossible for me to arrange any thing without a personal conference with you."8

Coming down in his boat, Captain Talbot bearded the "independent man" at his home. He refused to accept the commission, altered as Adams suggested. He said he would gladly resign if the President "from political or any other motives whatever" wanted Truxtun to remain in service. He freely granted that Captain Truxtun had much merit, but then perhaps he — Talbot — had "some small share also." Admittedly, Truxtun had captured a frigate "of nearly his own force," for which he had received great praise. "I have done some things," he continued, "that were, perhaps, thought at the time equally clever, and if the rules of delicacy would allow a detail of them, they might easily be brought to view, and I should glory in the comparison."9

 p181  At some time during the interview his sense of delicacy must have failed him, because from none other could Adams have heard so complete a recital of his prowess of land and sea.

Now, apparently, the President had the facts with precision enough. "My resolution is irrevocable," he soon wrote to Secretary Stoddert, "that Talbot shall go in the Constitution. All things are settled." He continued, "In point of merit & services there is not an officer in our Navy, who can bear any comparison with Talbot, as I will ere long convince you."10

Three days later he sent off a very long letter designed to convince Stoddert that his decision to give Talbot rank over Truxtun was a just one, the "result of mature deliberation" and an "impartial consideration of the whole subject." Dale was never once mentioned, no doubt because he was not importuning the President at the moment. He was off on another private China voyage.

Adams based his argument, as he should, on the fact that Talbot had at one time ranked above Truxtun, observing that "the suspension of his pay and subsistence was no deprivation of his office, any more than shaking off the apples is cutting down the tree." But he was not content to leave it at that, with the apples shaken off. He composed a laudatory essay on Talbot's services during the Revolution, when he was successively a captain, major, and lieutenant-colonel in the Continental Army, commanded a sloop fitted out by General Gates, and finally received as reward a captain's commission in the Continental Navy, although no Navy vessel was ever provided for him to command. "His services, last war," Adams wrote, "far outweigh all the services which were ever performed by Truxtun, to the United States, during his whole life. . . . Truxtun is a new man in the service of the United States. Talbot has served them very long."

Still, he hoped Captain Truxtun would not resign. "I respect, I esteem, and, especially since his late glorious action, I love the man," he wrote.11

This contention over rank was the result of a series of errors, starting with that of President Washington's making no provision for the displaced captains when he issued the commissions in 1797, and ending with President Adams' unpardonable indiscretion of settling the issue with the advice and consul of only one of the interested  p182 parties, after ignoring the question until the necessity for getting a ship to sea had forced him to settle it under pressure. The question might have been settled, as both Adams and Secretary Stoddert suggested, by a board of officers, and neither man would have had room for complaint. No matter. The debate was ended; the President had spoken.

On board the Constellation, the officers prepared a glowing tribute to their departing Captain. It began with "a degree of regret scarcely to be conveyed in words," continued with "grateful thanks for the kind & Paternal Care you have uniformly exercised towards us," and concluded with "fervent & Cordial Wishes for Your Prosperity here & hereafter."12

Next day, Captain Truxtun replied in a similar vein. He was sure that no greater harmony could have prevailed in any ship than that which he had enjoyed in his. Long might this "band of brothers," cultivating good order and a patriotic spirit, continue to do its duty, "as I have seen you like brave Americans do it before."


Talk of Truxtun's resignation soon replaced that of Truxtun's victory. In Hampton Roads, Captain Barry was entertaining some gentlemen from Norfolk at dinner on board the United States when word of the resignation was brought by a pilot boat that had just arrived from Philadelphia; it also brought orders for Captain Samuel Barron to repair immediately to New York, in order to take command of the Constellation. "Our pleasure," said one of the guests, "was in a great measure destroy'd." Another said, "Not a countenance was seen, in which sorrow and dejection were not strongly depicted." Several days later, one of Captain Truxtun's friends in Norfolk told him, "I have not recovered my Spirits yet."14

On the other hand, a Lieutenant of Marines who was stationed in Norfolk, wrote to his Commandant, "I am sorry to hear of the resagnation of Capt. Truxtun but see in todays paper he will act as his own Trumpeter."15

Thomas Truxtun, who at forty-four was a private citizen once more, was not satisfied with being merely a trumpeter. He might more aptly have been likened to a full brass band.

He had retired to "Pleasant View," his home in Perth Amboy, opposite the onetime Royal Governor's mansion. His big house was approached through a long avenue of Lombardy poplars; it was  p183 surrounded by a generous ten acres of ground, which sloped toward the east, down to the water's edge.​16 From his front porch he could look beyond the lower tip of Staten Island out across Raritan Bay; on a clear day he could see the lighthouse fifteen miles distant on Sandy Hook, and an occasional sail coming into New York's lower bay. Perth Amboy, only a few hours' ride from New York, was a quiet town where, according to Captain Truxtun, "Sickness is scarcely known," where "a Physician cannot get Bread by the Calls of Patients." Less than half a mile from the Court House was a mineral spring that had proved efficacious for some complaints. Added to his pleasure at being with Mary and his "little Brats" were the diversions of an "admirable Society" of "worthy Gentlemen, . . . charming Girls, and elegant Ladies." To one thirsting less after glory and fame, this would have been a fine place to put aside the cares and responsibilities of a command at sea, to sip the finest old Madeira in company with John Angus, retired merchant shipmaster, and to pass the time of day with the Mayor and other worthy gentlemen.​17 However, he found little time for anything besides assuaging his wounded feelings by publishing "to the World" his side of the story of his resignation.

"I have received a volume of letters," he told a friend in New York, "making inquiry as to the cause" of the resignation. Rather than answer each letter individually, he sent out copies of a letter he had written to William Pennock in Norfolk. Inevitably, the letter soon appeared in the public prints. Here was the whole affair laid out in tedious detail. Parading "honor" and "candor" and "injustice," even quoting Ben Stoddert's words "My register stands, Barry — Truxtun — Talbot," he told his side of the story.​18 Pennock and his other friends in Norfolk were sorry to see the letter in print, because they had hoped there might be some way left to reconcile differences and to get him back into the Navy. A captious letter like this, they felt, could do no good.

Ben Stoddert, taking no official notice of the trumpeting, still tried to get him to change his mind. He tried to lure him out to sea by telling him about a French frigate someone had sighted that was probably steering for the American coast. Captain Truxtun struck at this bait and agreed to go out if Captain Barron did not immediately come to relieve him; but Barron arrived promptly, and matters remained as they were.19

 p184  Charles Biddle, in Philadelphia, had a dozen carpenters hard at work on his house in Islington Lane, well out of reach of the dreaded fever that had again attacked the city. He and his family were living there, even though they had but three habitable rooms. No outside doors were yet hung, and the winds whistled through the corridors.

One day, around the first of September, 1799, rain was pouring down in steady streams. Biddle heard a familiar voice at his gate, demanding to know his whereabouts. There, drawn up in a carriage, was Captain Truxtun. He had disembarked from the stage at Frankford and in a hackney had come to call on his good friend. He was, he explained, on his way to Mount Vernon. The General, he continued, had asked him to come down.

Torn up as his home was, still Biddle invited him to wait out the storm under his roof. He made up a bed for him in the parlor, and there the Captain slept for three or four nights. At length, when the weather improved, Biddle hitched up his carriage and took his friend as far as Naaman's Creek, almost half a day's ride, where he embarked again in the stage for Mount Vernon.20

General Washington had returned to Mount Vernon two years before, after his second term as President. He was at last retired, as much as a great public figure could ever retire. He no longer had to spend all of his time on the national business but he was, as he described it, continually importuned by a procession of "Applicants, recommenders of applicants, seekers of information with their servants and horses . . . to aid in the consumption of my forage, and what to me is more valuable, my time."​21 Situated as he was, nine miles from the nearest inn, he felt obliged to house and feed his callers for a night or for a few days, perhaps for a week. In spite of all this, he had taken the trouble to invite Captain Truxtun to visit him. The General was always a good friend of the Navy. He understood the important part it could play in increasing the stature of the United States among the nations of the world. In order to act its role effectively, it needed men of spirit, men with zeal, audacious men, brave men, men who could not rest as long as the ocean held out a promise of honor and glory — men like Captain Truxtun.

On Thursday, the twelfth of September, 1799, Captain Truxtun dined at Mount Vernon.​22 He ate and drank with the great General and looked with him down the long reaches of the Potomac River. For a few hours at least, he was under the spell of an incomparable  p185 presence. Although no record survives to witness the meeting, it is possible that this was another important turning point in his life.

After he returned to Perth Amboy it was not long until the weeks of inactivity began to pall. "I must confess," he soon told Charles Biddle, "that it mortify's me to be Idle, in a moment like the present, when every mind and every hand should be employed, to save our country."​23 Perhaps the seed of that idea was sown by the master of Mount Vernon, who may have made the observation that even though he himself was an old man, "far advanced into the vale of life," he stood ready to serve his Country whenever and wherever his help might be needed.24

"I want," continued Captain Truxtun, "I want to have another touch at these Frenchmen."25

From Trenton, again the temporary seat of government, came at last a straw for his grasping. Secretary Ben Stoddert told him his resignation had never been formally accepted. Would he care to reconsider? This was an embarrassing question. Of course he would like to reconsider his decision, but could he do so without some loss of face, some degradation of his personal honor? That was the problem. He had already taken his stand, and it ill became a gentleman to shift his ground when he fancied that his elaborately conceived honor was threatened. Gentlemen fought duels rather than admit to the error of an impulsive action or a thoughtless word.

Very circumspectly, he sounded the Secretary to learn how he might escape from the corner into which his overweening pride had forced him. He asked his friend Biddle to "take a ride to Trenton" — a day's journey from Philadelphia — to see Stoddert and to find out what compromise might be reached. If both commissions — his and Talbot's — were "of same date, and neither to be superior," then perhaps he could be persuaded to serve again.26

Charles Biddle, happy to oblige him because he thought "it would be a loss to the Navy for Truxtun to leave it," rode off to Trenton in company with his friend General James Wilkinson, who was also a friend of Captain Truxtun. Together they called on Stoddert. Wilkinson was a fluent talker; Biddle was forever the politician. "Mr. Stoddert made some difficulty," Biddle later recalled, "on account of the other captains, who he thought would resign." Perhaps they  p186 would, was the retort, but Biddle did not think it likely. "Although most of them were very brave me," he said, "as a naval officer none of them were equal to Truxtun."27

And so, when the nights were beginning to hint of frost and splashes of brilliant color appeared on New Jersey hillsides, General Wilkinson rode eastward from Trenton across Middlesex County toward "Pleasant View." The handsome general, who had learned his soldiering — and more besides — from Benedict Arnold, and who at the moment was looking for a suitable conveyance to take him to New Orleans, carried Captain Truxtun's commission and another letter from Stoddert.

The advice of his friends at last had its effect on the headstrong Captain. He accepted the commission this time with only a single proviso. "Talbot's ever having a controul over me," he said, "is out of the question. It must be clearly understood, that he is never to attempt it — and then I accept."28

Secretary Stoddert assured him that his wishes would be respected as far as possible. Captain Talbot would have the Santo Domingo station, and since Captain Barry was expected to take the new peace envoys of the France, Captain Truxtun would have the whole of the Windward Islands — after General Wilkinson had been delivered to New Orleans. There he would be the commodore of a sizable squadron; there he could improve on Barry's indifferent performance of the winter before.29

To still the clamor that immediately arose among the captains who were junior to Truxtun before he resigned and who thought that he should now, having once resigned, take his place at the very end of the list, Stoddert explained that his resignation had never been accepted by the President and that his commission had lain in the Navy Office waiting merely for the opportunity to return it to him. The reaction of one junior captain, Stephen Decatur the elder, who had been a privateer captain during the Revolution, was relayed to Captain Truxtun by his friend Biddle as an idle bit of gossip, or perhaps — there was a waggish streak in the Captain's friend — as a juicy morsel of bait.

"You write me that Decature is reconciled to my return to service," was the instant reply; "Why Dam his impudence, for dareing to make an observation — this is all that is necessary for me to say on that subject."30

 p187  To get to sea once more in the Constellation was now Captain Truxtun's obsession. He inquired for a vessel about to sail for Norfolk, where his ship lay. Finding none, he decided to go overland, and then at the last moment a likely sloop sailed by, and in that he took passage.​31 Meanwhile, General Wilkinson found another conveyance to New Orleans.​a

When he climbed aboard his own ship in Hampton Roads, Captain Truxtun's face still had a slight greenish cast as a result of a late November storm off the Atlantic coast, but he soon shook that off and was back in the routine that had long since become an integral part of his existence.32

While he prepared his ship for departure, he may well have repeated the address he had made to his crew when last he was in these roads. "On the ocean is our field to reap fresh laurels," he had said; "let the capstan, then, be well manned, trip cheerfully our anchor, spread the sails, give three cheers, and away to hunt up our enemies, as we have done before, until we find them."33

After a maddening wait for a favorable wind, the Constellation, on the day before Christmas, 1799, sailed once more out through the door to the ocean. On Christmas day, the crew was busy shaking down the ship for the passage to St. Kitts; the anchor cables were unbent and the anchors were stowed for sea; the boatswain, carpenter, and sailmaker were all busily employed at their trades; and the Captain was rejoicing over smooth waters and pleasant weather, "delightfull for the Season."34

The Author's Notes:

1 Quasi‑War, III, 568. See also supra, Chapter 31.

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2 Bernard C. Steiner, Life and Correspondence of James McHenry (Cleveland, 1907), p473. Charles Carroll of Carrollton is quoted.

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3 Charles R. King, ed., Life and Correspondence of Rufus King (New York, 1894‑1900), III, 33, Robert Troup to Rufus King, June 5, 1799.

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4 Quasi‑War, III, 491.

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5 Ibid., III, 463.

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6 Ibid., III, 340.

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7 Ibid., III, 400, 466.

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8 Ibid., III, 474‑75.

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9 Ibid., III, 312, 479.

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10 Ibid., III, 519.

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11 Ibid., III, 528‑32.

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12 Ibid., IV, 48.

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13 Ibid., IV, 51.

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14 Ibid., IV, 22, 61; NYHS: William Pennock to Truxtun, August 14, 1799; Moses Myres to Truxtun, August 15, 1799.

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15 Quasi‑War, IV, 122.

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16 HSPa: MS. Map of Perth Amboy, 1831; Middlesex County Deeds (Court House, New Brunswick, N. J.), V, 881, 884‑85, 889‑90.

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17 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Secretary of War, February 17, 1798; Quasi‑War, II, 356.

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18 Quasi‑War, IV, 97‑99.

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19 Ibid., IV, 69; Norfolk Herald, August 22, 1799.

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20 Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia, 1883), p281.

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21 George Washington, Writings, J. C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, D. C., 1931‑44), XXXVII, 360.

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22 George Washington, Diaries, J. C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Boston, 1925), September 12, 1799.

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23 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, October 21, 1799.

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24 Washington, Writings, XXXVII, 349.

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25 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, October 17, 1799.

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26 Ibid.

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27 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p282.

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28 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, October 26, 1799.

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29 Quasi‑War, IV, 311‑12.

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30 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, December 3, 1799.

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31 Quasi‑War, IV, 375; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, November 12, 1799.

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32 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, November 28, 1799.

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33 John Hoxse, The Yankee Tar (Northampton, 1840).

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34 Quasi‑War, IV, 561, 566.

Thayer's Note:

a December 16, 1799: the details in J. R. Jacobs, Tarnished Warrior, p191.

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