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Chapter 36

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 38
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p198  Chapter 37

Senior Officer Present

The news of this latest sea fight, which resulted in an apparent victory for the gallant Captain, brought him a new round of applause, dampened only a little by political undertones.

In Norfolk, the public acclaim of the year before was repeated. At the Exchange Coffee House an elegant dinner, prepared by Mr. Rourke, was served at three o'clock to a numerous and distinguished company. The usual toasts, "interspersed with songs," were proposed and drunk. After he had listened to all the toasts save one, the guest of honor, full of wine and proper modesty, retired from the room in order that a resounding toast might be proposed to "Commodore Truxtun."

"The day was spent in harmony and cheerful mirth," ran the account in the newspaper, "inspired with the pleasure which every one felt in paying a tribute of respect to the gallant Commodore and his brave Officers and Crew."1

When Charles Biddle, in Philadelphia, heard the outcome of the battle, he hurried down the street to see Congressman Josiah Parker, chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs. Since brave Truxtun would collect no prize money for this encounter, Biddle thought it would be fitting for Congress publicly to recognize his great achievement.

Shortly afterwards, Parker proposed a resolution calling for a golden medal to be presented to him. He pointed out at the same  p199 time that "in other countries monuments have been erected to commemorate such splendid victories."

A congressman from Maryland objected to the resolution. All he knew about the action was what he had read in the papers; he didn't like the idea of going around giving away golden medals just on the strength of newspaper stories. He would like to see the official reports. Besides, he thought the young officer who had chosen to lose his life rather than shrink from his duty deserved some honor, too.​a1 Congressman Parker admitted that he had gotten his information from the newspapers, but he saw no reason why there should be any doubt about it; and as for the dead midshipman hero, he was just about to propose that his bust be placed in a niche in the new Capitol building, after the government moved to the new city of Washington by the Potomac.

Another member of the House, representing Virginia, said that he just could not bring himself to vote for a medal for Captain Truxtun. He didn't think the Captain's conduct was particularly gallant; it seemed merely rash to him. The comment by the gentleman from Vermont was yet more caustic. He had voted at some time in the past for the employment of three frigates, he said, under the impression that they were to be used for the protection of commerce. And now he was called upon to vote a medal to a captain who was off his station, chasing a ship of superior force, and reducing his own as well as his enemy's ship almost to wreckage.

These gentlemen, members of the opposition in a predominantly Federalist Congress, expressed their views, but the golden medal was approved. The resolution of Congress commended Captain Truxtun for an engagement "honourable to the American name, and instructive to its rising navy."
[image ALT: An engraving of a medal, obverse to our left, reverse to our right. The obverse shows the bust, facing left, of a middle-aged man in military uniform, his hair in a queue, surrounded by the legend PATRIAE PATRES FILIO DIGNO THOMAS TRUXTUN. The reverse shows two 18c warships, the one to our left somewhat larger and sturdier, and the sails of both of them in tatters. The ship to our right, which is further missing its mainmast, flies an oversized American flag from the stern. Beneath is the inscription BY VOTE OF CONGRESS, TO THOMAS TRUXTUN, 29 MARCH 1800; and surrounding the whole is the legend 'United States frigate Constellation of 38 guns pursues attacks and Vanquishes the French ship La Vengeance of 54 guns 1 Febr. 1800'.]

The proposal for a bust of Midshipman Jarvis​a2 was dropped after another resolution was passed. This one is unique in the history of Congress: "Resolved, That the conduct of James Jarvis, a Midshipman in said frigate, who gloriously preferred certain death to an abandonment of his post, is deserving of the highest praise, and that the loss of so promising an officer is a subject of national regret."2

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering read the eulogy on Jarvis and immediately sat down to write a letter to his son, who was a midshipman in another American frigate. "Face every danger which duty presents;" he wrote, "but I shall derive no consolation from vulgar  p200 applause, nor even for an act of Congress, because you remained on the tottering mast, and perished, rather than quit your post, when no possible good could be derived from your keeping it."3

The discordant notes in the song of praise were not all within the Government. The Antifederalist press was quick to deplore the battle and the adulation that followed it. This "hideous transaction," said the Philadelphia daily Aurora, was in direct opposition to the will of the people. Were we not even now treating for peace with the great Republic? The fact that the hand of a diplomat is strengthened by such evidence of naval vigor apparently never occurred to the editor.

"Of the bravery of Captain Truxtun and his crew there can be no doubt," the attack continued; "his prudence however is very questionable." The editor thought it was considerate of the French frigate not to come back and renew the fight and to let the Constellation escape into a friendly port.4

Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours, who had narrowly escaped the guillotine during the most violent period of the French Revolution, asked in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, then Vice President, "Whence comes this madness for killing foreigners and for getting one's fellow countrymen killed, when it is evident that both nations are reconciled or arbitrating?"5

But the cries of doubters were effectively stilled by the acclamation, public and private, for the doer of mighty deeds by the sword. Most of the faultfinding was of the carping sort. It quite ignored the clear facts of the situation. Here was a squadron commander who carried explicit orders to capture or destroy enemy vessels in the Caribbean Sea. To him, there could be no alternative: the French were either friends or they were enemies. His instructions told him that they were enemies. Captain Truxtun, who was more concerned about the honor and dignity of the national flag than he was, even, about his own family and glory, could recognize only one possible interpretation of his orders. When he saw a vessel, he demanded to know if it was French; if it was French, he used every means at his disposal to capture or destroy it.

The criticizers ignored the facts, but they probed a sore that had festered for two years, unchecked by the Government. This war with France was still undeclared. The national policy was no clearer than it had been when hostilities began.

 p202  Secretary Ben Stoddert, starting two years before with only three frigates and a single armed merchant ship, had laced the national backbone with oak and iron. His fleet of more than thirty men-of‑war, carrying in all nearly one thousand guns to punish and annoy the enemy, was more of a tribute to his energy and tenacity than the result of any clear‑cut national policy.6

Within a few months after his appointment to the Navy post, Stoddert had begun advocating a greatly expanded naval program. He wanted to build seventy-fours, heavy-gunned ships of the line, and he wanted admirals for command of his battle fleets. Although the political tide was running strong against the Federalist Administration in which he served, he was still hopeful that at least some of his numerous plans might be carried out.7

He was lavish in his praise of Captain Truxtun after his engagement with La Vengeance. He hoped that Congress would soon pass a law permitting naval officers of flag rank: two admirals, two vice-admirals, and two rear admirals. Had this act been passed while Stoddert was still in office, there is no question as to who would have been the first American admiral.​8 But while he could not yet offer Captain Truxtun anything more than the broad pennant of a squadron commander, he could and did offer him a new and larger ship to succeed the Constellation.

His new ship was the President, one of the original forty-fours that had been temporarily laid aside four years before. She had just been launched; and as soon as he could get away from Norfolk, he was scheduled to take command of her in New York. In her, he might speedily return to the West Indies, where, Stoddert told him, "I hope your future glory will equal, & your future success exceed the past."9

All praise and smooth sailing, with no violent squalls of adversity, proved too much for the gallant Commander. Tasting too often the heady wine of public acclaim, he was beginning to exceed his capacity and to reel from its effects.

Went he sent up to Josiah Fox, in Norfolk, the list of masts and spars that he needed for the Constellation, he expected him to put a gang of men to work on them immediately; but Fox, the naval constructor, already was working at capacity. For more than a year he had been building and fitting out the new frigate Chesapeake, and  p203 for more than a month he had been worrying with Congress, the New England-built thirty‑six that had been totally dismasted in a strong gale off the coast.​10 The Constellation was but another frigate, standing on Fox's calendar at the bottom of the list. But when Captain Truxtun spoke, Fox's calendar instantly became the most unimportant document in Norfolk.

"You come to me and make a complaint," wrote Captain Truxtun, "that Captain Sever wished your men all employed on the Congress's spars &c — and a few minutes after — produce me a letter from the Secretary of the Navy — desiring that no Object should interfere with the dispatch of that ship — I am not pleased with this sort of proceeding."11

The brave Commodore, expecting ashore the same instant obedience to his will that he enjoyed afloat, impatiently brushed aside Fox's objections to setting the Constellation before everything else on the eastern seaboard.

"You will," he told Fox imperiously, "for the good of the Service — the honor of this Yard, and your own honor, Compleat the main mast prepared for the Congress — for the Constellation . . . and every other article ordered for the latter ship, without loss of time."12

"There is one thing Certain," observed one of the Commodore's friends, "that his Word is a Law here."

"Which may not be his fault," he added, "as Mankind will be sometimes Blinded in the radiance of Glory."13

Captain Truxtun, fuming at the delays that kept him from his new ship in New York, had more than repairs to the Constellation to keep him occupied. Because he was senior officer in Chesapeake Bay, the captains of other naval vessels came to him for help when their own problems confounded them.

James Sever, the unpopular captain of the dismasted frigate Congress, wanted to have a court-martial convened to try several men in his crew for mutinous conduct. When Secretary Ben Stoddert was consulted, he wrote to Captain Truxtun, "As Commander of the Squadron, you might have ordered a Court Martial at once, without appealing, to me, & I am sorry you did not do it." The Secretary was mildly annoyed. "I do not like," he continued, "this method of appealing to the head of the Department, by officers, who are themselves competent to the object of appeal."14

Next day, Secretary Stoddert wrote again. "You must," he charged  p204 the Commodore, "assume all the authority belonging to your rank, at Norfolk, which is as much as if you were already an Admiral, as I hope you will quickly be — or as if you had Command of the whole Navy."​15 The Secretary's quill had slipped. For months afterwards he must have wished that he had never written that sentence.

Given the choice, Commodore Truxtun chose command of the whole Navy. When, a few weeks later, he reviewed the sentence of the court-martial he had convened, he signed himself "Thomas Truxtun, Vested with the powers of Commander in Chief of the Navy of U. S." To his credit, however, he mitigated a death sentence to one hundred lashes and dishonorable discharge from the service, realizing no doubt that an American seaman hanging from a yardarm of the Congress would have an unhappy effect upon the public's opinion of the Navy.16

Meanwhile, also to his credit, he had presided over the Court of Inquiry that cleared Captain Sever of blame for the dismasting of his ship. The proceedings of the Court were submitted to President Adams, who observed that the whole affair had been conducted "in a manner to do yourself as much honor as you had so well merited by your gallantry and skill on the ocean."17

Aside from his ostentatious display of the ill‑advised phrase in Secretary Stoddert's letter to him, there were two occasions upon which his overweening sense of personal importance got the better of him.

When he made plans for his new ship's organization, he decided, since he had been satisfied with all the officers in the Constellation, that he would take them all with him to the President in New York.

"You must not think of it," came back Secretary Stoddert's reply to this proposal; "if you have made these, you can make others — the men will be enough dissatisfied to change their Commander — an entire Sett of new Officers would produce a mutiny."

"Such things," he concluded, "are unprecedented in any Service."18

Secretary Stoddert indulged the whims and vanity of his officers with more patience than a lesser man could have found; he realized that the loyalty of his captains was more important than strict adherence to rules and form; but he always retained full control of his Department's business — except for one situation that arose in Norfolk.

Captain Alexander Murray took over command of the Constellation from Captain Truxtun, and before middle of May the  p205 frigate was completely repaired and in all respects ready for sea. Impatient to see his former ship again employed against the French, Captain Truxtun suddenly assumed more authority than Secretary Stoddert ever meant to bestow — more, indeed, than he could have dreamed a man would take. Before sailing orders could reach Captain Murray, Captain Truxtun ordered him to sail for the West Indies. Incidentally, he also ordered Murray to take young Tom Truxtun on board the Constellation should he fall in with the Enterprize, in which he was serving as a midshipman.

Captain Murray was happy to comply with orders given him by his friend Captain Truxtun. He wrote to Secretary Stoddert, telling him that his early departure from Norfolk was "much to the credit and Zeal of our Worthy Commodore who has been indefatigable & had an immensity of trouble and vexation among the Workmen on Ship." The trouble was that the Constellation was bound for St. Kitts, while Secretary Stoddert wanted her on the Santo Domingo station, five hundred miles from St. Kitts. When word of Captain Murray's departure reached the Navy Office, the air was suddenly filled with agonized expletives.

"I am extremely mortified," the Secretary wrote to the Commodore, "at the unwarrantable step which your too great Zeal has prompted you to take. . . . It was in every way improper . . . and God knows what inconveniences may result from it. You must avoid such interference in future."

Three times within the week, he chastised his errant officer. Captain Truxtun learned that he had assumed one of the prerogatives of the President of the United States, because orders coming from the Secretary of the Navy were, in name at least, the orders of the President. He learned by stinging repetition in Secretary Stoddert's letters that he had let his suddenly distended sense of personal importance impair his judgment.19

It was on this note that Captain Truxtun wound up ten arduous weeks in Norfolk and turned his attention to his new ship in New York.

The latest letter he had received from Secretary Stoddert informed him of the Navy Department's move to the new federal city on the Potomac, where the Government expected to establish permanent headquarters. Because he wanted to see Secretary Stoddert, but perhaps more particularly because he wanted to see for himself what  p206 manner of place this federal city might be, he set out on his northern journey along the road to Washington.

The Author's Notes:

1 Norfolk Herald, April 5, 1800.

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2 [Annals of Congress.] Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1789‑1824 (Washington, D. C., 1834‑56), 6 Congr., 629‑32, 640‑42.

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3 Octavius Pickering, Life of Timothy Pickering (Boston, 1867), III, 329.

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4 Aurora, Philadelphia, February 25, 26, 1800.

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5 Dumas Malone, ed., Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours, 1798‑1817 (Boston, 1930), p22.Jefferson_Barracks "TARGET="offsite" onMouseOver="return Ebox(INARRAY,2,WIDTH,175)" onMouseOut="nd();">

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6 Quasi‑War, VII, 364‑71.

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7 Ibid., V, 296.

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8 Ibid., V, 421.

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9 Ibid., V, 295, 405‑406.

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10 Ibid., III, 63; V, 62‑66.

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11 Ibid., V, 373.

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12 Ibid., V, 430.

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13 Ibid., III, 552.

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14 Ibid., V, 419.

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15 Ibid., V, 421.

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16 Ibid., V, 520‑21.

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17 Ibid., V, 492.

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18 Ibid., V, 415‑16.

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19 Ibid., V, 538, 545, 555, 573; VI, 72.

Thayer's Note:

a1 a2 James C. Jarvis, it will be remembered, was the officer who in the combat with the Vengeance held his post high in the mainmast under very dangerous conditions, and was killed when the mast fell (p193).

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