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Chapter 38

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 40
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p213  Chapter 39

Rank Rankles

On March 4, 1801, the death knell of the Federalist party might well have been sounded. At noon, in the crowded Senate chamber of the new Capitol building, Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States.​1 The Federalist party, representing men of property and high social status, had been in the majority throughout the eight years of George Washington's administration; its banners had been spattered and torn during John Adams' four years in office; and now it was well on its way toward oblivion. The new President, leader of the opposition, was committed to an immediate reduction of government expenditures, and that boded ill for the future of the Navy.

Two days after the inauguration ceremonies, Captain Truxtun, attended by his servant, arrived in Washington.​2 When he called at the President's house to pay his respects, he was cordially received. His interview with the new Chief Executive was quite pleasant.​3 Perhaps this man, symbol of the Antifederalists, was not as bad as he had been painted.

His talk with Ben Stoddert, who was staying on as Secretary of the Navy until a successor could be found, was not quite so encouraging. Secretary Stoddert knew that the old Congress, working desperately to jam through the last of the Federalist bills before the new President took office, had passed an act having to do with the Navy, but as yet it was too early to learn exactly what the act contained, since copies of it had not arrived from the printer. He was afraid that his recommendations had been disregarded and that the Navy might be hopelessly disrupted by a hastily drawn and poorly considered law.4

Leaving the Navy's future in a gloom of uncertainty, Captain Truxtun pushed on to Perth Amboy, there to undertake the repair of his health.

 p214  Captain Truxtun, forever the Federalist, might well have tendered his resignation at this time and with honor it might have been accepted. The war with France — Truxtun's War — was over. There was no question of his pre‑eminence on the ocean. Of the ninety‑odd French vessels of all sizes captured or engaged by the United States Navy, L'Insurgente and La Vengeance were by far the largest.

The future political atmosphere should not have been too hard to estimate. There was little likelihood now of admirals and ships of the line; it appeared inevitable that the Navy would have to fight for its very existence. The Antifederalists for years had tried to scuttle every measure that favored the Navy.

Captain Truxtun was rounding out his seventh year as a naval officer; for five years he had given all of his time and all of his energy to the rising Navy. He had divorced himself from trade. Had it not been for the windfall of prize money from L'Insurgente, he would have been poorer by some twelve thousand dollars, which he had spent above his pay and rations since entering the Navy.​5 At that rate, he could never grow rich as a naval captain. However, during his half a lifetime in merchant vessels, he had built up an estate that would keep him and his family in comfortable circumstances, and he had so arranged his affairs that he might give to the service the rest of his life's effort. He was not ready to resign — not just yet.

If he had been more objective in appraising his situation, he might have gone on to greater glories, most probably writing his name in the annals of the sea so boldly that posterity could not for an instant ignore, and certainly never forget, his part in establishing a naval tradition of bravery, audacity, and fierce devotion to the good of the service. Had he been less blind in his convictions and less vain in his estimate of his own reputation, he might again have carried his broad pennant in the van of many a proud frigate squadron. Always, he could be depended upon to be cool and resource­ful when physical danger threatened, but, unfortunately for his future, when he imagined that his reputation was under attack he was neither cool nor resource­ful. He never learned that detractors are silenced most quickly by silence.

As soon as the new administration was fairly in possession of Washington, Captain Truxtun renewed his claim to rank third  p215 among the naval captains, or in any case to rank above Captain Talbot.

Before the Vice-President, Aaron Burr, had been in office a week, he was informed by Captain Truxtun of this pretension.​6 General Sam Smith, acting as Secretary of the Navy after the search for a successor finally exceeded the limit of Ben Stoddert's patience, evaded the issue because he expected to be in the Navy Office for a few weeks only.7

President Jefferson, when the question was put to him, promptly and firmly put it down. Captain Truxtun, who admitted that he should lay his claim before the Secretary of the Navy rather than the President, nevertheless asked his indulgence "for the liberty I have taken in writing to you this letter as Mr. Jefferson and not as President Jefferson."

To this the President replied: "Altho' this communication was expressly made to me in my private character . . . it is only as a public officer that my opinion can be of any consequence." He freely granted that Captain Truxtun's arguments were "undoubtedly weighty," but then, so were Captain Talbot's. He would not say with certainty that he would have arrived at the same decision as President Adams, but since the question had once been settled by "an authority equally competent with myself," he had no intention of unsettling it.8

The Federalists, anticipating Jefferson's fervent cry, "peace is our passion," were convinced that the new Administration would be hostile to the Navy and at the first opportunity would try to get rid of it entirely. Better, then, it seemed to them, to get something on the statute books than to leave all of the initiative to the Antifederalists. Accordingly, on the third of March, 1801, in a frantic rush to get under the legislative wire, the dying Congress had passed the Peace Establishment Act and President Adams had signed it.9

Based entirely upon the recommendations of the outgoing Secretary of the Navy, Ben Stoddert, the Act provided that only a part of the existing Navy be maintained. Of thirty‑odd vessels in service during the war with France, all but thirteen — the largest and best — were to be sold; and of the thirteen, seven were to be laid up in port. The officer corps was to be reduced from twenty-eight captains to nine, with lieutenants and midshipmen in proportion.

 p216  Although the Act appeared to have decimated the Navy that it was designed to protect, the statesman­ship of Ben Stoddert was evident in the stipulation that a squadron of six vessels "be kept in constant service in time of peace." This was the important provision of the Act. Here was the opportunity for continuous drill and training of officers and crews, a veritable school of the sea. Aside from insuring a seasoned foundation upon which a larger force could be built quickly when it was needed, the principle of "constant service" would enable the Navy to show the flag in the Mediterranean, and perhaps to maintain peace with the Barbary rulers, who understood only the language of force.10

On April 2, 1801, Captain Truxtun was ordered to the command of a squadron preparing to cruise in the Mediterranean. He returned to his ship in Hampton Roads after having spent less than a month at home, but ostensibly because "peace can afford no field for me on the ocean," he informed Acting Secretary Sam Smith that he would much prefer to see the command given to another officer. Through a friend in Washington, he let Smith know that he would not be interested in taking out the squadron "unless It should be intended to act decisively" against the states of Barbary. To another friend he wrote, "If I get foul of those Barbary pirates, or any other pirates enemies to our country, if I have anything like equal force I will bang them into submission." The Bashaw of Tripoli was currently demanding increased tribute from the United States as the price for continued peace, but the Navy was to take no punitive measures unless he first declared war. Acting Secretary Smith, informing Captain Truxtun that the purposes of cruise were to show the flag and to acquaint naval officers with the coasts and waters of the Mediterranean, was considerate enough to transfer the squadron command to Captain Dale, at the same time assuring Captain Truxtun that he would be retained in service and receive half pay until his services were again required. Had the Administration been disposed to be arbitrary at this time, the Captain could easily have been forced either to take the squadron or to give up his commission. As it was, he went ahead with preparation of ships, men, and provisions while waiting to be relieved by Captain Dale.11

While he was yet in Norfolk, Captain Truxtun persuaded some of his friends to buy Washington city lots from Ben Stoddert, whose  p217 three years in office had so deranged his business and drained his resources, that he left the Navy Office a poor man except for the land that he owned in the capital city. In a short time, Captain Truxtun raised twenty-five thousand dollars, subscribing one‑tenth of it himself. Exhorting his friend Charles Biddle, in Philadelphia, to raise a similar fund there, he observed, "We are poor creatures & require much the aid of each other in our passage through this life."12

It was also in Norfolk that he again crossed swords the Marine Corps. Writing to Commandant Burrows, he complained of the constant bickering between marine and naval officers that he had observed in his squadron, and even within his own ship. If harmony between the two sets of officers was not soon established, he thought it would be best to remove all marines from Navy ships. In their place, an equal number of ordinary seamen, drilled by a good master-at‑arms, could in a short time be trained to do marine duty. In addition, they would still be useful as seamen, which the marines were not.​13 Complaining at the same time to the Navy Office, he insisted that if "something is not done to effect a due observance of propriety in the marine officers, I shall address another copy of this letter with some remarks directly to the President, and this I do not wish to do as I am sensible of the unimportance of the Marine corps, especially in time of peace, and of the injury it might be of to the Colonel of Marines [Burrows]."14

Marine Lieutenant Keene, lately assigned by Burrows to the President, was aware of Captain Truxtun's differences with the Corps. "I can never," he told his Commandant, "think of Sailing with a man who Views the Corps to which I belong in the Most contemptuous light."

"In Justice to Capt. Truxtun," he wrote, however, "I must say he treated me with the utmost Politeness."15

On May 22, 1801, on board the President, moored in Hampton Roads, Captain Truxtun gave up the command of his squadron to Captain Dale. He wished his successor well, and assured him that his flagship was "the finest frigate that ever floated on the waters of this Globe."16

There was more to Captain Truxtun's declining to take the squadron out to the Mediterranean than his desire to follow a decided course of action when he arrived there. This cruise was, after all, for  p218 the purpose of instructing younger naval officers, and there were few objects that he thought more important. He quit his command because of the sore subject of rank.

As far as his rank was concerned, he thought all along that he had been treated shamefully by the government; now President Jefferson had refused to reopen the question. When he left Norfolk after turning over his command to Captain Dale, he had fully resolved to resign his commission as soon as he reached Perth Amboy; but his friends from north and south had anticipated his intention, and when he arrived home, he found a tall stack of letters awaiting him, all of them admonishing him to postpone his resignation until he was very sure that he could never again serve the Navy under terms that would satisfy his wounded feelings.17

He yielded to the importunate counsel of his friends and decided to sit awhile at home, nursing his ills and his ravaged sense of self-esteem. While he drew half pay, he resumed his role as a gentleman of Amboy, master of the large and prosperous household at "Pleasant View." Whether or not he ever returned to the Navy, he had already made up his mind that he would never go back to the merchant service. When reports that he was going out as captain of a merchantman reached him, he was quick to deny the rumor. "In a squadron," he said, "I may sail by & by but in pursuit of Commerce Never no more from this land."18

While he was sitting home at "Pleasant View," Captain Truxtun noted in passing that the large frigates, conceived in the minds of Federalists and built to last for half a century or more, were already beginning to show signs of decay. The United States was rotten above the water line; his own Constellation had proved not much better.​19 Even a piece of live oak in the Chesapeake had decayed.​20 Joshua Humphreys, after inspecting the rotting ships, declared that the trouble was caused "by the foul air in the hold." He thought it might be prevented by the application of salt and by adequate ventilation.​21 Captain Truxtun was nearer to the truth when he blamed the decay on insufficient seasoning of the timber.

When the list of captains to be retained under the Peace Establishment Act was published, Captain Truxtun still ranked fifth, after Barry, Nicholson, Talbot, and Dale, exactly as he had when the Navy was first organized seven years before. He had now come the full circle, and it appeared that he had gotten nowhere. Still, he did  p219 not resign. For the moment he turned his attention to domestic problems.

Mary, who had been ailing for some time, was growing more and more dissatisfied with Perth Amboy. Particularly during the dreary winter months, she longed for the greater convenience and more numerous society of a large city. When her husband was gone, Mary's situation became quite intolerable. Neither did Captain Truxtun look forward to the isolation of winter at "Pleasant View." Therefore, he was thinking about moving his family to one of the cities, but he could not immediately decide which one. He enjoyed New York, and he had a host of friends there and in Norfolk; but the houses he owned were in Philadelphia, and he had just bought some ground in the new city of Washington.​22 Facing so many alternatives, the Captain reached no decision for several years.

Desolate though the town might be, "Pleasant View" never wanted for activity. Of the eight Truxtun children, six were at home. Sarah, the eldest, wife of Henry Benbridge, was living in Norfolk. Eighteen-year‑old Thomas was away at sea, making a voyage to the Mediterranean in a merchant schooner, after having resigned his warrant as midshipman in the Navy. Elizabeth, his twin sister, was back home after an unsuccess­ful marriage with Sam Cox. That "scoundrel," that "infamous villain," that "Sad fellow Cox," apparently ran away from his business obligations and from his wife. William, eleven years old, was being schooled by the Reverend Mr. Elias Riggs, master of the Academy on the Market square in Perth Amboy. All the others were at home, down to the baby of the family, just three years old. Toward the end of 1801, another baby was on the way to add to the general confusion.23

Up the street lived one of the younger naval captains, William Bainbridge — not to be confused with the Benbridges. Captain Bainbridge, who was hounded by misfortune, had just returned home from the command of the first American warship to call in a Barbary port. His ship, the George Washington, had been dispatched in August, 1800, to carry the annual tribute of the United States to the Dey of Algiers. In September, while he was at anchor in the harbor of Algiers, under the guns of the fort, Captain Bainbridge was directed by the Dey to prepare his ship for a voyage to Constantinople. He wanted passage for his ambassador and a numerous retinue to the Court of the Ottoman Empire.

 p220  Captain Bainbridge, guided by the American consul in Algiers, who in turn was influenced by the policy of appeasement that had characterized American relations with the Barbary pirates, meekly agreed to the Dey's demand rather than risk war with Algiers. The crowning indignity, which marked the absolute nadir in the history of the United States Navy, was the Dey's order that the Algiers flag must fly above American colors while the ambassador was on board.​24 How many epithets the proud master of "Pleasant View" flung in the direction of the Bainbridge home no one can know, but he could scarcely have held his tongue in view of the shameful conduct of Captain Bainbridge's ship.

However, there was one brilliant exploit, occurring shortly after Captain Dale's squadron reached the Mediterranean, in the summer of 1801, that tended to allay the humiliation that followed in the wake of the George Washington's cruise.

Lieutenant Andrew Sterett, commanding the twelve‑gun schooner Enterprize — which command he had been given by Captain Truxtun in the West Indies during the previous winter — and seconded by Lieutenant David Porter, had captured a Tripolitan man-of‑war after a battle that raged for nearly three hours. The corsair, which mounted fourteen guns, lost thirty men killed and thirty wounded. Aboard the Enterprize none was killed; moreover, not a man was even hurt. The American officers had learned their lessons well when they were in Captain Truxtun's ships.25

This news came shortly after it was learned in America that the Bashaw of Tripoli had in the traditional manner — by chopping down the flag staff in front of the American consul's office — declared war on the United States.26

Except for Lieutenant Sterett's victory, the year had gone badly for the Navy. Even the thought of the cruise of the George Washington was enough to make any naval officer cringe. In Washington, the business of the Navy had been carried on by General Sam Smith for nearly four months before a permanent Secretary of the Navy could be found. It was only after the President had suffered five refusals that he finally found a man who would sit in the chair. Samuel Smith's younger brother, Robert, a Baltimore gentleman of quite inconsiderable talents, took office near the end of July, 1801.27

Midway through January, 1802, in the dead of winter at Perth  p221 Amboy, the call came to Captain Truxtun to take out a second squadron to the Mediterranean to relieve Captain Dale.28

While the preparations for his departure were going forward at "Pleasant View," a caller took the trouble to set down his impressions of the Truxtun household after partaking of its hospitality.

"We have visited the Commodore and Lady," wrote the guest, "and seen all their Eastern magnificence. Mrs. Truxtun is quite agreeable, and the Commo. extremely genteel, and their children beauti­ful. Their tea was excellent, their china handsome, and the silver Urn the most dazzling utensil I ever saw on a tea table. . . . Commo. T. is preparing to join the squadron in the Med., heartily tired of Amboy where he has been confined with gout, . . . Hercules at his distaff, and Achilles in female attire were not stranger figures than the brave Commo., sitting at his desk, penning his instructions for the American Navy, arrayed in his uniform coat, cocked hat and cockade, a flannel petticoat in place of breeches, and his feet rolled up in pieces of the same texture. But he is now to leave us, perhaps forever, and as he rises in his wrath, let the Dey of Algiers and all perfidious pirates tremble at his approach."​29

The Author's Notes:

1 Margaret Bayard Smith, First Forty Years of Washington Society, Gaillard Hunt, ed. (New York, 1906), pp25‑27.

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2 NDA: E. Truxtun Beale Photostats, Almanac and notebook, Antigua, 1801, with notations by Truxtun.

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3 Thomas Truxtun, Reply of Commodore Truxtun to an Attack Made on Him in the National Intelligencer, in June 1806 (Philadelphia, 1806).

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4 Quasi‑War, VII, 140.

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5 Ibid., VII, 214.

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6 LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 110, Truxtun to Vice-President of U. S., March 10, 1801.

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7 Barbary Wars, I, 439.

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8 LC: Jefferson Papers, vol 112, Truxtun to Jefferson, May 10, 1801; Jefferson to Truxtun, May 28, 1801.

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9 Quasi‑War, VII, 134‑35.

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10 Ibid., VII, 134‑35; cf. American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 74‑78, Stoddert's report and recommendations to H. R. of January 15, 1801. Stoddert's important role in this Act is ably set out in Robert G. Albion, "Distant Stations," U. S. Naval Inst. Proc., LXXX (March, 1954), 265‑73, p266 cited.

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11 Barbary Wars, I, 426, 428, 432; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, October 24, 1801; Charles W. Goldsborough, United States' Naval Chronicle (Washington, D. C., 1824), I, 188‑92.

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12 Quasi‑War, VII, 230; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, July 28, 1802.

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13 Quasi‑War, VII, 187‑89.

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14 Ibid., VII, 195.

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15 Ibid., VII, 197‑98.

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16 Barbary Wars, I, 474.

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17 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to James Watson, October 8, 1901.

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18 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, July 14, 1801.

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19 Quasi‑War, VI, 198; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, III, October 28, 1800.

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20 PMS: Fox Papers, Josiah Fox to William Pennock, May 13, 1801.

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21 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, III, September 5, 1812.

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22 Truxtun Hare Collection: Charles Biddle to Truxtun, June 16, 1801; Truxtun to James Watson, October 8, 15, 1801; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, June 19, 1801.

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23 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, fols. 39, 40, 43, 44, 48, 58; Truxtun Hare Collection: Thomas Truxtun, Jr., to Truxtun, October 23, 1801; Quasi‑War, VII, 354; United States' Gazette, Philadelphia, March 16, 1802.

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24 G. W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Boston, 1905), chapter VI; Barbary Wars, I, 365‑67, 433.

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25 Barbary Wars, I, 536‑37.

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26 Ibid., I, 459.

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27 Ibid., I, 425; C. O. Paullin, "Naval Administration under Secretaries of the Navy Smith, Hamilton, and Jones, 1801‑14," U. S. Naval Inst. Proc., XXXII (1906), 1289 ff.

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28 Barbary Wars, II, 19.

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29 Katharine M. Beekman, "A Colonial Capital," N. J. Hist. Soc. Proc., 4th ser., III, 15.

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