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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 39

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 41
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p221  Chapter 40

To Quit the Service

On Monday, the first day of February, 1802, Captain Truxtun was in the Navy Office in Washington.​1 Sniffling with a cold he had caught on the stage journey down, he had come to learn from the Secretary of the Navy more about his assignment.

Secretary Robert Smith — this was the same Robert Smith who had been spurned and ignored by Captain Truxtun while he was in Baltimore building the Constellationa — was most agreeable. He complied immediately with the Captain's request that an additional captain, to be responsible for management of the flagship, be assigned to his squadron. After all, Commodore Dale had a junior captain in his  p222 flagship in order to relieve him of the petty details of daily routine, leaving him free to spend his time on his principal duties as commodore; and when captains to be retained under the Peace Establishment Act were selected, an extra one was held over in order to act as captain of the ship in which a commodore carried his flag.​2 Secretary Smith turned to his chief clerk and asked him to write out a list of the officers who would be under Captain Truxtun's command. Heading the list as flag captain was Hugh Campbell, who had commanded the brig Eagle in his squadron in the West Indies.

Captain Truxtun observed to Secretary Smith that the flagship, Chesapeake, was a very small frigate in which to carry his flag, but he made no issue of it because he intended to shift to the Constitution when she reached Gibraltar, after undergoing necessary repairs in Boston. Neither of the other large frigates was immediately available. The United States was laid up, out of commission, and the President was already in the Mediterranean.3

After they had settled the details of his command, Secretary Smith took Captain Truxtun to call on the President. Mr. Jefferson was quite distant — coldly polite and nothing more — during the short interview. Therefore, the Captain was quite surprised a few hours later to receive a card from the President, inviting him to dinner on Wednesday afternoon.

The dinner party on Wednesday was a strange affair. Still plagued by his cold, Captain Truxtun thought he would have been better off in bed, but he attended in order to "prevent anything like an appearance of disrespect to the Chief Magistrate."​4 A dozen gentlemen, at least, were present. The President, plainly dressed, acted the host. Soft-spoken, mild in manner, a rambling but often brilliant conversationalist: this was the man who presided at the table that was the social focus of the unfinished and desolate city of Washington.5

Compounding the discomfort of his cold was Captain Truxtun's icy reception in the President's house. Throughout the whole afternoon, the subject of the squadron that he was on his way to command was never broached, nor were the deteriorating relations with the Barbary powers. In fact, during the course of the conversation, President Jefferson astonished him by asking him whether he was traveling northward or southward.

Certainly, as Captain Truxtun pointed out, the dispatch of a squadron to the Mediterranean station was not a matter too trifling  p223 for the President's attention. Probably, as he also observed, his appointment to the command of the squadron "was by No Means Congenial to the President's feelings." Nevertheless, he gulped a bit, got his pride down out of his craw, and pressed on to Norfolk.6

His flagship, the Chesapeake, tied up at a wharf in the Norfolk Navy Yard, was a disheartening sight. There was but a single officer on board, and he had been unable to make much progress with necessary repairs.

With characteristic vigor, Captain Truxtun fell to this latest task. Within three weeks, he had completed the repairs and had on board provisions enough for a cruise; still, he lacked officers and men to take his ship to sea.7

By the third of March, 1802, he had only two lieutenants out of four promised him, and a letter from Secretary Smith led him to believe that he would receive no more, because Smith suggested that he promote a deserving midshipman to the post of third lieutenant. The letter also informed him that Captain Campbell, his flag-captain-to‑be, would not be able to join him because of a recent injury.​8 No mention was made of a possible replacement.

Two lieutenants, both of them young and inexperienced, and no flag captain: that was more than he could endure. He could see ahead the bitter prospect of having to train, from the very beginning, the crew of the Chesapeake as he had trained the Constellation's crew four years before; and while this was going on, he would also have the duties of commodore to perform. Under the circumstances, he thought that the two jobs — captain and commodore — were too complex to be handled by a single officer. "Not only too hard," he told his friend Charles Biddle, "but highly improper, and should neither be attempted by an individual or permitted by the Government." All in all, the situation was highly unpromising. He was tempted again to give up his command to anybody who would take it.9

Having worked himself into a high state of agitation, he decided to bring the matter to a head. He sat down and wrote a letter to Secretary Smith, asking once more for a flag captain.

"Having a reputation to lose, which I am very tenacious of," he wrote, "I should consider myself wanting in that duty which I owe to myself and to my family if I was to proceed without being placed  p224 in a situation similar to the Commander of the Squadron now in the Mediterranean and if this cannot be done I must beg leave to quit the service."​10

If Secretary Smith had been half the judge of men his predecessor Ben Stoddert was, this would have been but another incident in the story of a Mediterranean cruise. He would have recognized that Captain Truxtun had been battling successively the gout, a cold, and the frustrations that fairly surrounded him in Norfolk while he labored with his undermanned ship. He would have answered the Captain's letter by offering him a few words of helpful encouragement. His first move would have been propitiatory, because he would have realized that the Navy could not afford to lose a Truxtun. But judgment and tact were not among the Secretary's few positive attributes. Most of his letters were unnecessarily blunt; many of them bore the stamp of insolent authority. The one he wrote to Captain Truxtun was of the same variety. He left no loophole in case the Captain should change his mind. Regarding his wish to "quit the service," he told him flatly, "I cannot but consider your notification as absolute." He then sent off for Captain Richard Morris, in Boston, to hurry to Norfolk to assume the vacant command.11

As soon as Ben Stoddert caught wind of the affair, he went to call on Secretary Smith. The Secretary showed him the correspondence and declared that there was nothing that could be done about sending a flag captain to serve under Captain Truxtun. Stoddert, after visiting the Secretary, wrote to his friend in Norfolk: "You will not, I presume be considered out of the Navy, indeed Smith said you would not, unless you resign."

"I think you had better not resign."12

Ben Stoddert's letter reached Captain Truxtun too late. Already he was telling the world — individual by individual inhabitant thus far — that he had resigned and why he had done it. He wrote a long letter to his alter ego, Charles Biddle, detailing for his judgment the reasons and motives for "having quit the Navy."​13 He told Vice-President Aaron Burr, who was always pleased to hear evil of the President, that the master of the "palace . . . never intended that I should proceed on the command in question, if it could be decently avoided."

"It was," he wrote, "with pain & reluctance I quit the Navy but it was unavoidable, as you will see. . . ."14

 p225  These were but the first of hundreds of letters that came from under his hurrying quill. As time went by, the writer became more incensed, the script grew larger, the strokes bolder, the commas and dashes more splattered as he stabbed indignantly at the white pages. Eventually, he came to rue his decision and to wish that he might return to the Navy. But it was too late. Do what he might, he could never unwrite that letter of the third of March, 1802, in which he had said "I must beg leave to quit the service."

The Author's Notes:

1 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, March 31, 1802, gives date erroneously as c. February 25, 1802; NYHS: Truxtun to Biddle, February 4, 1802, tells of receiving medal from the President the day before.

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2 Barbary Wars, I, 460, 488, 498.

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3 Thomas Truxtun, Reply of Commodore Thomas Truxtun to an Attack Made on Him in the National Intelligencer, in June 1806 (Philadelphia, 1806); Quasi‑War, VII, 265; Barbary Wars, IIpassim (see index: Constitution); PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, March 6, 1802.

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4 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, March 31, 1802.

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5 Henry Adams, The Formative Years, Herbert Agar, ed. (Boston, 1947), pp101‑102; Margaret Bayard Smith, First Forty Years of Washington Society, Gaillard Hunt, ed. (New York, 1906), p6.

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6 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, March 31, 1802.

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7 NYPL: U. S. Navy Collection, Truxtun to Richard Dale, June 8, 1802.

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8 Barbary Wars, II, 26; National Intelligencer, Washington, D. C., June 16, 1806.

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9 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, March 6, 31, 1802.

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10 Barbary Wars, II, 76.

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11 Ibid., II, 82‑83.

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12 Truxtun Hare Collection: Benjamin Stoddert to Truxtun, March 29, 1802.

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13 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, March 31, 1802.

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14 Barbary Wars, II, 94.

Thayer's Note:

a p127.

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