Short URL for this page:
The man who arrived home in Perth Amboy, late in April, 1802, had suddenly grown old. Feeling "extremely Ill indeed," he climbed into bed at once; he roused himself only enough to explain in a letter to his friend Captain Dale, that "My indisposition has been brought on from various causes, too perplexing to await the human mind at any one time."1 He was not full of years; he was only forty-seven; but he was out of the service that he had thought he would follow for the rest of his life. Already, he had done important work, but now it appeared that he had forever closed the door on the opportunity to do more.
He found little to do at Amboy besides write letters. "I want to employ Money," he told Captain Dale, "but am either afraid or have forgot how."2 The management of his financial affairs he left in p227 Charles Biddle's capable hands. Finding himself with more time than he could make use of, he brooded. As he brooded, his thoughts went round and round in an ever tightening circle. Always at the center of the circle was the Navy Department, and always at the center of the Navy Department was the man whose policy was constant as a weather vane, Secretary Robert Smith. As he turned his troubles over and over in his mind, he became more firmly convinced that he was, in one way or another, the object of a calculated course of persecution being followed in the new Administration. As long as Secretary Smith interspersed his yesses and noes with maybes, Commodore Truxtun was never quite sure whether the Secretary was the author of all cruelty, or whether it stemmed from his elder brother General Sam, or perhaps even from President Jefferson himself. He made much of the warning he had received "from high authority" — a Federalist Congressman3 — that he would be cunningly removed from his post. "They will not dismiss you," he had been told, "because you are too popular, but they will work you out of the Navy, by contrivance."4
Cunningly? By contrivance? What signifies a word — had he not resigned? Here the Commodore shifted his ground. The more he thought about it, the more positive he became that he had merely begged leave to quit the Mediterranean service, and that it was a deliberate misconstruction of his letter that enabled his tormentors to work him out of the Navy.
He believed that time would do him justice and "convince the world," as he was convinced, that "it was a national misfortune" that he did not go to the Mediterranean.5 Judging by the news that came back from the Barbary coast, there was more than a little truth in his bombastic assertion. With the exception of Lieutenant Sterett's exploit, all the news was bad. Commodore Dale's squadron had accomplished little. Commodore Richard Morris, whose squadron relieved Dale's after Commodore Truxtun quit, found the job too much for his abilities. Upon his return home, his conduct was censured by a Court of Inquiry; and Secretary Smith, with the President's permission, revoked his commission.6 Captain Murray, who was left in charge in the interim between Dale's departure and Morris's arrival, was not active enough to suit the soldier-adventurer William Eaton, American consul in Tunis. "Government may as well send out quaker meeting-houses to float about this sea," he informed p228 the Secretary of State, "as frigates with Murrays in command."
"Have we but one Truxtun, "he asked, "and one Sterett in the United States?"7
The master of "Pleasant View," following the progress of the Navy off the Barbary coast, observed that "We have lost many opportunities of establishing a National Character on the ocean." It appeared to him that the operations thus far had done naught but give the officers an airing.8
It may indeed have been a national misfortune that he did not take the squadron out to the Mediterranean. Certainly, he would have pursued an active and decided course of action in dealing with the pirate kings. He expected to concentrate his force in an attack on the city of Tripoli, whose Bashaw had declared war on the United States. If he could pound the city to submission, or at least alarm the Bashaw, then he might expect to make an honorable peace with that country. A peace won by force alone, without tribute and without expensive presents to please the arrogant ruler and his court, would make it easier to deal with the other despots of Barbary.
The Secretary of the Navy managed to avoid showing any great concern over the "national misfortune" he was responsible for. He sent ships and men, singly and in squadrons, across the Atlantic and beyond Gibraltar, and he never once considered Commodore Truxtun in any of his plans. His acts, if not his words, left no doubt as to the Commodore's status as far as the Administration was concerned. He was out of the Navy, as completely removed as though he had been stripped of his uniform and commission.
Nevertheless, after he had been home for a year, and when yet another squadron was being talked about, he swallowed his pride for a moment. He had no need for the money he might earn, but he was tired of idleness. Bracing himself, he wrote to Secretary Smith and again offered his services. The Secretary need only command, and he would be ready on a moment's notice to sail in pursuit of all perfidious pirates.
The Secretary did not deign to answer his letter.
Swallowing a little harder, he tried diplomatically to enlist the aid of Secretary Smith's brother, General Sam, in securing his reinstatement in the Navy. "I never had a desire," he told the General, "to shelter myself behind an Embrasure in time of such danger — or p229 when the public weal required real exertions — nor do I now feel a disposition to be an Idle spectator of scenes to be performed."
"I offered my services to Mr. Secy. Smith last summer," he concluded wistfully, "but I suppose they were not considered necessary."9
As the memory of the third of March, 1802, grew to spectral proportions in the mind of the distraught Commodore, the details became blurred. As he dwelt upon his mind's picture of the day when his quill raced over the paper, scrawling out the fateful phrase, "I must beg leave to quit the service," even the colors of the picture began to change. He had ended that letter with a characteristic "I am very busy this morning and write you in great haste."10 At length, so distorted had the image become, he came to believe that the letter had been written when he was not in full possession of his faculties. Finally, he told all who would listen that the letter was "written in extreme illness, on a day I was twice bled, and when confined in my bed, as is well known in Norfolk."11
To anyone who would commiserate with him, he related his version of the whole affair in full and ofttimes wearisome detail. His correspondents included Federalists of the first rank. Former President Adams, former Chief Justice John Jay, and unreconstructed Senators Timothy Pickering and Gouverneur Morris were among the dozens of Jefferson-hating gentlemen who agreed with him that he had been badly used by the new Administration. His correspondence with Senator Pickering was born of their common distrust of anything that President Jefferson's myrmidons might do. "The tyranny exhibited to the friends of former administrations" was for them the rallying call.12 Both of them were archenemies to those who did not espouse true Federalist principles. And what were true Federalist principles? Let Ben Stoddert, another of Commodore Truxtun's friends and communicants, give the definition. "To be a good Federalist," he said, "a man must be fond of power, only that he may use it, for the benefit of deserving men. The greatest objection I have to the present administration arises from their inability to distinguish who deserves, & who does not, those little offices the Public have to give."13 The Commodore became quite intimate with the suave and always sympathetic Aaron Burr, Vice-President of the United States; and to Charles Biddle he confided his deepest hurts and bitterest disappointments.
p230 Dogmatic as his correspondents were, it is little wonder that the Commodore became less and less balanced in his treatment of the all‑consuming sore that festered in his mind. The wonder is that his mind did not become quite unhinged.
Even the President was not spared from the flood of complaining words that issued from the big house at Perth Amboy. After explaining and re‑explaining his position to others for nearly two years, the Commodore had all the details in a fixed order when finally he sat down in 1804 to write directly to Mr. Jefferson. He first enumerated all of the wrongs and slights he had suffered since the beginning of the new Administration. Then he went on to say that if justice were not soon done to him, he would be forced to advertise his case to the public. To give substance to his threat, he enclosed a few copies of a printed letter addressed to his "Fellow Citizens of the United States." Would Mr. President like to reconsider his case before he started to distribute these printed letters?14
Apparently not. The President merely filed the Commodore's letter away. He made no reply because he knew that any letter he wrote might very shortly appear in the public prints; and even if it did not, he realized that he could not expect to assuage the Commodore's bitterness. To acknowledge this letter would be to invite more. He had no desire to fan the fires of resentment that burned on the shores of Raritan Bay; therefore he made no reply.
At about this same time, Commodore Truxtun was reminding the Vice-President of the pitiful showing the Navy had made in the Mediterranean. "Since the present administration," he wrote, as though Burr were not a part of it, "every thing they have done in Marine affairs seems to have been studied for the worst — and we have been the laughing stock of foreigners."
"I again repeat," he repeated, "the Navy is all aback."15
Throughout the years of controversy, he was sustained by the letters that his friends wrote to him and by a firm conviction of his rectitude. "I have the Nations approbation which will remain on record when Jefferson and his sect are sunk into obscurity — yes my friend when they are no More, and Not a bone or vestige of them is to be found under the surface of the earth."16
p231 Old John Adams sent him a warm letter on another occasion that harked back to more glorious days. The golden medal, voted to Captain Truxtun shortly after his action with La Vengeance, had been delivered to him just before he left the service in 1802, more than two years after the event. He had an additional hundred copies of the medal struck at the Mint; Adams was one of those to whom he sent a copy. This was the occasion for the former President's letter.
"I accept [the medal] with great pleasure," Adams wrote, "not only from a personal regard to the giver, but I esteem every laurel conferred upon you for the glorious action of the first of February, 1800, as an honour done to our beloved country. . . ."
"I regret that the artist had not completed the Medal in season, that I might have had the satisfaction of presenting it [the presentation was made by President Jefferson on the day of the fateful dinner party in February, 1802] to an officer who had so greatly deserved it; and I lament still more that I had not the power of promoting merit to its just rank in the navy, that of an admiral. . . ."
"All reasonable encouragement," he concluded in perfect tune with his reader, "should be given to a navy. The trident of Neptune is the sceptre of the world."17
Although his thoughts were seldom on domestic matters, life went on all around the ailing master of "Pleasant View."
Another baby girl had arrived in the spring of 1802. Only a few weeks later, the melancholy news of the loss at sea of young Tom, nineteen years old, while he was yet returning from his first voyage to the Mediterranean, was a blow that had greatly disturbed the equanimity of the household. In the spring of 1804, Mary was again pregnant. For the eleventh time, she awaited the arrival of another addition to her family.
"The promise of name," Commodore Truxtun wrote to Charles Biddle, "is not forgot should a boy arrive."18 But the baby was not named Charles. This latest — and last — arrival was another girl. In all, Mary Truxtun bore twelve children. Thomas and Elizabeth had arrived twins. Two girls had died, one in infancy and one at the age of twelve; the sea had claimed Tom. Still, there were eight girls, ranging all the way from Sarah, now married for eight years, to p232 Gertrude, the new baby; and there was one boy left — William, going on fourteen.
William, like his elder brother, was born to the sea. When he was 14, his father arranged a berth for him in a China trader under the command of Captain William Jones, who had been one of Captain Truxtun's officers in the St. James, more than twenty years before.19
"He is a healthy, active & I think every way smart boy," he told Charles Biddle. "I would sooner he would go with Jones," he continued, "than any other person — as good manners and a dignified deportment are essential in forming the Young Mind and such are not as frequent as I could wish on ship board generally."20
Daughter Elizabeth, whose first husband had run away, was married for the second time; and as though the fates had all contrived to remind her father of his woes at every turn, her second husband was Theodore Talbot, son of none other than Captain Silas Talbot, onetime senior officer of the triumvirate Talbot, Dale, and Truxtun.21
Even the inexorable march of years did little to mend the wounded feelings of Commodore Truxtun. Throughout all of his days, he had a skin that was excessively tender. He found insult and injury in the slightest indiscreet utterance of enemy or friend. Too often he thought, when two men talked together or when a coffee house crowd conversed, that he was the subject of conversation. He never quite understood the ephemeral quality of public acclaim. He never realized that the public memory was so very slight.
He had already been grievously hurt by the events that followed his impetuous withdrawal from the Navy. He had yet in store an almost unendurable measure of insult, injury, and humiliation. He would bear the scars of it to his lonely grave.
1 HSPa: Dreer Collection, Truxtun to Richard Dale, May 2, 1802.
3 Congressman Josiah Parker, sometime Chairman, Committee on Naval Affairs. See Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Aaron Burr, June 27, 1803.
4 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, May 31, 1814.
5 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering [April, 1806], fol. 308.
6 G. W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Boston, 1905), pp134‑37.
7 Barbary Wars, II, 229.
8 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Aaron Burr, June 27, 1803.
9 MassHS: Truxtun to Samuel Smith, March 31, 1804.
10 Barbary Wars, II, 76.
11 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, May 13, 1806.
12 Ibid., December 15, 1803.
13 The Collector (Mary A. Benjamin), LXI, no. 1, p16, Stoddert to Gideon Granger, April 8, 1806.
14 LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 142, Truxtun to Jefferson, August 20, 1804.
15 NYHS: Truxtun to Aaron Burr, March 19, 1804.
16 NYPL: U. S. Navy Collection, Truxtun to Richard Dale, June 8, 1802.
17 Quasi‑War, V, 174‑75; VI, 503, 513.
18 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, March 18, 1804.
19 Charles W. Goldsborough, United States' Naval Chronicle (Washington, D. C., 1824), I, 28.
20 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, November 27, 1804.
21 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Aaron Burr, June 27, 1803; MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, February 1, 1806.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 22 Aug 13