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Chapter 42

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 44
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p238  Chapter 43

Out for Sure

The beginning of the second term of the Jefferson Administration, in 1805, was the occasion for only one change in the President's cabinet, and that change was of no concern to Commodore Truxtun. Robert Smith, "that Dark designing Gentleman," was still Secretary of the Navy.1

Through Alexander James Dallas, presently a United States District Attorney, Charles Biddle was able to reopen the question of the 1802 resignation, and at the same time to raise the hopes of the displaced Commodore that he might soon be back in an important command. Biddle had known Dallas since the French craze of 1793, when both of them were active in the Democratic Society; Dallas was intimate with Robert Smith. Biddle wrote to Dallas, saying that he was "very certain the Commodore had no intention whatever of resigning his commission when he resigned the command of the Mediterranean squadron, and that I understood the Secretary, after the appointment of Morris, said he hoped Commodore Truxtun would not resign." Dallas sent this letter on to Secretary Smith.2

Within the last year or so Ben Stoddert, the former Secretary, had passed along an encouraging bit of news. Secretary Smith had made the declaration that, with the exception of old Sam Nicholson, Commodore Truxtun was at the head of the Navy.​3 Commodore Barry was dead. Silas Talbot had resigned, as had Richard Dale. Captain Sam, "glittering with his broad golden brassards,"​4 had been merely serving his time ashore, ever since Ben Stoddert took him out of the Constitution back in 1799, and there was no likelihood that he would ever be sent to sea again. Nevertheless, Secretary Smith made no move at that time to call Commodore Truxtun back to active duty.

It was after Charles Biddle's circumspect prodding that the Secretary opened a private correspondence with the Commodore. In the  p239 summer of 1805, they exchanged several letters, and as Secretary Smith turned each reassuring phrase, he led Commodore Truxtun further down the path toward shattered illusions. Aaron Burr warned his friend, when he heard of the letter writing, that no good could come of it; nevertheless, by the end of summer, the Commodore was expecting that he would be called to service any day. Secretary Smith told him as much, promising action "as soon as I shall have the opportunity of speaking with the President in person, and of knowing his sentiments."5

What the President had to say to his Secretary of the Navy is unknown; but the President was not the only one whose sentiments the Secretary sounded. In a round of letters that kept the mails from Maine to Virginia busy for several weeks, Mr. Secretary Smith held a consultation-by‑post. Writing to four senior naval captains who were in America, he asked for their interpretation of Commodore Truxtun's letter of the third of March, 1802, heretofore construed as his letter of resignation, and of Smith's reply of the thirteenth of March, in which he considered the notification as absolute. When these two letters were written, were their authors talking about a resignation from the Navy, or weren't they? He then instructed the four captains to exchange their sentiments with the others before sending their replies to him. Of all the letters thus written in round robin fashion, a fair sample found its way back to the Navy Office.6

Captain Edward Preble, writing from Portland, Maine, extolled the virtues of the gallant Commodore. His "professional talents," he said, have "ever commanded my highest consideration, and his retiring from service has been a subject of regret with me, as our Navy cannot well afford to lose so valuable an officer."​7 Captain Preble had long ago expressed his willingness to serve under Commodore Truxtun in the Mediterranean at any time;​8 but the question now was whether the letter of March third said what the Secretary wanted it to say. Captain Preble could not deny that the Commodore had begged "leave to quit the service" and that the secretary had agreed that he should do so. He was forced to conclude, he said, that the two men, when they wrote the letters, considered "leave to quit the service" as another name for absolute resignation.

Captain William Bainbridge, in Perth Amboy, had no room in his letter to praise the officer in question, but he readily agreed with Captain Preble that Commodore Truxtun was indeed out of the service.  p240 Captain Samuel Barron, ill at his home in Hampton, Virginia, and barely able to see the paper on which he wrote, answered "aye" to Secretary Smith's request for an answer of "aye." His brother, Captain James Barron, made the opinion unanimous.9

After the replies from the four captains were received, Captain Alexander Murray was asked by Secretary Smith to give his opinion of the much-discussed letters. This was the man who commanded the Constellation in 1800, when Commodore Truxtun had sent her off to the West Indies without reference to the Navy Office. Captain Murray was shown copies of some of the letters the Secretary had already received, and he was then instructed, as the others had been, to consult with his brother officers before returning his opinion. Captain Murray thought it over for only a few minutes; his reply was almost immediately on its way to the Navy Office. He told the Secretary that he could see no reason to correspond or even to confer with anyone else in "an affair so clear" to his mind. He felt sure that the letter written by Commodore Truxtun was not a resignation, and he hoped it would not be considered as such.​10 Captain Murray's loyalty to his former commander, rather than honest conviction, probably could be thanked for this lone dissenting opinion.

When Secretary Smith wrote again to Commodore Truxtun, on February 10, 1806, it was for the last time. "According to the opinion, nearly unanimous," he wrote, "of professional men consulted thereon, . . . you cannot now be reinstated consistently with the Privileges of the Captains and other Officers of the Navy of the United States." You are, his letter said in a word, out.11

After a performance like this, a performance calculated to keep alive old resentments and animosities and to stir up new ones, a performance in which Mr. Smith demonstrated the extreme paucity of his administrative talents, it was with ample reason that the gallant old Commodore exclaimed,

"O, Heavens what a man."12

The Secretary's letter, written almost four years after the question first arose, finally laid to rest any ideas Commodore Truxtun had that he could ever return to the Navy. This was the definitive answer that he had sought, whether he realized it or not, during all that time.

This "consultation business," he said, "clears up the whole affair and puts the saddle on the right horse." No longer did he blame the  p241 machinations of a vague "Administration" for all of his various troubles. "Robert Smith, (the apology for a Secretary of the Navy)" was the author of all the wicked designs, of all the persecution that had so plagued and harassed him.

He wished that Smith would come out and fight like a man. If only Commodore Truxtun could seize upon a word or a phrase that would give him an excuse for a challenge, then on the field of honor he might teach the little man a thing or two. But no, "he shelters himself," the Commodore said, "behind the embrasures of his office where he will lie skulking until [Smith was being talked of as a possible Supreme Court justice] "he is pop'd into another skulking place still more secure."13

The embrasures of his office were not the only battlements he sought. The Washington National Intelligencer, Administration newspaper, printed column after column in defense of the Navy Department's stand in order "to correct the errors and misrepresentations of certain printed sheets, that have been privately circulated by Commodore Truxtun." Letters from the Navy Office files were quoted at length, and the whole production bore the heavy-handed imprint of Secretary Smith's strange anxiety to appear as merely a victim of circumstances entirely beyond his control.14

Dragging the delicious controversy out beyond all conscionable limits, Commodore Truxtun took up his quill and answered the Intelligencer's arguments one by one. The resulting explanation and vindication of his position was published "to the World" in another pamphlet that added little except bulk to the tedious literature of the subject.15

As the months wore on, his correspondence continued apace, growing so monotonous and repetitious that he was at length forced to move back a step or two to survey the cluttered field.

"I am tired of the subject," he said. "An octavo volume would not record the whole history of this business, and all I have heard and know of it." His letters, already written, would fill many octavo volumes; but, fortunately for the reputation he still had left, he did not carry through his earlier plan to publish a book exposing to public view the infamous behavior of Secretary Smith and his "mismanagement" of the Navy Department.16

"Had I died the death of Nelson in my last battle," he mused as the news of Admiral Lord Nelson's great victory off Cape Trafalgar  p242 reached Philadelphia, "I should Now have been out of the way and it would have been for the better, . . ."

"But that did not please god," he continued, "and I must Spin out the remainder of life as well as I can."17

The Author's Notes:

1 Huntington Library, San Marino; HM 25447, Truxtun to Benjamin Stoddert, April 14, 1806.

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2 Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia, 1883), p311.

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3 NYHS: Truxtun to Aaron Burr, March 19, 1804.

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4 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Pickering to Truxtun, November 25, 1803.

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5 Thomas Truxtun, Reply of Commodore Thomas Truxtun to an Attack Made on Him in the National Intelligencer, in June 1806 (Philadelphia, 1806), pp23 ff.; Huntington Library: HM 25447, Truxtun to Stoddert, April 14, 1806.

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6 NDA: Captains Letters (1805), III. Between November 1 and December 7, 1805 there were at least eight letters on the subject.

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7 Ibid., Preble to Secretary of the Navy Smith, November 3, 1805.

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8 LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 143, enclosure (n. d.) following Truxtun to Jefferson, September 25, 1804.

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9 NDA: Captains Letters (1805); see note 6 above.

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10 Huntington Library: HM 25447, Truxtun to Stoddert, April 14, 1806.

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11 NDA: Letters to Officers of Ships of War, VII, 83, Secretary of the Navy to Truxtun, February 10, 1806.

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12 Huntington Library: HM 25447, Truxtun to Stoddert, April 14, 1806.

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13 Ibid.; Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p406.

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14 National Intelligencer, Washington, D. C., June 16, 18, 20, and 23, 1806.

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15 Truxtun, Reply, cited note 5, above.

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16 MassHS: Pickering Papers, [copy] Truxtun to Robert Smith, May 1, 1806; Massachusetts Hist. Soc. Proc., 2nd ser., XX (May, 1906), 292.

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17 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, December 24, 1805.

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