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Chapter 43

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 45
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p242  Chapter 44

Burr's "Treason"

Throughout the years, ever since he had quit the service, and while he was becoming increasingly embittered by his treatment at the hands of the Jefferson Administration, Commodore Truxtun had been encouraged by the smooth and charming Colonel Burr to maintain the self-righteous position he took. If the Commodore should occasionally temper his hatred of the Administration with a suggestion of reasonableness, the Colonel was quick to revive his suspicions and resentments in order to re‑establish the status quo. For all of Colonel Burr's overtures there was, of course, a reason. Filled as his busy mind was with schemes, plots, and intrigue, there was always the possibility that an able naval commander, unalterably hostile to the men in Washington, might at some time or in some place be useful to him.

He had often mentioned, in the course of conversations with Commodore Truxtun, his schemes for settlement of the far southwest, embracing at times the southern part of the new Louisiana Territory, at times Texas, and at other times all of Mexico; but the Commodore had listened with only half an ear because he thought Colonel Burr was merely talking. The only thing he regarded seriously was the possibility of speculation in western lands if they could be bought cheaply enough.

One day in the summer of 1806, after the Colonel had asked for his opinion as to the best method for reducing and capturing several widely separated Spanish ports in the Caribbean Sea, Commodore Truxtun began to wonder whether he was witnessing the formulation  p243 of some grandiose plan of conquest like that of Miranda, the adventurer who dreamed of ruling all the vast domain of Spanish America. Perhaps also, as the newspapers were beginning to intimate, the Burr plan involved the separation of a slice of western United States territory and its eventual annexation to whatever kingdom the Colonel might cut out for himself. Not that there was anything particularly wrong, at the time, about the whole affair. Commodore Truxtun's good friend Senator Pickering and a band of New England Federalists were campaigning earnestly for the secession of New England from the rest of the states.​1 The concept of an inviolable Union was something that came later, long after the men who fought in the Revolution were in their dotage.

The answer to the question of Colonel Burr's objectives was not long in coming. He sent a message to the Commodore that he would come and take a glass of wine with him one afternoon, provided no other gentlemen were present at his table.

Commodore Truxtun dined with his family, but after the meal was cleared away he sat alone with Colonel Burr. When the wine was poured and cigars were lighted, the Colonel brought forth his plans.​2 He had expected for some time to head an expedition into the western territory, west and north of New Orleans. In case of war with Spain — and such a war seemed probable if not quite inevitable — he intended to invade Mexico with his personal army and to drive the Spaniards out of that part of the world. He would set up a new government over all the conquered territory, and if his plans worked out as he hoped they would, his new kingdom would include a big chunk of the lately acquired Louisiana Territory.3

"He said," Commodore Truxtun later recalled, "he wanted to see me perfectly unwedded from this Navy and to determine not to think more of those men at Washington."4

His plan to "liberate" Mexico required the assistance of a naval force under able leader­ship. The Colonel himself could lead troops on land, with General Wilkinson, United States Army, as his second. If the Commodore would take command of the naval end of the expedition, Burr was sure that it could not possibly fail. When the objective — the conquest of Mexico — was achieved, then Commodore Truxtun could at last become an admiral. Under Emperor Burr's new government, he would be given chief command of "a formidable Navy."

 p244  The Commodore asked the Colonel whether the President of the United States knew about this scheme.

No! Decidedly not!

In that case, said Commodore Truxtun, he could not think of playing any part in such an expedition. Sanctimonious as his declarations sounded, they were nevertheless sincere and true. His honor as an officer and his unwavering devotion to his country, no matter how the present Administration might treat him, forbade any further discussion of the matter. He could not fathom how General Wilkinson, or anyone holding a commission in the service of the United States, could ever dream of becoming involved in such a plan. "I consider with pain," he told a friend, "the sacred honor of a soldier . . . prosterated for Villainous purposes."5

As the months slipped by, reports from the western country gave substance to Colonel Burr's words, and Commodore Truxtun watched "the speck that appeared in the summer to the westward, growing into a heavy and threatening cloud, which darkened the whole horizon in that quarter."​6 The public prints kept conjecture and suspicion on tip‑toe, and the Commodore was ever sensitive to the mood and meaning of their often capricious columns.

Meeting his good friend Charles Biddle one morning, he complained that he had not closed his eyes all night.

"What ailed you?" Biddle asked.

"Did you not see in the Aurora of yesterday," Truxtun replied, "the mention that 'a distinguished American commander was concerned with Burr'?"

"Yes," Biddle said, "I saw that in the Aurora, but why should that give any uneasiness?"

"Why," Truxtun said, "because the person alluded to must be me."

"And are you concerned with Colonel Burr?"

"You know I am not."

"Then why uneasy," Biddle said, "at anything said in the papers about this 'distinguished commander'?"

"Let me ask you, my friend," Truxtun said, "if you would not be hurt at such a publication?"

"Not in the least," Biddle replied. "I should not have the vanity to suppose it was intended for me."

Charles Biddle ended his recollection of this conversation with  p245 the waggish reflection that "He was highly offended at some part of what was said, and for a month did not speak to me."7

But Commodore Truxtun was unable to let the piece in the Aurora pass. He called on the printer Duane and demanded of him an explanation.​8 William Duane, who maintained a line direct to the President's ear in Washington, assured the Commodore that he was not the "distinguished commander" alluded to. Before his caller departed, Duane had gotten from him a complete and detailed recital of all he knew and surmised about the Burr-Wilkinson cabal; and President Jefferson soon had a full report of the interview from Duane.9

Commodore Truxtun had said nothing that he wanted to keep from the President's notice. Quite the contrary. When the stories that came back from the western country began to hint at conspiracy and proceedings that threatened the safety of government there, the Commodore carefully recollected all that had passed between him and Colonel Burr, and he sent off direct to the President a full statement of his knowledge of the affair. Moreover, he worked out a plan to employ a small naval force at the mouth of the Mississippi in order to frustrate Colonel Burr's plan to use New Orleans as his base of operations. This naval expedition, he pointed out to President Jefferson, would have control over any commerce carried on with New Orleans and would prevent the arrival of foreign aid; in short, it would be much more effective than an army.10

Then came the famous cipher letter.

Colonel Burr's grand schemes went completely awry when his fellow conspirator, General Wilkinson, saw in the situation a chance for personal glory to be gained at the Colonel's expense. Burr's fond hopes of conquest and empire evaporated when General Wilkinson, who far outshone him as a master of intrigue and double-dealing, publicly accused him of treason and published a letter he had received from Burr concerning the expedition to Mexico.

The letter, originally in cipher — they had been using code for their personal correspondence for several years — stated flatly, according to Wilkinson's version of it, "Naval protection of England is secured. Truxtun is going to Jamaica to arrange with the admiral on that station. It will meet us at the Mississippi."11

Colonel Burr resolutely denied that he had made any such statement  p246 in the cipher letter; and of course Commodore Truxtun had no remote idea of going to Jamaica.

Whether Colonel Burr made the assertion or whether the words were written in General Wilkinson's fine hand can never definitely be known. Nor does it really matter. According to this letter, Commodore Truxtun was clearly implicated in the conspiracy.

Commodore Truxtun met Colonel Burr and General Wilkinson in the spring of 1807, but not "at the Mississippi," nor indeed anywhere in the western country. He met his former friends in Richmond, where Colonel Burr was on trial before a United States Court. The charge was treason.

He made the long journey down to Richmond in order to clear his name of the slightest suggestion of his being involved in the Burr-Wilkinson intrigues. Against his enemies, whoever they might be, he had long since hoisted "the flag of defiance at the main," but he was, as usual, dreadfully afraid that his friends and the public at large might misunderstand, might be gulled by some statement made during the trial, if he were not present immediately to set the record straight.12

The imagined urgency of his mission added zest to his overland passage, and certain it is that no other traveler on the road considered his own journey quite as vital as did Commodore Truxtun. He stopped over in Washington only long enough to pay a gentlemanly call on the President and to pick up his old friend Ben Stoddert, who also was bound for the promised excitement in Richmond.13

These friends, who rode down from Washington together, were but two members of a vast and brilliant assemblage that converged on Richmond for the celebrated trial. John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was sitting as trial judge. The Randolphs were there, Edmund acting as chief counsel for the defense, John of Roanoke as foreman of the grand jury. General Andrew Jackson came to Richmond for much the same reason as Commodore Truxtun. He would defend at all costs his fair name and reputation. Colonel Burr's charming daughter Theodosia and her husband had come up from South Carolina, in order to be with the defendant. Printer Duane, of the Philadelphia Aurora, and the young author, Washington Irving, were on hand to report and interpret the proceedings to those unable to attend.14

 p247  While he was yet nearly fifty miles from his destination, Commodore Truxtun found awaiting him a warm invitation from Major James Gibbon to spend his stay in Richmond under his roof. Major Gibbon, a gallant old soldier of the Revolution, would not hear of his friend's going to a common tavern or lodging-house.​15 In a letter to Charles Biddle a few days later, the Commodore remarked on the hospitality of his host and "charming family."

"Richmond I am delighted with," he wrote, "and from the Governour down, throughout the Society of 'Worthies,' of all politicks, I have been at home and had welcome shown me in every house, Most Conspicuously — I Dine every day at ½ past 4, rise at 8 from dinner and be at an evening party at ½ past 8, and in bed at 12 — up at 6 — go to Court at 10, adjourn at 3."​16 It was almost enough to make him forget why he had come. But not quite.

One morning, he sent to the grand jury an unsolicited note in which he disclaimed any knowledge of the Jamaica expedition in which his name had been tied. Before the day was over, he was summoned before that body "in the most polite and respect­ful manner" and assured by the foreman that not a single member of the jury ever believed a word of the tale. On that score the Commodore could rest easy.17

Before the trial was fairly under way, it became clear that the evidence against Colonel Burr was exceedingly flimsy. He consistently denied ever having had any thought of treason; uniformly he stated that he had never mentioned Commodore Truxtun's name in connection with his schemes. General Wilkinson's obvious lies and distortions made the careful observer wonder how he avoided indictment for crimes and misdemeanors far more serious than Colonel Burr's.

But the public already had condemned Burr. President Jefferson had publicly declared his guilt, and General Wilkinson was the State's star witness.​18 The Administration was leaving no stone unturned in its anxiety to win a conviction. It would be difficult for one to avoid lamenting the sad plight of the persecuted Colonel Burr. Commodore Truxtun saw the defendant in court, and because he "felt compassion for his degraded Situation and recollecting his former standing in Society," he called on him at his lodgings.19

He saw General Wilkinson, too. In the midst of a "large & respectable party of Gentlemen," the fat, importantly strutting General  p248 recognized him and advanced with outstretched arms of friendship. From the Commodore he got no sign of recognition, no word of greeting. He was snubbed into a completely disordered retreat.20

Meanwhile, Charles Biddle was receiving letters from all three — Burr, Truxtun, and Wilkinson — while they were in Richmond.

"Truxtun abused Wilkinson as having acted the part of a base hypocrite," he said later; "and Wilkinson wrote of him in such a manner that they would have fought had they seen each other's letters."21

Perhaps they would have, but the Code concerned itself only with the conduct of gentlemen in affairs of honor; and if even half the adjectives Commodore Truxtun used to describe General Wilkinson were accurate — actually, nearly all of them were — then the General was so far beneath the rank of gentleman that no self-respecting follower of the Code would accept his challenge. He could be considered only fit for the "cow skin," a whip wielded by the strong hand of a "Negro hired for the purpose."22

Commodore Truxtun testified at the trial as a State's witness, but he gave no comfort to the Administration. His testimony was calm and deliberate. He told the whole truth as he saw it. He made it clear that he had suspected Colonel Burr's designs from the beginning, but he could not by any stretch of language consider anything that Burr had told him as treasonable. His demeanor could not help but impress the jury; for a fleeting moment, just before he stepped down from the stand, the court heard an echo of the zeal that had helped to make him a great ship commander. Colonel Burr, conducting his own cross-examination, ended his questions with, "Would you not have joined in the expedition if sanctioned by the government?"

"I would," he answered, "most readily get out of my bed at twelve o'clock at night, to go in defence of my country, at her call, against England, France, Spain, or any other country."23

Eventually, Colonel Burr was acquitted. General Wilkinson, who should have been on trial in the first place, found himself caught up in his own tangle of lies and accusations, and he emerged from Richmond with a badly tarnished reputation. For Commodore Truxtun, although he did not recognize it as such, the trial had provided occupation for a harassed mind and an excuse for a most enjoyable outing.

 p249  The trial held the center of the national stage for many months, and it would have provided grist enough to keep the Commodore's mills turning for years; but the Chesapeake and Leopard affair, coming as it did in the middle of the trial, put a new face on the whole proceedings. Here was Mr. Jefferson's government bending all its efforts toward punishing a citizen who was a political enemy, while off the nearby Virginia capes the national honor was being compromised as a result of the deplorable state of the Navy. Commodore Truxtun knew by heart the whole catalog of events, deeds, and misdeeds that had brought the Navy to its present state. That it was yet to suffer further loss of stature was already manifest, and in this he was destined to play — for the last time — a characteristically vigorous role.

The Author's Notes:

1 Henry Adams, The Formative Years, Herbert Agar, ed. (Boston, 1947), pp203‑15.

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2 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, January 13, 1807; Huntington Library: Deposition by Thomas Truxtun, March 27, 1807.

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3 S. H. Wandell and Meade Minnigerode, Aaron Burr (New York, 1927), II, 37‑40.

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4 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, January 13, 1807.

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5 Ibid., February 12, 1807.

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6 Huntington Library: HM 25449, Truxtun to Caesar Rodney, April 30, 1807.

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7 Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia, 1883), p317.

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8 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, January 13, 1807.

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9 Massachusetts Hist. Soc. Proc., 2nd ser., XX (May, 1906), 292, Duane to Jefferson, December 8, 1806.

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10 LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 169, August 10, 1806, copy of Truxtun's "Minutes"; vol. 164, Truxtun to Jefferson, January 23, 1807.

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11 Wandell and Minnigerode, op. cit., II, 79.

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12 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p413.

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13 LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 169, Truxtun to Jefferson, July 23, 1807.

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14 Walter F. McCaleb, Aaron Burr Conspiracy (New York, 1936), pp265‑68.

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15 Eulogies in Richmond Courier, July 2, 1835, and Richmond Enquirer, July 3, 1835.

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16 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, May 30, 1807.

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17 LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 168, Truxtun to John Randolph, Foreman, and Grand Jury, June 23, 1807; MassHS: Pickering Papers, P. S. to Pickering on MS. copy of above letter.

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18 McCaleb, op. cit., p269.

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19 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, July 11, 1807.

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20 Ibid.; LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 169, Truxtun to Jefferson, July 23, 1807.

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21 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p316.

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22 Truxtun mentioned the cow‑skin in connection with another former gentleman who had fallen from grace — PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, May 26, 1809.

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23 Albert J. Beveridge, Life of John Marshall (Boston, 1916‑19), III, 451; David Robertson, Reports of the Trials of Aaron Burr (Philadelphia, 1808), I, 485‑91.

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