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Chapter 44

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 46
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p249  Chapter 45

Jefferson's Embargo

The Leopard was a British frigate that had recently lain in Hampton Roads. Several members of her crew had deserted and, according to her captain, had enlisted in the United States frigate Chesapeake, which was preparing to sail for the Mediterranean. Fitted out as a flagship, the Chesapeake was commanded by Master Commandant Charles Gordon and carried Captain James Barron as commodore of the Mediterranean squadron. The British captain, after vainly demanding the return of the deserters, watched the American vessel narrowly as she lay moored nearby. When at length the Chesapeake weighed for sea, the Leopard followed close astern. When the frigates were a few miles at sea, the British captain again demanded the deserters. He was met again by a refusal to deliver up the men, so he resorted to his guns to enforce his demands. The Leopard attacked the Chesapeake. The American ship was hopelessly unready for battle. Some of her guns were not securely mounted in their carriages; matches were not lighted, and only a few powder horns  p250 were filled; her marines had no musket cartridges that would fit their pieces. Moreover, the ship had not been cleared for action, and even when the attack was imminent, her men were not called to quarters. Before she was able to fire a single shot, her colors were struck and she was surrendered to her attacker. The captain of the Leopard took out of her the men he had been demanding, and contemptuously he returned her to her captain.1

If this was not an act of war — and Commodore Truxtun could see it as nothing else, while the Administration was anxious to say as little about it as possible — then this humiliating transaction was at least a warning that ought not to be ignored.​2 The treatment of the incident was consistent with the rest of naval policy, policy that more than once had sacrificed national honor on the altar of expediency, and which now seemed calculated to remove the United States from the place it had once earned as a naval power.

Commodore Truxtun, who had set an example of enterprise and audacity for the young Navy, saw better than most Americans that Mr. Jefferson's compromising policy was likely to lead to complete impotence on the ocean. He understood the fallacy in the argument that America could get along perfectly well without a Navy. Many of his naval lessons he had learned at sea; in addition, he had for more than a decade studied every work on naval and military strategy and tactics and military philosophy that he could contrive to add to his library. For Thomas Dobson, printer of the Encyclopedia, he had edited for publication some extracts from "the best authors" on naval tactics, and added a commentary on the genius of Admiral Lord Nelson's brilliant but unorthodox tactical concepts as demonstrated at Trafalgar. He examined the battle from every angle in order to encourage young American naval officers to become more proficient in the naval art.​3 "We have many good Seamen but very few tacticians among them," he wrote, "and this will be the case until a National marine academy is established. . . . But such an Institution is not likely to be created in our day, as we have no Naval Pride."4

Indeed, naval pride reached a dangerously low ebb during Mr. Jefferson's administration. The President finally arrived at the delusion that the way to keep out of trouble with foreign powers was to keep American vessels off the ocean. That idea, so popular with Antifederalists during the early years of the Navy, was revived during  p251 the public outcry that followed the Leopard's attack on the Chesapeake. Jefferson proposed the building of a gunboat Navy, composed of fleets of small vessels for the defense of coastal cities, bays, and rivers, but he did nothing to bolster the sagging strength and morale of the sea‑going Navy.

Commodore Truxtun agreed with his policy of building gunboats for harbor defense, but at the same time he did not want the Navy to consist of gunboats alone. He realized that the nation's maritime trade could not survive unless it had the protection of a fleet capable of sailing anywhere and of fighting at sea. The gunboats could only be effective in smooth waters, and without an ocean fleet it was vain to believe that commerce could venture into the open sea. As far as the deep sea Navy's relation to national honor was concerned, there was never any question in his mind. One could not survive without the other. As Mr. Jefferson pursued his unhappy course to its ultimate end, the Commodore could only conclude that both the Navy and national honor were irrevocably doomed.

In December, 1807, the end was reached. The Embargo Act was passed and — according to law — American foreign trade ceased. As might have been expected, the embargo was not complete. A few unscrupulous men always find a way to circumvent the law when the law threatens to diminish their influence or their income. Heavily freighted coastal vessels, carefully observing all of the prescribed forms for registry and clearance, could easily contrive to be blown off the coast during foul weather and, after seeking refuge in the West Indies, could as easily manage to dispose of their cargo at a handsome profit. By law, however, America was, by its own choice, isolated from the rest of the world.

Strange as it seems at first glance, Commodore Truxtun was not opposed to the Embargo Act — only to the emasculation of the Navy that accompanied it. In his opinion, the embargo could not last for long, and while it lasted it would hurt nobody but the French in the West Indies. The British, supreme upon the seas, would not be affected seriously by the removal of American bottoms from the carrying trade; but the French, already sorely distressed by the military extravagance of their emperor Napoleon, would be hard put to find a substitute for the supplies and vessels that Americans had furnished them with. Forever, in Commodore Truxtun's mind — in spite of the Leopard incident — France was the enemy across the sea.  p252 He thought he saw everywhere the signs of an approaching day when his beloved country would have acceded to every demand of the arrogant Napoleon and when the United States would be merely another of the growing company of satellites in the French Empire.5

During the first year of the embargo, his interest in national affairs was dulled by his disgust with the way they were being conducted. As relief, perhaps, he turned to the soil. The spring of that year, 1808, found him hard at work in the role of gentleman farmer. In exchange for one of his houses in Philadelphia, he acquired more land near Cranbury, New Jersey. His farm, which he called "Cranberry Place," grew, through small purchases from neighbors, to well over two hundred acres.​6 It was situated on the Brunswick Road beyond Trenton, a long day's drive from Philadelphia. "Cranberry Place" had extensive buildings, a large timber lot, an orchard of some five hundred apple trees, a fine flock of English sheep, quantities of poultry and other animals, and fields set out in Indian corn, oats, wheat, rye, flax, and vegetables.7

At times, he seemed almost happy again as he planned the spring planting, concerned himself with the breeding of his sheep, or totted up the loads of compost manure manufactured from "lime and rich earth from a swamp I have."8

After the embargo had been in effect for a year, and the Enforcing Act, which gave local customs officials dictatorial powers in refusing clearance to vessels and in confiscating cargoes, had been added to the original law, the results of this unhappy legislation were increasingly evident. Forests of empty spars, rising from fleets of rotting hulks, stood stark against the sky in every harbor town. Export goods were valueless. Foreign wares that found their way to American shores were becoming scarcer, and speculators were making exorbitant profits. Prices had gone up to a price‑and-a‑half within a season; within another few months it seemed certain that they would go to twice or thrice normal unless the embargo was lifted at once.9

The Enforcing Act, according to merchants and traders, was "a direct invasion of the established principles of civil liberty." To continue the embargo any longer, they added, was "unjust, oppressive, and impolitick."10

Commodore Truxtun agreed with them. In January, 1809, he found himself again embroiled in a public controversy.

 p253  On a clear, crisp Tuesday morning, the last day of January, a deputation of merchants and traders ("Friends of the Constitution, Union and Commerce," they called themselves), swelled to mob proportions by Federalists, by sympathizers with their cause, by unemployed seamen, and by the merely curious, appeared on Chestnut Street before the State House — the building in which both the Declaration and the Constitution were born.​11 Nearly two thousand strong, they surged up the steps, through the hallway, and out the other side into the State House yard. Following them was a crowd from the opposite political camp.

A stage had recently been erected in the yard by the Antifederalists — now called Democrats. They had used it the week before for a meeting during which they gave voice to their approval of the Enforcing Act.​12 The crowd that was now filling the yard had provided no other rostrum for the leaders of its meeting. It was well known, having been advertised in the press for several days, that the Democrats were determined to prevent the opposition from using their property.13

No Democrat had yet made a move to seize the stage when the merchants and traders began to shout for their leader to take the chair. Two unemployed seamen mounted the platform and planted an American flag at each end of it. A group of prominent men, members of the committee that had organized the affair, followed. Then the chairman, none other than "the gallant Truxtun," ascended and took his seat.

The portly, graying Commodore — he was nearly fifty-four years old this day — was in distinguished company. His friends Commodore Dale and Joshua Humphreys were alongside him. George Clymer, nearing seventy, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the secretary; and several old soldiers of the Revolution were there.

"Eleven o'Clock was the hour of meeting," the chairman recounted a day or two later; "it was now ¾ after ten — the people called aloud to proceed to business — the Democrats said they had erected the stage and demanded it — we had possession and was determined to maintain it. And I told the seamen along side of me to support the Colours at all events — that the flag of the U S had never been disgraced under my auspices. They swore support. . . ."14

Just as the meeting was being called to order, the Democrats, several  p254 hundred strong, accompanied by numerous well-served drums, pressed forward to make good their threats. "They came up furiously at first," he continued, "to dispossess us of the stage — but having the fort, we maintained it, and they were drove back by the citizens of our party and the hardy tars." Foiled in their attempt to halt the proceedings, they dropped back a little and continued to beat their drums and to shout and hiss all the whole the meeting lasted.

The resolutions to be approved by the assembly were read. The first — there was no hint of hypocrisy in it — was "That the committee will support the government, right or wrong." The others, urging repeal of the Embargo Act and the Enforcing Act, included the "earnest advice to our fellow citizens everywhere to avoid and discourage violation" of the acts until regularly repealed. In all, a moderate and honorable production.

The chairman put the question: "Do you agree to these Resolutions?"

As he recounted it, "A unanimous cry of Aye resounded through the air."

The resolutions having been approved, the meeting adjourned. The "hardy tars" assisted Commodore Truxtun off the platform; they handed down his chair; and without further ado they demolished the stage. Leaving the splinters for the Democrats to fret over, the crowd made its way back through the State House into Chestnut Street once more.

The Commodore was at the center of a throng in high good spirits. Again and again, the name of Truxtun echoed up from the narrow street. The sailors brought the chair they had taken from the stage; they crowded around "their adored Truxtun" and in a moment seated him in the chair. Amidst the repeated shouts of "huzza!" he was carried above their heads in a triumphant procession toward the Coffee House.

Lurching along in his seat of honor, he looked down upon a sea of a thousand heads of sailor men. He had commanded men like these — men who had toiled at a rope‑end, who had swarmed up icy shrouds and lain out on plunging yards to fist and hand brutally thrashing sails whipped about by biting winds, men who knew the feel of heaving decks and lonely nights a thousand leagues from home. These were fearless men, men who knew no master ashore, men who paid homage only to those who had earned their respect.  p255 Commodore Truxtun still stirred the popular imagination as a leader of men. Once again — for the last time during his lifetime — he was being publicly acclaimed as the gallant Commodore, the brave warrior, the famous son of Neptune. It was an unforgettable tribute.

At the Coffee House, he was carried into the gallery. "I then addressed the Multitude," he said, "in an appropriate manner." The multitude applauded. The air was filled for a time with sailors' cheers; and then the crowd dispersed "in good order and in high spirits."15

The old guard of Federalism, revived by this demonstration of strength, was active for a few days after the meeting. Commodore Truxtun was caught up in an exhausting round of committee meetings, attending as many as four in a single day.

On the tenth of February, 1809, this spurt of activity reached its second climax — some would say anticlimax. On that day, in the Mansion House Hotel, a lavish dinner was given in honor of the Commodore's friend, Senator Pickering, and the other "Federal members" of the Senate and House of Representatives. Over two hundred and fifty Federalists, filling three dining rooms, sat down to the meal. Commodore Truxtun, a member of the committee on arrangements, presided in one of the rooms.16

The whole catalog of Federalist toasts was proposed and drunk. One, anticipating President Jefferson's return to private life — his term was to end less than a month later — was to "A Philosopher in Dignified Retirement: may he find full employment in forcing exotics, coercing bullfrogs, and pinning beetles by the side of butterflies."17

As a memento of the occasion, Commodore Truxtun presented to Senator Pickering a song "Composed particularly in honor of your Zeal and meritorious exertions in the Senate, to preserve the Independence and promote the real and true Interest of this Country, as a well proven patriot of old."​18 The song may have been composed by the Commodore. One wonders whether he sang it for the entertainment and instruction of the assembled company.

The Author's Notes:

1 Barbary Wars, VI, 535‑41, 561‑70.

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2 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, October 26, 1807.

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3 Thomas Truxtun, A Few Extracts from the Best Authors on Naval Tactics (Philadelphia, 1806).

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4 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, February 1, 1806.

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5 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, passim; MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, February 2, 1809 and passim.

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6 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, May 16, 1801; NYPL: U. S. Navy Collection, Truxtun to Isaac Snowden, August 11, 1808; Middlesex County Deeds (Court House, New Brunswick, N. J.), VII, 515; VIII, 23, 29, 50, 244; IX, 441.

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7 PhilaLC: Truxtun to Thomas Biddle, June 7, 1809.

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8 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, January 1, 1810.

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9 Ibid., December 1, 1808.

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10 United States Gazette, Philadelphia, January 31, 1809.

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11 HSPa: William Page MS. Diary, January 31, 1809.

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12 J. T. Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1884), I, 538.

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13 United States Gazette, Philadelphia, January 26‑30, 1809.

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14 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, February 2, 1809.

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15 Ibid.; United States Gazette, Philadelphia, January 31, 1809.

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16 Scharf and Westcott, op. cit., I, 539; MassHS: Pickering Papers, Invitation to dinner, n. d. [February 10, 1809].

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17 Scharf and Westcott, op. cit., I, 539.

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18 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, March 9, 1809.

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