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Chapter 45

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.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p256  Chapter 46

The Last Chapter

While the echoes of this applause still reverberated in the streets and alleys of Philadelphia, while the ink that recorded this last taste of public acclaim was still fresh in the newspapers, this book might appropriately be brought to a close. Commodore Truxtun still had thirteen tedious years of existence left to him; but already he was seven years away from the sea, seven years removed from the work at which he excelled, from the life he loved. If the years of his retirement thus far had been occasionally interesting and amusing, the bleak years that lay ahead could excite in the bystander only pity — sometimes pity for the Commodore, perhaps nearly as often pity for those around him.

The endless months at home, engaged in no useful or important pursuit, plagued the aging Commodore and taxed his good wife, Mary. Accustomed as they were, throughout their first twenty-five years of married life, to the long months apart not few intense weeks together between voyages, they were finding that for them too much time together was indeed worse than too little. Mary had for years managed a large household without the advice or interference of her husband; his years of command had taught him to expect instant obedience from everyone about him; and now both of them found that the necessary adjustments could not be conveniently made in middle age.

In the Trenton Federalist, a public notice appeared during the spring of 1811. Commodore Truxtun used this means to warn all readers that he would be responsible for no debts incurred by anyone "other than by myself in person. . . . Circumstances extremely unpleasant," he informed the public, "have obliged me to have recourse to giving this notice generally."​1 It seems that Mary had bought a pair of shoes and had charged them to her husband's account.

In a pathetic letter to Charles Biddle, Mary told her side of the  p257 quarrel that led to the public notice. For the past eight years, she wrote, life for her had been nearly unbearable. Her husband was forever complaining about her spending money on one or another of their married daughters' families. Often he raved and ranted, swore at her, and even ordered her out of the house. The immediate reason for the public notice was that she had bought a pair of shoes at a store in Cranbury without consulting him. What, she asked, could she possibly do to keep her household intact, for the protection at least of the youngest children?2

Indeed, it was a disagreeable situation. Thomas Truxtun was a commander of ships and of men, not a fit subject for retirement in any form. In long — almost interminable — indignant letters to the same confidant, Charles Biddle, he poured out his troubles and grievances.​3 So many beloved daughters there were; and so many unworthy suitors and worthless sons-in‑law.

The ungrateful Benbridge, Sarah's spouse: what a profligate, what a scoundrel! Many a dollar of the Commodore's hard earned fortune had been spent by Mrs. Truxtun to help support that family. Then there was the scrape that daughter Anna Maria, already married to another man, had had with Paul Hamilton, son of the new Secretary of the Navy. More unpleasant incidents and execrable people to trouble the master of "Cranberry Place." More indignant letters to Charles Biddle. And there was daughter Mary's husband John Swift, whom he had never liked. Even their wedding seemed to be planned to humiliate him. The wedding date was set for a Friday. Commodore Truxtun arrived in town the Tuesday before in order to attend the wedding, but behold! they already had been married on Monday. Even William, his only surviving son, at the age of twenty‑one was "So Extreemly bad" that his father would have nothing more to do with him.4

Mrs. Truxtun finally refused to stay any longer at "Cranberry Place," so their next move was to another farm much closer to Philadelphia. In exchange for "Cranberry Place" they acquired a property near Moorestown, New Jersey, twelve miles beyond Cooper's ferry across the Delaware, and in addition "631½ acres of choise lands in Otsego County State of New York." Their new home, a two‑story brick house, complete with a "piazza" facing south, they named "Woodlawn."5

From piazza and parlor of "Woodlawn" Commodore Truxtun  p258 restlessly surveyed the passing parade. Incredulously, he watched the War of 1812 develop. Until nearly the day of war's declaration, the enemy had not been settled upon. He could see no enemy in Europe but Napoleon; and yet war was declared against Great Britain. He was convinced that this war was but an electioneering scheme to insure the re‑election of President Madison. Whatever the cause or justification of the war, he could not expect to be asked to help fight it. It was during this war that the Navy came into its own, but only vicariously could he hear the noise and smell the acrid smoke of sea battles that once again brought honor to his beloved flag.

Although his list of correspondents grew shorter as the years passed, he was never entirely forgotten by the men with whom he served. He kept in touch with Captain Tingey; he heard occasionally from his sometime surgeon Balfour;​6 and Robert Harrison, once a lieutenant in the Constellation and later a consul in the West Indies, sent him a butt of old rum, and again a quarter cask of well-aged Madeira and a large sea‑turtle as marks of "profound admiration and esteem for your character."

Consul Harrison wrote, "Since I left the Constellation I have been in every part of the world, . . . and amidst courtiers and princes, I have never forgot the Father of our Glorious little navy, whose consummate skill and perseverance gave the first impulse of Naval enterprize and enthusiasm to a band of young officers, whose deeds [in the War of 1812] have astonished all Europe."7

Once during the idle years, Commodore Truxtun let Charles Biddle enter his name on the Federalist ticket for Congress as a Representative from Philadelphia County. Even though he did no campaigning and stayed on his farm until after the election, he lost out by only a score of votes.8

In the fall of 1816, Charles Biddle thought he might do his old friend a service by putting him forward as a candidate for High Sheriff of Philadelphia County. There was some difficulty about his living in New Jersey, but he was placed on the ticket and won the office by a comfortable margin. After the election, there was still some question as to whether he could be seated; that being so, his friend and counselor, Charles Biddle, hustled him into a carriage, and the two of them set off for the state Capitol in Harrisburg, where his commission as sheriff would be issued. They left Philadelphia one morning in a downpour, and they stayed on the muddy road all  p259 day and all night, in order to secure the commission before the opposition could organize any attempt to prevent its issuance.​9 The two friends were old men to undertake such a harrowing journey. Commodore Truxtun was nearly sixty‑two; Charles Biddle was past seventy.

For three years he served the public as High Sheriff. When his term was over in 1819, he was at last content to sit by his fireside, which by this time he had established at Philadelphia, at 328 Arch Street, out beyond Eleventh.​10 With advancing age had come lingering illnesses that grew worse with each new season. The gout was now constantly with him, and it was becoming more and more painful to hold a quill.11

He revised his will for the last time "after due consideration and long and cool deliberation." He provided for his wife an income for the rest of her life, "or until she should marry again." She survived him for only about a year.​12 Disowned were his son and two of his daughters. His valuable library was to be divided among his other daughters. The "elegant rich silver urn" was to go to Cornelia and the golden medal to Gertrude. His gold watch and badge of the Cincinnati were to be given to his grandson Truxtun Swift; his "excellent Brass sextant . . . and telescope" were intended for his grandson Truxtun Henderson; and his other instruments and clothes were to go to a third grandson, Truxtun Beale.13

There were twenty-four states in the healthy, growing nation in the early spring of 1822. There had been but fifteen when Commodore Truxtun first nurtured the infant Navy.

America was now a respected power upon the seas. No longer were corsairs suffered to plunder vessels that sailed under her flag. No longer did her colors endure humiliation at the hands of arrogant kings and admirals. Her Navy now had ships of the line — seventy-fours — in service, and first-raters that would mount more than a hundred guns were being planned.​14 No longer was the Navy in danger of annihilation in the halls of Congress. Commodore John Rodgers, who had entered the service as first lieutenant of the Constellation, was senior officer of the Navy.​15 David Porter and Isaac Chauncey, both of whom had started their naval careers under Commodore Truxtun's command, were high ranking commodores. Both Rodgers and Porter were members of the influential three‑man  p260 board of Navy Commissioners, which aided and advised the Secretary of the Navy on policy matters.

Throughout the naval service, although his name might be forgotten by younger officers, was the indelible stamp of Commodore Truxtun. He had established a system where no system existed. By precept and example, he had founded a tradition of command. His attributes of personal bravery, audacity, and tenacity were being encouraged within the service. His tradition was being carried on and preserved for generations of naval officers yet unborn.

An aging Quaker widow, Deborah Logan, entered a few lines in her diary on the eighth of May, 1822, the day after the body of Commodore Truxtun was carried down Arch Street to his grave in the Christ Church burying ground — where he yet lies in the company of his friends Benjamin Franklin, Charles Biddle, Richard Dale, and many others.

"I should have mentioned in my acct. of yesterday," the widow Logan wrote in her fine hand, "that Commodore Truxtun was buried. I have always respected him as a worthy Citizen, and a very brave officer, indeed the Father of our American Navy. He has been hardly dealt with by the Government, and others permitted to reap the Harvest that he had sowed, as in the affair of Tripoly. I have not seen him for several years."​16

Two years later, Commodore Rodgers, upon his resignation from the board of Navy Commissioners in order to assume a command at sea, was honored by a public dinner in Washington. Present were the Secretaries of State, War, and Navy and a distinguished group of Army and Navy officers. As the wine was poured and the toasts were drunk, Commodore Chauncey proposed a toast to "The memory of Commodore Truxtun, the officer under whose auspices our gallant guest first distinguished himself as a naval officer."​17 This was nearly a quarter of a century after either Rodgers or Chauncey had served under the brave Commodore.

The tradition of Thomas Truxtun still lives. His concept of command at sea has stood the test of a century and a half of time. As long as the United States Navy ranges the waters of the globe, his spirit will ride the bridge of every ship in every ocean, strutting his few fathoms of scoured plank, ordering his helmsman to steer wherever "the good of the service" dictates, keeping always uppermost in his thoughts the honor and glory of his country's flag.

The Author's Notes:

1 Trenton Federalist, May 13, 1811.

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2 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Mary Truxtun to Biddle, May 9, 26, 1811.

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3 Ibid., fols. 83‑109, passim.

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4 Ibid.

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5 Ibid., Truxtun to Biddle, January 30, 1812.

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6 NDA: Truxtun to Dr. George Balfour, November 15, 1817.

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7 Truxtun Hare Collection: Robert Harrison to Truxtun, December 4, 1816, June 14, 1817.

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8 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, September 17, 24, October 3, 1810; Aurora, Philadelphia, October 12, 15, 1810.

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9 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, October 10, 1816; Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia, 1883), pp354‑55.

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10 Truxtun Hare Collection: William Truxtun to Mrs. Truxtun, February 15, [1820?].

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11 LC: Thomas Truxtun Papers (1795‑1820), Truxtun to William S. Biddle, December 3, 17, 1819; June 7, 1820; NYHS: Truxtun to David Lewis, December 29, 1818.

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12 Long Island Star, Brooklyn, September 18, 1823.

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13 Maria Scott Beale Chance, A Chronicle of the Family of Edward F. Beale (Haverford, 1943). Truxtun's will is printed in full.

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14 Howard I. Chapelle, History of the American Sailing Navy (New York, 1949), p338.

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15 C. O. Paullin, Commodore John Rodgers (Cleveland, 1910), p324.

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16 NDA: [ZB] Invitation to attend Truxtun's funeral, May 6, 1822; HSPa: Deborah Norris Logan MS. Diary, V (1821‑22), May 8, 1822.

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17 C. O. Paullin, op. cit., pp330‑31.

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