From Silas Talbot1
New York, January 15, 1799. “The relative Rank of several persons who have been honored with an appointment as Captains in the Navy of the United States not having as yet been seeded by the Honorable the Executive,2 and as some of those Officers claim of right the same rank, it follows of course, that, the good of the service requires this difference of opinion to be settled. It being the wish of the Executive to do perfect justice to all, they mean, as I have been well informed, to avail themselves of your opinion in this matter as a previous step to forming their own judgement.…The subject on which I understand Mr Stoddert means to request your opinion Regards the rank of Captain Thomas Truxton Captain Richard Dale and myself. On this subject Sir, I shall premise that so far as concerns myself, the Objections in my mind to being placed on the list of Captains in the Navy subject to the command of Captain Truxton do not arise from the smallest disrespect for his Character in any view it may be placed. They arise from a quite different source. It is because I consider the laws and usage of rank in service place me above both of those Gentlemen, And, for which I conceive it just and laudable in me to contend. It is well known to you that in the year 1794 Congress passed a Law providing that six ships of war should be built, for the protection of our commerce, and that six Captains were appointed to command those Ships … that myself was placed as the third Captain Dale as the fifth and Captain Truxton as the sixth.… When Captain Truxton accepted of his appointment under myself and Captain Dale it must be presumed that he did not think himself dishonored, for otherwise he would have declined an acceptance and have given his reasons for so doing. What have Captain Dale or myself done since that time that ought to injure us in our relative rank in the service or that would justify Capt. Truxtons being put above us.… I presume he founds his claim upon the suspension for a time the building of three of our Ships of war and the pay of those who were to command them, among whom myself was one, and that when Captains Barry, Nicholson and Truxtons commissions were made out the last mentioned got his commission market No: 3, and upon this ground he presumes that he is entitled to take rank over Captain Dale and myself, who have again been called into pay and service.… Sir the Law of Congress3 and the usage of this Country during the war with Great Britain, and, which by the by is nearly all the service in the Navy known to this Country, has been that when an Officer of the Navy was out of command his pay and not his rank ceased, that when he was again called into service his pay commenced and his former rank was in no case disputed.…”
ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
1. This letter concerns the relative rank of captains in the Navy who were originally appointed in accordance with “An Act to provide a Naval Armament” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 350–51 [March 27, 1794]). This act authorized the President to provide six frigates and to appoint a captain for each of these vessels. It also stated that if peace was concluded between the United States and Algiers, there should be “no further proceeding under this act.” On June 3, 1794, George Washington nominated as captains “John Barry, Samuel Nicholson, Silas Talbot, Joshua Barney, Richard Dale, and Thomas Truxton,” with the understanding that each was to be assigned to supervise the construction and outfitting of one of the six frigates provided for in “An Act to provide a Naval Armament” (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 160–61). On the following day the Senate approved the nominations in the order in which they had been presented (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 161). After Barney had refused his commission (Henry Knox to Barney, June 5, 1794 [LC, RG 45, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, Correspondence on Naval Affairs when the Navy was under the War Department, 1790–1798, National Archives]), he was replaced when Congress was not in session by James Sever (Knox to Sever, July 18, 1794 [LC, RG 45, Naval Records Collection of the Naval Records Office and Library, Correspondence on Naval Affairs when the Navy was under the War Department, 1790–1798, National Archives]). With Sever’s appointment the relative rank of the six captains was as follows: Barry, Nicholson, Talbot, Dale, Truxtun, and Sever.
With the signing of a peace treaty with Algiers on September 5, 1795, and its ratification by the United States on March 7, 1796 (Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America [Washington, 1931], II, 275–317), the statutory authorization for the captains’ commissions and for the construction of the frigates lapsed. Washington, however, stated to the Senate and House on March 15, 1796, that he did not wish to drop the program until Congress had had an opportunity to act (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , V, 52–53). On April 20, 1796, Congress passed on “An Act supplementary to an act entitled ‘An act to provide a Naval Armament,’” which authorized the President to continue the “construction and equipment” of three of the six frigates (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 453). As a result of this act, construction was halted on the vessels commanded by Talbot, Dale, and Sever, who then either lost their commissions or were placed on the inactive list, while the status of Barry, Nicholson, and Truxton remained unchanged (James McHenry to Sever, June 4, 1796, January 18, 1797 [LC, RG 45, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, Correspondence on Naval Affairs when the Navy was under the War Department, 1790–1798, National Archives]; McHenry to Talbot, June 4, 1796 [copy, enclosed in Talbot to John Adams, July 9, 1799 (ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston)]).
Because of the threat of war with France, Congress provided by “An Act providing a Naval Armament” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 523–25 [July 1, 1797]) and “An Act for an additional appropriation to provide and support a Naval Armament” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, I (Boston, 1845). description ends 549 [March 27, 1798]) for resumption of the work on the three frigates whose construction had been halted by the act of April 20, 1796. On May 10, 1798, Adams nominated Talbot, Sever, and Dale in that order to be “Captains in the Navy of the United States,” and on the following day the Senate approved the nominations (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 274, 275). With these nominations the ranking of the six officers in question was as follows: Barry, Nicholson, Truxtun, Talbot, Sever, and Dale. The result was that Truxtun, who had appeared sixth on the original list of nominees in 1794, now outranked Talbot and Dale. In addition, Adams placed Sever ahead of Dale, who thus had a double grievance.
2. By the autumn of 1798, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert was aware of the difficulties posed by the ranking of the six captains appointed to the Navy, and he urged President Adams to make some arrangement that would be equitable to all concerned (Stoddert to Dale, October 9, 1798 [Naval Documents, Quasi-War, February 1797–October, 1798, 510]; Stoddert to Adams, October 10, 1798 [ALS, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston]). Although on October 17, 1798, Adams replied to Stoddert: “Your letter … [concerning the relative rank of the Navy captains] is of much importance and deserves consideration” (LC, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston), it was not until July 23, 1799, that he took any action in this matter, and then he ordered the Secretary of the Navy to restore Talbot to third place and return Truxtun to fifth place on the list of Navy captains (LC, Adams Family Papers, deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).
3. This is a reference to a resolution of January 25, 1780, which reads: “That the pay of all officers of the navy, not in actual service, cease from this day: that such officers retain their rank, depositing their commissions in the respective navy boards, until they shall be called into actual service” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XVI, 85–86).