James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Thomas Truxtun, 15 September 1805

From Thomas Truxtun

Philadelphia September 15th. 1805.


Mr Robert Smith Secy of the Navy and myself have lately had a private correspondence explanatory of a misunderstanding or misconception between us, in consequence of my not having a Captain, or as I first proposed to him knowing that the Law for the peace establishment limitted the Number to Nine—a Lieutenant Commandant to Command under the Commodores broad pendnant [sic] his Ship, as Morris and Morris’s Successors, have Since had, and as I have General Dearbourns letter of the 13th of June 1801 stating that the Government deemed such Officer necessary.1 The result however of this Correspondence is, that we have mutually Agreed to throw A Mantle of oblivion over the whole, and thus the Affair is at rest.

The enclosed Copies are meerly forwarded to You that You Should Judge, or be enabled to Judge of the manner and terms I declined the Mediterranean Service,2 from my own relation of facts and to request that You will be good enough to cause the question to be ended whether, I am Considered in or out of the Navy which I made so many Sacrifices to Enter.

I Should be extreemly Sorry to wound the feelings of Mr Smith in the least and especially After what has passed, by this communication to You—Yet as it concerns myself alone and Something very mysterious to me and my friends Seem connected with the Affair in question—I cannot Conceive any impropriety in addressing a member of the Government So high as the Secy of State, by a private letter, Simply Asking his influence to end a question, I have applied in vain to Mr Smith to close; while he intimated it was an affair too delicate for him, and recommended an application to the Navy department. I have written him in consequence officially, and on this point am unanswered.

I cannot repeat too often my regret in not having been enabled to proceed to the Mediterranean in 1802 instead of Morris and of the desire I had, Not to let Slip, So glorious an Oppertunity of immortalizing the american Name, by a proper punishment of the Bashaw of Tripoli, and ending the Contest with him, as it ought to have been ended with the force we had there in June last—indeed I had my plan of attack and plan of procureing Gallies, Gunboats and Bomb ketches with fire Ships all fixt in 1801—provided the Government would have given me Latitude and I would have Sacrificed my private fortune Sooner, than been disappointed in distroying the City of Tripoli in 1802 or 1803, had I gone out to the Mediterranean, and this Should have been done without the Visionary projects of an exiled Prince or his Abetors being blended with the affair—I wished our Nation to have had all the Credit of the enterprize without any foreign or other aid.

It is No doubt in Your power to Make a Statement of My Affair to the President which will determine my Suspence So injurious to me, inasmuch, as it has prevented my attention to pursuits of a pecuniary kind for a great length of time & consequently has Still farther impared my impared fortune.

It would be painful to me and tedious for You to read details such as I have entered on in my late letters exchanged with Mr smith. Suffice it to Say I wish my Situation determined and should be extreemly Sorry at this time of day when I am verging towards half a century to find myself Considered by the President & Mr Madison, in a less honourable and useful point of view—than I seem to stand in the Opinion of mr Smith who uses the terms in his letters to me “No less honourable in private life than Illustrious in publick life.”

On my own subject I shall not dwell—but beg leave to offer you also for Your perusal Copy of a private letter written to mr Smith on the subject of our Mediterranean Concerns, since the news of peace with Tripoli came to hand and the letters of Barron & Rodgers have been published by him at Baltimore. This you will be pleased to consider as a Confidential Communication also, which being made by a naval military man may Not be unacceptable to You in taking a view of past Transactions Abroad, which I am Sorry to Say Appear to me Open to the animadversion of Government. I pray You Sir to Accept of my attachment and that Esteem with which I have the honor to be Your very Obt humble servant3

Thomas Truxtun

RC and enclosures (DLC). For enclosures, see n. 2.

1On 3 Mar. 1802 Truxtun, who had been named to command the Mediterranean squadron, learned that, contrary to what he had been told by Robert Smith, he would have to serve as both captain of his flagship and commander of the squadron. Believing that the two responsibilities could not be efficiently handled by one man, Truxtun wrote to Smith and asked “leave to quit the service” unless he could have a flag captain. On 13 Mar. 1802 Smith replied that Truxtun’s condition was “impossible” because of the reduction in officers under the 3 Mar. 1801 act “Providing for a Naval peace establishment.” Although Truxtun wrote Aaron Burr on 22 Mar. 1802 that “it was with pain & reluctance I quit the Navy” and also told Charles Biddle that he had “quit the Navy,” he very soon came to regret his action and as time passed he convinced himself that he had intended to resign only from the Mediterranean squadron and not from the navy. His efforts to be reappointed were unsuccessful, and in February 1806 Smith informed Truxtun definitively that he could not be reinstated (Knox, Naval Documents, Barbary Wars, 2:76, 83, 94; U.S. Statutes at Large, 2:110–11; Ferguson, Truxtun of the Constellation, 221–25, 227, 229–31, 238–40).

2The enclosures (8 pp.) are copies of (1) Truxtun to Robert Smith, 7 Sept. 1805, enclosing letters from Charles Biddle and Richard Dale, and stating that although the serious illness under which he labored in March 1802 may have caused him to write a letter more ambiguous than he intended, he merely meant to resign from the Mediterranean squadron and not in any way to resign from the navy; (2) Truxtun to Charles Biddle, 7 Sept. 1805, stating that since it was being “said every where” that Truxtun had resigned from the navy, he was asking Biddle what his understanding had been, and was, of Truxtun’s intentions then and now and also asking Biddle to ask Dale, who was Truxtun’s immediate Predecessor on the squadron and who had returned to Hampton Roads while Truxtun was there, what he understood Truxtun to have done; (3) Biddle to Truxtun, 7 Sept. 1805, stating that, based on what Truxtun had said in a letter to Biddle at the time, and on what he had since said, it was Biddle’s belief that Truxtun had no intention of resigning his navy commission; (4) Biddle to Richard Dale, 7 Sept. 1805, asking if, on his arrival at Norfolk, he had understood from Truxtun that on giving up command of the squadron he had also resigned his commission and also asking if Dale had since then ever heard Truxtun say he had resigned from the navy; (5) Dale to Biddle, 7 Sept. 1805, stating that it was not then his understanding that Truxtun intended to resign his commission and from then to the present he had understood from Truxtun that it was not his intention; and (6) Truxtun to Smith, 14 Sept. 1805, offering his opinions on how the war with Tripoli should have been fought, and would have been fought had he been able to go to the Mediterranean, and criticizing Lear’s peace as being premature, since Truxtun believed Yusuf Qaramanli could have been totally defeated and required to pay the United States rather than the latter pay him.

3On the verso of the letter, Truxtun has written a list of ships and armature:

Force in Md. June 1805.
Frigate President 44 Barron.
 " Constitution 44 Rodgers.
 " Constitution 36 Campbell.
 " Congress 36 Decature.
 " Essex 32 J. Barron.
 " J. Adams 32 Shaw.
Brig Argus 18 Hull.
 " Siren 18 Stewart.
Schooner Vixen 14 Smith.
 " Nautilus 14 Dent.
 " Enterprize 14 Robinson.
4 Bomb Vessels
12 Gun boats
 five Ships uncertain
Officers, Seamen, Marines &c 3,200.
Force proposed to Mr Secy Smith by TT. in winter of 1804.
Frigate President 44. Guns
Constitution 44.
Congress 36.
Essex 32.
    4 brigs of Guns 16 each.
    4 Schooners 14 ditto.
    4 Bomb Vessels.
    12 Gallies (or an equivalent in Gun boats)
    10 fire Ships.

4Thomas Truxtun (1755–1822) was born on Long Island, New York, orphaned in 1765, and went to sea in 1767. In mid-adolescence, he was impressed into the Royal Navy but soon returned to merchant shipping and was commander of his own vessel by age twenty. He was a privateer during the American Revolution and became wealthy through his captures. After the war, he was again a merchant captain and sailed the first Philadelphia-owned ship to China. In 1794 he became a captain in the U.S. Navy and later won two battles against French frigates during the Quasi-War, for which he received Congressional thanks and a gold medal. He retired briefly after a peace was achieved but then received the assignment that led to his separation from naval service (see n. 1 above). During this last retirement he lived for several years in New Jersey and then moved to Philadelphia, where he was active in politics and in opposition to the Embargo in 1809. From 1816 to 1819 he was sheriff of Philadelphia. He wrote several instructional works on sailing.

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