James Madison Papers

To James Madison from John Hall and Others, 7 January 1813 (Abstract)

§ From John Hall and Others

7 January 1813, “Marine Barracks Washington.” Members of the court-martial for Lt. John Brooks1 “gave their deliberate ⟨d⟩ecision, on the charges produced against that ⟨o⟩fficer, on Thursday the 24th. Decr., and … a ⟨r⟩econsideration of the Sentence was ordered by ⟨th⟩e Hono. Secretary of the Navy and the Court re⟨a⟩ssembled and came again to a decision on ⟨T⟩hursday the 31st. Ultimo; since which time, ⟨t⟩he Accuser, the Accused and the Court have been ⟨k⟩ept in a most unpleasant state of suspense, ⟨to⟩ which it is our prayer you will put an end.” Ask that JM either act on the matter himself “or authorise the Commandant of the Corps to do so,” as the office of the secretary of the navy lies vacant.2

RC (DNA: RG 45, Misc. Letters Received). 2 pp.; signed by John Hall and five others; redirected in JM’s hand to Charles W. Goldsborough.

1John Brooks Jr. (1783–1813), the son of general and later Massachusetts governor John Brooks, was born in Medford, Massachusetts, and studied medicine with his father after graduating from Harvard in 1805. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1807 and promoted to first lieutenant in 1809. He served on board the Congress and the Wasp, as well as at the navy yards in Boston, New York, and Washington. In April 1813 Brooks was ordered to Lake Erie after being accused of cheating at cards in Washington. During the Battle of Lake Erie he commanded a marine detachment on board the Lawrence and was reputedly speaking to Oliver Hazard Perry when he suffered a fatal cannonball blow to the hip (Gerard T. Altoff, Deep Water Sailors, Shallow Water Soldiers: Manning the United States Fleet on Lake Erie, 1813 [Put-in-Bay, Ohio, 1993], 130).

2On 29 Dec. 1812, one day before his resignation as secretary of the navy, Paul Hamilton had written to Col. Franklin Wharton of the Marine Corps that the proceedings of Brooks’s court-martial presented “an aspect so very extraordinary, that I can’t but feel unwilling to act upon them, before the Court shall have had an opportunity of reconsidering them.” William Jones, Hamilton’s successor, wrote to Wharton on 22 Feb. 1813: “The proceedings of the Court Martial convened at the Marine Barracks for the trial of Lieut. J Brooks of the Marine Corps, and the Sentence pronounced by that Court on the 24th. Decr. 1812 have received the attention due to a decision involving consequences of the most serious nature.

“To approve would be to sanction an act subversive of all correct military principles and to substitute the rude ebbullition of passion for the rules of law, order and decency.

“The language used by Lieutenant Miller was highly irritating and certainly unbecoming an officer and a gentleman; but how the Court could ‘honorably acquit’ an officer who had violated every principle of military discipline and decorum by publickly inflicting a disgraceful blow upon a junior officer who dared not return it without committing a capital offense, it is extremely difficult to conceive.

“I cannot allow myself to question the correct intentions of the Court, they no doubt were fair, impartial and honorable; but it is impossible to sanction their judgement in the Case.

“The Sentence of the Court is therefore disapproved; but as Lieutenant Brooks has hitherto sustained the character of a correct and honorable officer, I do hereby, in the hope that he will be more circumspect in future, direct, that his Sword be returned to him, and that he be ordered on duty” (DNA: RG 80, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, entry 1, Letters to the Commandant and Other Officers of the Marine Corps, 1804–86, vol. 1).

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