James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Burwell Bassett, 2 March 1813

From Burwell Bassett

Washington Mar. 2d 13

⟨D⟩ear Sir

You are apprised of the sensability excited amongst all the officers of the grade of masters commandant by the promotion of Cpt. Morris1 whose merit all admit yet in my judgment the grounds taken by Cpt. Lawrence cannot be said to be unreasonable.2 If this be a justifiable cause of sensation you will say with me that the friends of Cpt Sinclair have more cause if a report which has reached me has any foundation which I do not believe.3 It is that the navy department have it in contemplation to pass him by. Tho this is not believed such a suggestion will excuse this aipeal [sic] to you as the guardian of the nation and of each individual thereof. Cpt. Sinclair entered the Navy at or near the same time with Commodore Rogers now the oldest Cpt., but was entirely neglected untill he got into a ship with Cpt Barron who immediately promoted him he was however again passed over by Mr Stoddard and is now probabaly the oldest officer in service of his grade tho I believe he ranks only fifth as M. C. This would not prove much if we were to stop here but Cpt Sinclair has apply evinced his seamanship and his talent as an officer the first was conspicuous in his cruize of December 12 month when by his exertions and perseverence he saved h⟨is⟩ vessel in a most tremendious Storm whilst his late cruize prove his intrepidity and skill as an officer. For the particulars I refer you to the files of the navy department.4 Permit me to add that all men of any knowledge that I have heard speak on this subject admit that these cruizes iminently evince the sailor and the officer. I do not state as an odious distin[c]tion that most of our officers are from the north but with man there is an imperceptable bias of which he cannot divest hi⟨mse⟩lf b⟨ec⟩ause he is not sensible of it is no[…] [illegible] allowing it can be seen only in the eye of another. I am not advancing the pretentions of Cpt. Sinclair beyond others equality is all I ask and with the exception of Cpt Jones I must be permitted to deny that any have given evidence more satisfactory of seamanship & officer like skill than Cpt. G. Most Respectfully your obt. Ser

Burwell Bassett5

RC (DNA: RG 45, Misc. Letters Received). Damaged by removal of seal.

1Charles Morris was a lieutenant on the Constitution when that ship captured the Guerrière on 19 Aug. 1812. The following October, he received a captain’s commission in recognition of his performance during the battle. His peers thought he should have been promoted only one grade, to the rank of master commandant (Dudley, Naval War of 1812, 1:516–17).

2James Lawrence, a master commandant, wrote to Paul Hamilton on 10 Oct. 1812 to protest Morris’s having been promoted ahead of others, including Lawrence, who had seniority. Lawrence felt that his own honor was at stake and threatened to resign. Dissatisfied with Hamilton’s response, Lawrence submitted a memorial to the Senate. It was read on 26 Feb. 1813 in conjunction with the Senate’s consideration of JM’s message of 24 Feb. nominating Morris, Lawrence, Charles Gordon, and Jacob Jones for promotion to the rank of captain. All four nominations were eventually confirmed, but on 3 Mar. 1813 the Senate resolved in a 14 to 13 vote that “it would hereafter be inexpedient to advance an officer more than one grade, by the same nomination; and the departure from the practice in the case of Captain Morris, ought not to be considered as an imputation on the merit or services of any other officer.” Lawrence remained in the navy, took command of the Chesapeake, and died in June 1813 of wounds sustained in a battle with the British frigate Shannon (ibid., 1:519–20, 522–23, 2:133–34; Senate Exec. Proceedings description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America (3 vols.; Washington, 1828). description ends , 2:327–28, 331, 333).

3Arthur Sinclair, a master commandant, had informed Paul Hamilton on 7 Oct. 1812 that he regarded Morris’s promotion to the rank of captain as “an attempt to infringe” his (Sinclair’s) rights. JM nominated Sinclair for promotion to captain on 23 July 1813, and the Senate approved the appointment on 24 July (Dudley, Naval War of 1812, 1:518–19; Senate Exec. Proceedings description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America (3 vols.; Washington, 1828). description ends , 2:392, 396).

4Bassett probably referred to Sinclair’s letters to Hamilton of 19 Jan. 1811 [1812] and 2 Jan. 1812 [1813], which reported in detail on Sinclair’s cruises in the Nautilus and Argus, respectively. The second letter enclosed a list of the ships Sinclair had captured and excerpts from the Argus’s logbook (DNA: RG 45, Letters from Commanders; second letter printed in Dudley, Naval War of 1812, 2:7–9).

5Burwell Bassett (1764–1841), the son of Burwell Bassett (1734–1793) of New Kent County, Virginia, attended the College of William and Mary and served in the Virginia legislature. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1805 and served there until 1829, with the exception of the Thirteenth and Sixteenth Congresses. During the second session of the Twelfth Congress, Bassett chaired the House Committee on Naval Affairs (John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography [2 vols. to date; Richmond, Va., 1998–], 1:384–85; ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Naval Affairs, 1:286).

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