James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Bentley, 20 July 1813

From William Bentley

Salem Mass. U.S.A. July 20. 1813.


At the request of my friend, Capt George Crowninshield the son, I have presumed to inform the President of the United States, of his earnest wishes to remove the body of Captain Lawrence, of the Chesapeake, into the territory of the United States. He has applied for a Cartel, encouraged by a Letter to the department of war from Captain Bainbridge, on 2 July, & by the answer of Mr Jones, on the 10th instant.1 He proposes to do the whole at his own expense & in his own Vessel, of which he will send on the description through the Custom house of Salem, & he proposes to navigate her upon the errand, by only masters of Vessels. He is a man of the best naval experience & enterprise, & a man of wealth, & has many public testimonies of his humane energies, & he is a man of inflexible & most active patriotism, & among the best friends of our administration. The body is to be lodged in the family tomb at Salem, till further orders. We claim in Salem the honour of erecting the first monument to a departed Patriot, Gov Bradstreet in 1698, aged 96, & history has not forgotten to record it. Give our patriots the honour of entombing our first departed naval Hero.2

In our request, we desire nothing, which cannot be justified by honourable precedent. When Sr William Berkeley, Vice Admiral’s Ship was taken by the Dutch & he found dead in his Cabin while at war, King Charles II sent for the body, which was granted by the States, & the first disposition for an honourable peace attended this ceremony.3

The body of a brave man, who has a monument with the Great, & who died a victim to British secret-service in our revolution, was not refused, & a savage who followed the camp of Burgoyne, was buried in the western part of Massachusetts, in the form his mother directed, & his bones remained, undisturbed, till she returned to purify & remove them.

Permit me Sir, the exalted pleasure once more of declaring my unfeigned affection, & highest reverence of the father & friend of my Country, & believe me with fidelity, & the utmost respect, your devoted Servant,

William Bentley.4

RC (DNA: RG 59, ML); FC (MWA).

1No letter from William or Joseph Bainbridge to the War Department in June or July 1813 has been found. William Bainbridge did, however, write William Jones on 26 June 1813 in support of Crowninshield’s request. Jones jotted notes on Bainbridge’s letter for a reply that has not been found, indicating that he had mentioned the matter to James Monroe, who would “instantly grant” a cartel for the purpose, and that Jones himself wished to promote anything honoring James Lawrence’s memory (DNA: RG 45, Captains’ Letters).

2Bentley’s request grew out of ongoing efforts by Republicans and Federalists during the War of 1812 to portray their respective parties as the true heirs of Revolutionary ideals. New York Federalists had laid claim to Capt. James Lawrence in May 1813, after his 24 Feb. 1813 victory over the British sloop of war Peacock, by giving a dinner in his honor at Washington Hall, a Federalist venue. In Massachusetts, Federalists dominated the 17 June Bunker Hill celebration and the Independence Day events in Boston, offering a toast at the latter to the U.S. Navy as “the first home of Federalism.” The retrieval of Lawrence’s body from Halifax, where the British had buried it with military honors after Lawrence’s death from wounds suffered in the Chesapeake’s loss to the Shannon on 1 June 1813, represented an opportunity for Bentley and other Salem Republicans to counter the Federalists by conspicuously associating their own party with the memorialization of a fallen naval hero. Public interest in the events surrounding Lawrence’s death was high, particularly since he was the first among naval officers of his stature to be killed in action during the war, and the party that succeeded in claiming him as their own stood to reap significant political benefits.

It was to be expected, therefore, that when Crowninshield returned to Salem with Lawrence’s body on 19 Aug. 1813, Federalists would contest Republican efforts to stage an elaborate funeral. The funeral committee’s request to use the large and well-appointed but Federalist-controlled Salem North Meetinghouse was denied, and difficulties were also encountered in finding an Episcopal minister willing to conduct the service. Massachusetts governor Caleb Strong and other Federalist state representatives marched in last place in the funeral procession, wearing no official insignia. The North Meetinghouse did not ring its bells, as was customary, when the procession passed. Despite these snubs, the ceremony on 23 Aug. was well attended, the presence of Vice President Elbridge Gerry and an oration delivered by associate Supreme Court justice Joseph Story lent an aura of official sanction to the proceedings, and fifty thousand onlookers witnessed the burial.

Lawrence’s family, however, requested that his body be brought home to New York City, and there the Federalist-controlled Common Council made the arrangements for yet another interment, which took place on 16 Sept. 1813. Preventing the Republican Tammany Society from dominating the events was primary among the funeral committee’s concerns. Accordingly, the Council announced that only one political society—the Federalist Society of Cincinnati—would be allowed to march in the funeral procession. Protests from other fraternal organizations forced the Council to rescind this order, but the Cincinnati retained the prominent second position in the procession, while four previously banned political societies, two of which were Republican, were relegated to its rear. This compromise, and the fluid New York political scene out of which it grew, allowed the Federalists of that city to stage a well-attended spectacle with far less partisan rancor than that which accompanied the events in Salem, where party divisions were more rigid. The New York Federalists succeeded, nevertheless, in placing the distinct stamp of their party on Lawrence’s third, and final, burial (Robert E. Cray Jr., “The Death and Burials of Captain James Lawrence: Wartime Mourning in the Early Republic,” New York History 83 [2002], 133–64).

3William Berkeley died on 1 June 1666 while defending his ship, the Swiftsure, during the Four Days’ Battle between the British and the Dutch in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present [7 vols.; 1897–1903], 2:253, 269–72).

4William Bentley (1759–1819) graduated from Harvard College in 1777 and taught Latin and Greek there until ordained as pastor of the East Church of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1783. A Unitarian of Republican political views, he was popular even among parishioners who disagreed with him, and retained the post until his death. He read more than twenty languages, pursued a lifelong interest in natural history, collected rare books and coins, wrote prolifically on a variety of topics for Salem newspapers, and corresponded with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and JM. In 1819 he declined an offer from Jefferson to serve as president of the University of Virginia (Bentley, Diary of William Bentley, 1:ix–xxi).

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