James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Benjamin Austin, 7 April 1814

From Benjamin Austin

April 7th 1814.

Respected Sir

The following is a Copy of a Letter sent to the Secretary of the Navy on the appointment of a Judge advocate on a Court martial lately held in New London. It is respectfully submitted to your perusal, having a confidence in your candor in acknowledging the propriety of the remarks.

Copy of a Letter directed to the Secretary of the Navy—

“Not presuming to interfere in the appointment of any Officer in the government, yet when an impropriety of the most apparent nature takes place, it may be proper to notice it to the department in which it originates. It cannot be supposed, that the Secretary of the navy is totally ignorant of the Character of a man, who is now officiating as Judge advocate at a Court martial in New London.1 The appointment of this person to this special duty, appears more singular, as there are many gentlemen in the profession, whose political tenets, & moral virtues give them a greater claim to the appointment.”

“The Family & connections which this man has so greatly injur’d, have ever been consider’d among the foremost in supporting the administration. It cannot therefore but wound their feelings, to observe such a pre-eminence given to One, whose conduct towards them, has been mark’d with the most Savage & malignant barbarity. This man has been declard guilty of murder by a Jury of Inquest—as guilty of manslaughter by a grand Jury, & though finally acquitted, yet the Foreman (his particular friend) on the Jury of Tryal declar’d, “that in any other County he would have been convicted.2 This man is not respected within any Circle in the Town of Boston. Why such a person shd. receive the immediate patronage of any officer of government, when others more deserving are neglected, it is presumed, must have arisen from improper representations made to the Navy department.3 It has been a subject of astonishment to many of our most considerate Citizens, & more particularly to be regretted by those, who are thus witnesses to the singular favors granted by government to the man, who has wantonly imbrued his hands in the blood of an unsuspecting youth.

“Our naval Officers are brave & heroic, it is therefore more surprizing if any countenance shd. be given by them to the Character alluded to. Brave men estimate Heroes, but they must equally reprobate Assassins.”

“No reflection is meant upon your conduct, as it [is] believ’d, you have been deceiv’d in this business, but when Individuals who have always been the advocates of the Administration, become wounded in the house of their supposed friends, they will retain the liberty of remonstrating.” Yrs with Assurances of friendship &c.

To the Secretary of the Navy.

The above Letter is respectfully submitted to your Confidential perusal, as it is thought discouraging for the real friends, to be thus subject to the exultations of the enemies of the government. The republican Cause has become greatly injur’d by such partiality to the immediate opposers of its advocates. Not having the honor of an epistolary correspondence, yet the signature will inform you, what assurances you may have in my undeviating attachment to your administration. With the highest sentiments of respect I subscribe myself yr Obed Srt.

Benj. Austin


1Austin referred to Thomas O. Selfridge, a Boston Federalist attorney notorious for having killed Austin’s eighteen-year-old son, Charles Austin, in 1806. The act was the culmination of a controversy between Selfridge and the elder Austin over a report spread by Austin that Selfridge, who had recently represented a caterer in a suit for nonpayment against the Austin-chaired Boston Republicans’ Fourth of July dinner committee, had drummed up the business by personally encouraging the caterer to pursue litigation. Austin later verbally acknowledged the story to be false but would not give the written retraction that Selfridge demanded, whereupon Selfridge published a newspaper notice branding Austin a “coward, a liar and a scoundrel.” Austin responded with his own notice offering to explain the basis of Selfridge’s “insolent and false” accusations to anyone who inquired. Charles Austin, however, took the matter a step further and attacked Selfridge in the street with a walking stick; Selfridge had a pistol in his pocket and shot the younger Austin in the chest (John D. Lawson, ed., American State Trials: A Collection of the Important and Interesting Criminal Trials Which have Taken Place in the United States, from the Beginning of Our Government to the Present Day [17 vols.; 1914–36; reprint, Wilmington, Del., 1972], 2:544–48).

2The allegation that jury foreman Paul Revere had made this statement to Selfridge appeared anonymously in the Boston Independent Chronicle on 26 Mar. 1807. Two days later, the Boston Columbian Centinel declared the story a “base and infamous falsehood,” which prompted the Independent Chronicle to publish on 30 Mar. 1807 a statement signed by wharfinger Levi Dow of Boston, asserting its truth. On 2 Apr., Revere published a signed statement in the same paper, denying that he had made the remark, to which Dow responded with a detailed account, in the 4 Apr. 1807 Boston Democrat, of the circumstances in which he heard Revere do so.

3In his 17 Mar. 1814 instructions to Capt. Stephen Decatur, naming him president of a court-martial to try Lt. William S. Cox and other officers of the Chesapeake for their conduct during that ship’s 1 June 1813 battle with the British frigate Shannon, William Jones authorized Decatur to “appoint some respectable and well qualified person to officiate as Judge Advocate” (DNA: RG 45, Letters to Officers). Decatur selected Selfridge, who retained the office despite Austin’s objections, and JM approved the court’s sentence (Charles J. Ingersoll, Historical Sketch of the Second War between the United States of America, and Great Britain, Declared by Act of Congress, the 18th of June, 1812, and Concluded by Peace, the 15th of February, 1815 [2 vols.; Philadelphia, 1845–49], 1:395–96, 414–15).

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