Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO B. STODDERT, SECRETARY OF THE NAVY. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 8 (Letters and State Papers 1782-1799)
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TO B. STODDERT, SECRETARY OF THE NAVY. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 8 (Letters and State Papers 1782-1799) 
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 8.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
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TO B. STODDERT, SECRETARY OF THE NAVY.
Quincy, 23 July, 1799.
It always gives me pain, when I find myself obliged to differ in opinion from any of the heads of department;1 but, as our understandings are not always in our own power, every man must judge for himself. In the case of Captain Talbot, I am perfectly clear, in my own mind, that he has been a captain in the navy of the United States from the time of his appointment, in 1794, to this hour; that a legal title, and an estate in his office, was then vested in him; and that he has never been divested of either. The suspension of his pay and subsistence was no deprivation of his office, any more than shaking off the apples is cutting down the tree. The principle is well known, and established in a multitude of cases. Sequestration of the uses and profits of lands or tenements, by the acts of the legislature, is not a destruction of the title, or a divestment of the estate. Suspensions of the functions, are no deprivation of the offices. The Dukes of Norfolk, for ages, were disqualified to discharge their functions on account of their Catholic religion, yet they remained Dukes of Norfolk, and their titles and offices descended from generation to generation without any degradation of rank. President Washington made the distinction at the time, and, instead of discharging or dismissing Captain Talbot from his office, or annulling his appointment, only informed him that, in consequence of an act of Congress, his pay and subsistence must be suspended, or must cease for the present; but, at the same time, expressed his desire that he would still stand ready to engage again in the service when he should be called. Had President Washington continued in office, he might have given Talbot the command of a ship, and ordered him his pay and subsistence, without a fresh nomination to the Senate, and so might the successor to the office of President. Nothing can be inferred from my nomination of him, but my desire to give satisfaction to the Senate and the public. Had the Senate refused their advice and consent, I might have desisted from my intention of employing him; but the repetition of their consent is certainly no diminution of his title. But had Talbot been expressly dismissed, and his appointment annulled, for no fault, by President Washington, it would have made no alteration in my opinion. Talbot, upon being called into service again, ought to have his former rank, which he held under the same constitution of government, and in the same department of the public service.
Far be it from me to depreciate the merits, services, or talents of Captain Truxtun. I respect, I esteem, and, especially since his late glorious action, I love the man. His gallant behavior and splendid conquest of the Insurgente have won him laurels, which I hope he will live to wear for many years after I shall be no more. But this meritorious conduct makes no alteration in my judgment in the state of this question. It is no more an argument for promoting him over Talbot, than it is for promoting him over the heads of Nicholson and Barry, which no man will advocate or propose. If he is to be promoted, as a reward for a great action, his promotion ought to be as impartial as possible to all other officers. One ought not to be singled out, as a victim to be slighted and wounded alone.
It is impossible to finish this letter, without saying something of talents, services, and general merit. In all these points, in my opinion, Talbot will not suffer by a comparison with any naval officer in the service. Delicate as this subject is, I must hint at a few particulars, which appear not to be sufficiently known. Exploits of twenty years’ age in history are little attended to by the present generation. Talbot’s talents and services in civil life, as a representative in Congress, as an agent for the liberation of our seamen in the West Indies, and even in fitting out our ships lately, are of very respectable character; but his services, last war, far outweigh all the services which were ever performed by Truxtun, to the United States, during his whole life. I should regret sincerely and extremely the loss of Captain Truxtun to the navy, and to the United States, and I confidently hope and believe he will not think of a resignation. But, if it must come to such a crisis, that I should be compelled to say which officer I would retain in the service, I should not hesitate a moment to say, it must be Talbot. Truxtun is a new man in the service of the United States. Talbot has served them very long.
There are two principles which produce a tenaciousness of rank. One is a sense of honor and consciousness of dignity, which cannot bear disgrace or degradation; the other is a selfish vanity and aspiring ambition, which is desirous of rising at any rate, and leaping over the heads of all others who are higher. Talbot is, in my opinion, undoubtedly in the first case, and I sincerely hope Truxtun will not prove himself in the last. Talbot cannot descend without disgrace, and loss of reputation, and confidence in the world. Truxtun stands on safe ground, and will lose no character or confidence by not rising. He has not even a colorable or plausible pretence for rising, whatever an unthinking, undiscriminating popularity may say. I will not be the dupe of that popularity.
I promised you some hints of Talbot’s services. In May, 1775, he was elected a captain of a company by the legislature of Rhode Island, when he raised a full company, and marched to the camp near Boston, where he continued until the enemy were driven away in 1776. He then marched with the army for New York; but upon his arrival at New London with the army, he was drafted with two hundred men to man Commodore Hopkins’s squadron, which had just arrived there from a cruise. The draft was made to help the fleet, bound from New London to Newport, the better to defend the ships, in case they should fall in, as was expected, with two British twenty gun ships, cruising off Newport. The squadron arrived without seeing an enemy at Newport, when he left the fleet and embarked in a small vessel, with his soldiers, and landed in the city of New York.
In the course of the campaign of 1776, some fire ships were equipped at New York with the view of endeavoring to destroy the British fleet and army, lying then at a particular place. When they were ready for service, the Commander-in-chief sent for Talbot, and requested him to take charge of a combustible brig, to which he readily consented, though it was considered so hazardous an undertaking that it was with great difficulty that others could be procured to command the rest. John Thomas, Talbot’s ensign, followed his example, and took charge of a second, and was burned to death in the flames of his vessel. Talbot did not receive orders to execute the design of his ship, until three of the British ships of war moved up the North River, seven miles above the city. In the night preceding the battle of Haerlem, he received directions to run down upon the ships of war in the North River, and destroy them, if possible, which were promptly attempted to be put in execution an hour before daylight, by getting the fire ship under way, and running down and boarding the Asia on her starboard bow, when he set fire to her, and, with the greatest difficulty, made his escape through the flames into the boat, where his men had been placed to take him off. The fire ship was grappled to the Asia for some time; but, at length, by the activity, address, and intrepidity of British seamen, was disengaged, so that the Asia was not burned. But the attempt threw the ship’s crew into such confusion, and alarmed them so much, that all the ships of war and their attendants in the North River cut and ran down to their old station, below the city. The morning after this, the battle of Haerlem was fought, and as the enemy had not those ships to cover their left flank, as had been intended, Washington gained the advantage of that day. After leaving the fire ship, Talbot made his escape to the Jersey shore in a boat, receiving the fire of all the ships as he passed them. In escaping through the flames, his clothes were all burned, and his body, too, to that degree that he did not see the light for fourteen days. Congress, on a representation of this service, thought proper to grant him a commission as major in the army of the United States, and to make him a grant of a sum of money as a compensation for the clothes which were burned on his back. Rapid promotions and splendid rewards were not so easily obtained in those days, you see, as they have been in some instances of late years.
At the latter end of the siege of Fort Mifflin, on Mud Island, which was always allowed to have been well defended, Talbot was second in command, and, in the afternoon previous to the evening of its evacuation, when the cannonade and fire of musketry were very severe, he received a musket ball through his left wrist, the pain of which must have been to most men insupportable; he bound it up, and continued at his post till sunset, when he was shot down by another ball, which entered near his left hip, and yet remains in his left groin.
In 1778, at the battle of Rhode Island, under General Sullivan, he commanded in the light advanced corps, and commenced the action of that day in person; and such was his conduct during the battle, and activity in procuring boats for landing the army on the island, previous to the battle, that Sullivan mentioned him very honorably to Congress in the communication of the events of that expedition.
In the same year, after the expedition before alluded to, the British stationed a large galley in the passage between Rhode Island and the main, mounting eight twelve-pounders, which cannon had been taken out of the Flora frigate, that was sunk in the harbor, and were marked with her name. As this galley totally stopped all supplies for the army by water, and prevented all our navigation from Providence and Taunton rivers, which was very considerable, and annoyed all vessels bound to those places, Talbot determined to remove her, if possible, and accordingly requested of General Sullivan, who commanded the army, fifty men to be drafted for the purpose. The General, after some hesitation, complied. Talbot embarked these on board a small sloop at Providence, called the Hawk, which mounted only two three-pounders, cut away the boarding nettings, drove the enemy from their quarters, and took possession, sword in hand, of the galley, which was commanded by a British lieutenant of the navy with forty-eight men. After this, Talbot weighed her anchors, ran out of the harbor, and carried her safe to Connecticut, where he landed the prisoners before dark the next day. For this service, the legislature of Rhode Island passed a law that a sword should be presented to him at the expense of that State, and Congress thought proper, as a reward for the same service, to promote him to the rank, and to give him a commission, of Lieutenant-Colonel in the service of the United States. The British never posted any other armed vessel in the passage, which remained open and free ever after.
Some time after this, Talbot made arrangements, and sailed twice from Providence with three hundred men, on board a large merchant ship, mounted on a stage above her deck, for the purpose of boarding a sixty-four gun ship, that lay in the bay. But the wind at both times failed him, and it became so calm that he was obliged to return without effecting his purpose. As the enemy always got information of his movements, they were, after this, so much afraid of being boarded, that they took a regiment on board from the Island, and kept them until they learned that his plan was laid aside.
In 1779, Congress directed General Gates, who succeeded General Sullivan, to provide an armed vessel for the protection of the bays and coast about Rhode Island. Accordingly, a sloop was equipped, named the Argo, mounting ten six-pounders; but as this sloop, when equipped, could not be manned, General Gates requested Talbot to take the command of her, as he was at that time popular with the seamen. At first he declined, because the command of a small sloop was not equal to that which a lieutenant-colonel ought to expect. But he was, at length, prevailed on by the General, as it was desirable to have the sloop manned. General Gates can certify the most important services performed by the Argo, while under his command. The number of cannon which he took in the several prizes, is said to have amounted to ninety-six, twenty of them twelve-pounders, the rest sixes and fours. Some of the privateers he took were double his own force, and all of them of superior force. In a battle fought with the privateer ship Dragon, of fourteen guns, which continued four hours and a half, with great vigor on both sides, the ship did not surrender until her mainmast was shot away just above the deck, and tumbled into the sea. In this battle he had twenty-one men killed and wounded, and, when the enemy surrendered, the Argo was on the point of sinking, the water in her hold being above the gun-room floor.
Congress, as a reward for his services in this action, and five others, fought in the Argo, some of them not much less severe, thought proper to appoint him a captain in the navy; for, while he commanded the Argo, he was furnished with no other than a lieutenant-colonel’s commission. Thus I have given some intimations of the principles and facts, which I have taken pains to collect, on which I have acted in giving Talbot a commission, to take rank from the day of his appointment as a captain in the navy, in 1794, which words, here underscored, I pray you to insert in his commission in your office, as they are the only alteration I have made in it.
After all, human events are all uncertain. Truxtun may resign, which I sincerely hope he will not, and, upon my honor, I think he ought not, and Talbot may be unfortunate; consequent censures will, probably, be freely cast upon me. I am prepared to meet them, let them come as thick as they may. However I may regret them, I shall never repent of the measure that produced them, because it has been the result of mature deliberation, impartial consideration of the whole subject, and conscientious opinion that it is right.
After a detention of nine days by contrary winds, the Constitution took the advantage of a brisk breeze, and went out of the harbor and out of sight this forenoon, making a beautiful and noble figure amidst the joy and good wishes of many thousands of good federalists.1
I have the honor, &c.
P. S. Although this letter is committed to your discretion, prudence will dictate that some parts of it be considered as confidential.
[1 ]The opinion of Mr. Stoddert, fortified by that of the Attorney-General, had been that, through the reduction of the navy in 1796, Silas Talbot, one of three officers discharged from service, had lost his right of precedence of Captain Truxtun who had been retained, so that, on his restoration to the service in 1798, he was to be considered as a junior captain.
[1 ]Mr. Stoddert replied to this letter;—