Students of American history are well aware that France was a key ally in the Revolutionary War. Without her aid, England might well have defeated the rebellious colonists. Yet, few know that this friendship later turned to open warfare on the high seas.
Even more interesting is the fact that Congress awarded a gold medal to an American naval commander, Thomas Truxtun, for a battle in a war that was never declared. The French Revolution had arrived in 1789, but trouble arose when extremists seized control and began the infamous Terror. Thousands went to their deaths on the guillotine, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Relations between the two countries soon went from bad to worse. President John Adams sent envoys to Paris in 1798 to see if the problems could be solved. In response the French authorities demanded bribes before the envoys could even hold discussions; the whole matter became known as the “XYZ Affair.”
In 1794 the U.S. Navy, which had been disbanded after the Revolutionary War ended, was reestablished in part because of the worsening French situation. During 1798 and 1799, clashes between the American and French navies escalated until there was, in practical terms, a sea war between the two countries. All of this was to set the stage for the Truxtun gold medal.
Truxtun was born on Long Island in February 1755 and at the age of 12 served on a merchantman trading with Europe and the West Indies. In 1775 he became a privateer, attacking British shipping, and seized valuable cargo for the struggling American army. He also ferried American diplomats to France and even fought off an attack by an English cruiser.
After war’s end in 1783 Truxtun returned to commercial shipping and was engaged in the East India trade. In 1794, he joined the infant U.S. Navy and was appointed captain of the frigate Constellation being built in Baltimore. Truxtun was a stickler for training and attention to details. He was the author of several books for naval personnel and became known as the “Father of Naval Communications.”
During 1798 and 1799, the Constellation served as an escort ship for American merchantmen as well as attacking French naval vessels. In February 1799, Truxtun encountered L’Insurgente, a French ship of the line carrying 40 guns and 409 men (the Constellation had 38 guns and 300 men). The fight was soon over; the French lost 70 killed and wounded, compared to just three wounded Americans.
Admiration was so great for this stunning victory, which put the U.S. Navy on the world scene for the first time since the Revolution, that even Lloyd’s of London (the English were at war with France) sent Truxtun a magnificent silver service worth several thousand dollars.
In January 1800, Truxtun was patrolling in the Constellation off Guadeloupe in the West Indies when he learned that the French frigate La Vengeance (54 guns and 400 men) was nearby. On Feb. 1 he caught up with the French vessel and the battle was joined. The battle raged for hours and both ships were severely damaged. However, the French had gotten the worst of it and surrendered the ship just after midnight. At that moment, however, Truxtun lost his mainmast and La Vengeance was able to slip away. The French lost 162 men killed and wounded, compared to 39 for the Americans.
Even though the French ship had not been captured, the news electrified the country and Congress awarded a gold medal to Truxtun for the battle. (The 1799 capture of L’Insurgente no doubt played a part in the decision.) Soon afterward Napoleon seized power in France and within a short time ended the unofficial war.
In fall of 1800 steps were taken to execute the medal. New York artist Archibald Robertson prepared the artwork and his sketches were soon approved by the Navy Department. In March 1801 Mint Director Elias Boudinot was given permission to have the dies executed at the Mint and to strike the medal. Contemporary newspaper accounts name the engraver as Robert Scot, but present thinking is that John Reich, later an assistant engraver at the Mint, did most or all of the engraving.
The dies were completed in the early 1802, but were damaged in the hardening process. For this reason, only a few medals were made in addition to the gold specimen for Truxtun, struck in July 1802. The dies had wide borders, allowing an engraver to place special legends on both sides of the original medals before they were distributed. Hand-engraved on the obverse are the inscriptions “Patriae Patres Filio Digno” (the Fathers of the Country to their Worthy Son) and Truxtun’s name, while the reverse states the action for which the medal was awarded.
The damage to the dies prevented the striking of specimens for collectors until the 1840s, when the dies were repaired by chief coiner Franklin Peale. In the early 1980s, most of the early national medals, including that for Truxtun, ceased to he struck by the Mint. Interested collectors can now obtain a specimen only on the secondary market.
In 1802, Truxtun was asked to take the Constellation to the Mediterranean, but there was a dispute over rank and Truxtun refused to sail until the problem was resolved. President Thomas Jefferson used this as a pretext to dismiss Truxtun. He died in May 1822.
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