Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of the Navy - The Hunt for Robert Smith

Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of the Navy - The Hunt for Robert Smith

In the immediate aftermath of his inauguration, one of the first tasks President Thomas Jefferson was forced to address was that of appointing a Cabinet.

While some of these positions were very easy to fill, others were significantly more difficult.

Today we will look at the most challenging office for Jefferson to recruit for...Secretary of the Navy.


Jefferson’s Secretary of State

All new Presidents face the challenge of appointing a Cabinet in their first few days in office.

Thomas Jefferson was no different.

The easiest of his choices was Secretary of State. James Madison, Jefferson’s closest ally, was immediately handed the position.

Unfortunately, Madison was forced to miss the inauguration. He was back home caring for his dying father.

This was the situation when Thomas wrote to James regarding the other available positions.


War and Treasury

Jefferson’s letter of March 12,1801 reveals a great deal about the assembling of his Cabinet.

He begins by acknowledging that Henry Dearborn, a Continental Army veteran and former member of the House of Representatives, had been approved as Secretary of War.

Additionally, Albert Gallatin, another longtime Congressman who had promoted Jeffersonian policies in the House, was in town offering advice. He would soon be appointed as Secretary of the Treasury.

Both Dearborn and Gallatin would go on to serve for the entirety of the Jefferson Administration.


Navy Candidates

Jefferson then begins to discuss the trouble he was having filling the position of Secretary of the Navy.

Though John Adams’ man, Benjamin Stoddert, agreed to remain until a replacement was found, about which Jefferson said, “I find this nearly impossible.”

First, Thomas had asked the long-time Chancellor of New York, Robert Livingston. Livingston flat out refused (though he would go to Europe as Minister to France later that year where he participated in the Louisiana Purchase).

After this, he asked Samuel Smith, a General in the Maryland Militia. Smith also quickly turned the President down.

Frustrated, Jefferson suggested that John Langdon take the position. Langdon was a former Governor of New Hampshire and Constitutional Convention Delegate who had been serving in the United States Senate since its inception.

Unfortunately, Langdon decided he would rather return home (where he would again serve as Governor on two separate occasions).


Missing Morris

Jefferson goes on to suggest that he might reluctantly have to appoint ‘Lear’ to the position. In all likelihood, he means Tobias Lear who was the personal secretary of the recently deceased George Washington.

Though he did not receive the position, Lear would go on to serve Jefferson in the Caribbean and North Africa.

This difficulty he has filling the office leads Thomas to say, “what a misfortune to the public that R. Morris has fallen from his height of character.” This is a reference to former Secretary of the Marine Robert Morris who had declared bankruptcy and was placed in debtor’s prison.


Robert Smith

Jefferson notes that he was going to try asking Samuel Smith again, “but with little confidence of success.”

Interestingly, at this later meeting, Samuel would recommend his brother, Robert Smith for the job.

Robert would jump at the chance to be in the Jefferson Administration.

Despite being so far down on the list, Smith would go on to join Dearborn and Gallatin as members of Jefferson’s Cabinet for all eight years he was in office.


Want to read about more Founders involved with the Navy?

Check out these articles:

Lambert Wickes - The Continental Navy’s Most Successful Captain

Esek Hopkins - Commander of the Continental Navy

John Paul Jones - Father of the American Navy

Robert Smith doesn’t have a biography to recommend, however, Albert Gallatin does.

‘Jefferson’s Treasure’ focuses on the finances of the Cabinet but does talk a bit about everyone involved.

If you’d like a copy you can get one through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).

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