1832: John B. Elliot to Robert Leckie

Flood’s Painting of the USS Boston (1840)

This letter was written by John B. Elliot while serving as an assistant surgeon in the U. S. Navy aboard the Frigate U.S.S. Boston. I have not been able to find a biographical sketch for Elliot but gleaned the following from newspaper excerpts. In 1828, Elliot served as the Recording Secretary of the Washington Medical Society. In May 1829, he passed his examination to be an assistant surgeon in the U. S. Navy. He was afterwards assigned duty aboard the the US Frigate United States. From 1830 to 1832, he served as assistant surgeon aboard the U. S. S. Boston during which time it was deployed in the Mediterranean Squadron, George Washington Storer (1799-1864) commanding.

Returning to Baltimore, Elliot married Amanda Hubball on 27 November 1833. The couple lost a three year-old child named William who died in November 1842.  In 1840, Elliot was working as the post A. Surgeon at Norfolk, Va. but subsequent records (1843) showed him on leave as sick. He may have died not long afterwards. He was born in New Jersey but listed Maryland as his residence.

Elliot wrote the letter to W. Robert Leckie (1775-1834) of Washington D. C. Leckie was a native of Perthshire, Scotland, who came to the United States in 1805 with his wife, Mary Ann (Taylor) Leckie, and labored as a stone mason for a number of years. Descendants claim that he helped to rebuild the U.S. Senate Chamber after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812. Through his friendship with Col. George Bomford, Chief of Ordinance, U.S. Army, he landed contracts to build U.S. Armories in Augusta, GA and Richmond, VA. Between 1820 and 1823, he was a contractor on the Landsford Canal on South Carolina — no doubt where he formed the acquaintance of Dr. Davis. In 1834, when this letter was written, and just before his death, Leckie was a masonry superintendent on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal at Georgetown.

Leckie had two daughters, Susan Helen Leckie and Mary Ann Leckie. They both eventually married wealthy plantation owners in Virginia though, in this letter, Dr. Davis states that he hoped they would marry politicians. He had Tennessee Congressmen David W. Dickinson (1808-1845) and William Claiborne Dunlap(1798-1872) in mind — both Jacksonian Democrats elected to the 23rd Congress.

The content of this letter pertains to the “Liberal Wars” or the Portuguese Civil War that started with the death of King João VI in 1826. A dispute arose as to who would rule Portugal. Dom Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil was the king’s oldest son but his younger brother, Miguel contended that Pedro had forfeited his claim to the thrown by declaring Brazilian independence. In 1828, Miguel usurped the throne, abolished the Constitution, and introduced a reign of terror. Dom Pedro placed himself at the head of an expeditionary force and eventually took possession of Lisbon and control of the government. While Miguel was in control, arrests and executions were frequent; thousands were deported to Africa, and in 1830 it was estimated that 40,000 persons were in prison for political offenses.


Addressed to Robert Leckie, Esquire, Washington D. C.

U. S. S. Boston
Lisbon [Portugal]
June 19, 1832

Robert Leckie, Esquire
My respected and much esteemed friend,

Several months have elapsed since I last wrote you; the last letter which I received from home informed me that you were well. I hope you know my feelings too well to require me to say more than that I was glad to hear that you still continue to enjoy your health.

Two years have rolled by since I received orders to this ship. In this period, tho’ I cannot boast of having made much improvement in my profession, I at least have the satisfaction of believing that I have served my country as faithfully as my poor and limited abilities would admit.

Since we left the United States, we have stopped at the following places, viz: Gibraltar, Mahon, Algiers, Tangiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Naples, Leighton, Syracuse, Malta, Milo, Syria, Smyrna, Napoli, Romania, Corinth, Athens, Marathon, Malaga, Cadiz, & Lisbon. Many of these we have visited several times and at others we have remained some months.

We arrived here from Cadiz on the fourth instant. Few cities can compare in point of beauty with Lisbon, stretching along the coast even down to the edge of the river with its spires rising from amidst the city and glittering in the rays of the sun. Multitudes of vessels of every nation lining its harbor. It is truly a source of regret to behold this most charming country in the hands of a vile and worthless race of slaves. But it is devoutly to be hoped that the present change which is daily threatened will overthrow this most tyrannical government. Everything shows the march of intellect, the people of every nation have been too long oppressed, the two most powerful nations of Europe are now the most enlightened and at the same time possessed of the greatest share of freedom and it is a happy omen to behold this blow now aimed at the darkest, most bigoted and tyrannical spot on the globe. It is impossible for me at a distance to form any conception of the object state of oppression in which these people are held. The female parts of the most influential families are imprisoned if their sentiments are known to be liberal and their male relations cannot be apprehended. Every scheme is resorted to in order to detect the enemies of Miguel. Hundreds are daily imprisoned and their property confiscated. More than three fourths of the inhabitants are sighing anxiously for the arrival of Dom Pedro whom they are ready to advocate upon the first opportunity. the people are afraid to breathe his name. Armed troops with their drawn swords glittering over these wretched slaves are stationed at every corner of the city.

The English have a strong naval force stationed here and Dom Miguel is trembling lest they should join the enemy against him. He is even afraid that some of his discontented subjects may attack the dwellings of the British Consul and English residents in order to create an excuse for their doing so, and has stationed guards about their houses to prevent such an occurrence. The English Squadron is here to deter the Spanish from affording any aid to the tyrant upon the approach of the invading army.

The banks of the Tagus [River] are constantly reverberating [with] the reports of cannon from the Portugese men-of-war and batteries which are exercising most unremittingly for the coming event. There is a most incessant system of telegraphing kept up and the least appearance of approaching sails fill the place with the most fearful apprehensions. It is hard to account for the fact that Dom Miguel has paid the first installment towards the settlement of our claims. Our ship and the Frigate Constellation are the only vessels in the port that have shown him the least signs of even politeness. The two French frigates and the English Squadron have not offered him the least token of respect, whereas whenever he has passed down the bay in his yacht to review his fleet, we have given him a salute of twenty-one guns. Th French and English have not fired a gun and they think strange of our countenancing such a monster of a tyrant, and so ought every one who has any regard for the downfall of oppressors and the advancement of liberal governments. It is a stigma upon the honor of our flag and common country. It is a reflection upon the honor of the nation and its government that we should offer these attentions to a man who has imprisoned our seamen upon the pursuit of their lawful calling, attentions which even the vessels of monarchies have withheld from one so undeserving.

Today we not only saluted him as he passed us with a full complement of funs but we manned our rigging and gave him six hearty cheers. When passing the English & French National vessels, not the least mark of honor was given to hi,. What must they think of us. Ought this not to be made known to the government? He has treated our captain politely, it is true. But is that a reason why we should publicly countenance such a despot? But his reign is a short one. His vessels are so rotten and few in number that they  would not oppose the least resistance. His army is irresolute and badly disciplined. There is not the least doubt but that Dom Pedro will overthrow him without much trouble. The character of Miguel is not but a little estimated. He has only been regarded as the worst of tyrants when in fact he is the most consummate of fools. He is principally supported by the priests and the lawless bands of robbers that everywhere infest the country.

We shall most probably remain here until the present disturbances are terminated as the American residents are fearful of a massacre in the confusion of battle and look to our ship as an asylum. Wishing you health, happiness, and prosperity, I remain your sincere & obliged friend, — Jno. B. Elliot

Remember me to all your family.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s