Charles & Delia Stewart: An Ill-Assorted Match

Captain Charles Stewart by Thomas Sully, 1811-1812

Captain Charles Stewart by Thomas Sully, 1811-1812

Among the guests at Napoleon’s Point Breeze birthday party in Napoleon in America are Commodore Charles Stewart and his wife Delia, neighbours of Napoleon’s brother Joseph. Stewart was a national hero – the commander of the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) during the War of 1812. Delia was the belle of Boston, with a talent for spending other people’s money. They had one of the worst marriages in early 19th-century America.

A sailor and a socialite

Charles Stewart was born on July 28, 1778 in Philadelphia, to Irish parents. When Stewart was two years old, his father died. His mother married a local merchant and ship owner who introduced young Charles to George Washington, something that apparently made quite an impression on the boy. He also ensured that Stewart received a decent education at the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia.

When he was 13, Stewart began working as a cabin boy on a merchant ship that sailed to the West Indies. Four years later, he had command of his own ship – a merchantman that traveled to the Far East. At age 19, Stewart joined the US Navy as a lieutenant. Stewart served in the Quasi-War against France and in the First Barbary War. During the War of 1812, he commanded several vessels, most notably the USS Constitution, otherwise known as “Old Ironsides.” Under Stewart’s command, on February 20, 1815, the Constitution captured the British warships HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, propelling Stewart to stardom.

Shortly after assuming command of the Constitution, Stewart met an ambitious Boston socialite named Delia Tudor. Delia was born on January 8, 1787 to one of the most prominent families in New England. Her father, William Tudor, had served as a clerk in the law office of John Adams and as a private secretary to George Washington. According to her brother-in-law, Delia

was imbued with a most remarkable energy of character and she possessed a perseverance which no difficulties could check. She had a large frame and her motions were naturally neither easy nor graceful, but by long and unwearied exertions, she acquired the power of moving and dancing with grace and elegance. The same determination for excellence had enabled her to acquire great power both with the harp and piano…. She…had acquired sufficient knowledge of Latin to read the poets with ease and pleasure, [had] some knowledge of German, and spoke French, Spanish and Italian with fluency. (1)

Delia Tudor Stewart by Gilbert Stuart, about 1815

Delia Tudor Stewart by Gilbert Stuart, about 1815

In 1807, at the age of 20, Delia traveled to Europe, hoping to find a wealthy and well-connected husband. She spent lavishly, moved in fashionable society, and was presented at Napoleon’s court, but did not succeed in marrying. When, in 1812, her brother compelled her to return to Boston due to lack of funds, she was miserable and let everyone know it. Her brother told her the only way to improve her situation was to wed.

Charles Stewart was introduced to Delia as a “very able and gallant officer, holding high rank in the service, as a man of more than common ability, and at the same time very rich.” (2) Unfortunately she “felt a repugnance” toward him.

His manners were coarse and unpolished, though probably not more so than Lord Nelson’s, who he was said to resemble in person. (3)

Her brother, seeing no other prospect for his sister, talked up Stewart’s wealth, generosity and station in society. Eventually Delia allowed Stewart to court her. They were married on November 25, 1813 at Trinity Church in Boston. “Never was a match more ill assorted,” wrote her brother-in-law.

Stewart, possessed of great nautical skill, showed great judgment and determination in command, but he was sensual, fond of gaming and of convivial company, retaining the feelings of the forecastle from which he had been elevated, and neither knowing nor caring anything for the accomplishments of polished life.

[Delia], with a cold temperament and indifferent to the pleasures of the table, placed her happiness in shining in society. (4)

They quarreled on their wedding night and things went downhill from there. Though Stewart had made a modest fortune as a merchantman between the wars, his bank account could not keep pace with Delia’s spending. Hoping to remove his wife from the financial demands of high society, Stewart in 1815 bought a 225-acre estate called Montpelier in Bordentown, New Jersey (the house later became known as “Old Ironsides”). Their children Delia (born in 1816) and Charles (1818) were born there. A third child died shortly after birth.

In 1817, President James Monroe picked Stewart to command the US Mediterranean Squadron. The income Stewart left Delia in his absence was not sufficient to satisfy her tastes, so she began to sell his furniture and other items of value. She found life in Bordentown dull and lonely.

[S]he would become restless, rush up to Boston without an object, and then back again. Her excessive love of admiration made her uneasy, except in society. Fond of flattery, which could not be too gross to be acceptable, she constantly invited it by the excessive flattery she bestowed upon others. (5)

Delia became a frequent guest at the home of her neighbour, Joseph Bonaparte, from whom she also borrowed money.

La Commodora and the Spanish spy

In 1821, when Stewart was named commodore of the newly created US Pacific Squadron, he insisted that his wife come with him, out of fear that leaving her alone could leave him bankrupt. He had an extra cabin built on the upper deck of his ship, the USS Franklin, to accommodate Delia, the children and her maids. According to one of the midshipmen:

Mrs. Stewart was evidently bent upon making a great show among the natives. Her wardrobe was extensive and the talk of the city and amused the New York society not a little, and gave a tone to our preparations and equipment almost regal. I do not pretend to give the list of outfits but they were enumerated and laughed over. I am afraid to name the quantities of dresses, superb costumes for balls and parties. The bills were the astonishment of the Commodore, but they were paid, though the baggage which encumbered the cabins greatly moved his equanimity. I imbibed the impression that one of the reasons he assented to her accompanying him was that of economy; she was known to be an extravagant woman and to leave her behind ruinous, for he was not rich enough to meet a twofold establishment, and concluded it was economy to have her companionship. The marriage was a very unsuitable one and as the peculiarities of Mrs. Stewart’s temper and desire for him to maintain her accordingly increased, he was gradually becoming more and more cynical. (6)

The Franklin set sail October 11, 1821. Behind her back Delia soon earned the nickname of “La Commodora.” She enjoyed playing the role of a grand lady. She would extract money from the officers, often simply to dispense it to the beggars she met in port, who thanked her with great flattery. The crew

generally ceased to respect her though every attention was paid her outwardly…. I was disposed to think at first that the Commodore treated her rather cavalierly if not harshly, but on the whole I am sure he had to exercise great patience and forbearance. If left to herself she would have had all the ship’s officers and crew under her control. A positive order debarred any attention or orders being received from her and boats were prohibited from waiting for her on shore…. Oh she was dreadfully annoying to live with at times and tried his temper not a little. (7)

Stewart had his officers keep track of the money his wife owed, and he diligently repaid her debts. If this had been the worst of it, their marriage might have survived. However, probably due more to lack of judgement than to malice, in the summer of 1822 Delia smuggled a stowaway aboard the Franklin. She met the man, who called himself Madrid or Valdes, in the Peruvian port of Callao, which was under the control of the Patriots – the forces fighting for independence from Spain. Bearing a letter from one of Delia’s friends in Lima, Madrid told Delia he had been a passenger on a ship from Rio de Janeiro, which had been taken by a Patriot cruiser. Without a passport, he faced imprisonment. Delia took pity on him, helped him sneak onto the ship, and ordered her husband’s steward to take care of him. Though several of the officers learned of Madrid’s presence, no one told Stewart about him. When the ship reached Quilca, further south on the Peruvian coast and still under Spanish control, Madrid slipped out one of the portholes and disappeared onshore.

About a year later, when the Franklin again called at Callao (of which the Spanish had regained possession), Madrid appeared on the ship in a Spanish uniform, accompanying the captain of the port, and asked to speak to Delia. A member of the crew recognized him, and Stewart found out what had happened. He was furious. In accordance with official US policy, Stewart’s instructions were to remain strictly neutral in the conflict between Spain and her colonies.

His rage against his wife became unbounded, and he adopted a most original mode of showing it. He determined never to open his lips again to her during the remainder of the voyage, but she was compelled to take her usual seat at table without the least notice from her husband, and…no change was made during the long voyage from the Pacific to New York. (7)

The Franklin arrived in New York on August 29, 1824. In December Stewart met with John Quincy Adams, who advised him he would have to face a court-martial to clear his name of the charge of having carried a Spanish spy aboard his ship, as well as some lesser charges. There were rumours that Delia had accepted a bribe from, or been in love with, the spy. Though encouraged by her family to go and support her husband, Delia remained in Bordentown for the whole 12 months that Stewart was in Washington preparing for his trial. She did not visit him and did not give the children an opportunity to see him. She refused even to answer Stewart’s appeals for an explanation of particular details raised by the case. The court-martial convened on August 18, 1825 and concluded on September 5. Stewart was honorably acquitted of all charges, but was thoroughly embarrassed.

Divorce and aftermath

When Charles Stewart returned to Bordentown he ordered Delia to leave the house, saying he would not sleep under the same roof as her. Delia refused to leave, and would not consent to a separation. Stewart was equally opposed to a reconciliation. He engaged his friend Joseph Hopkinson (another Bordentown resident and friend of Joseph Bonaparte) as his lawyer. When Delia wanted to push the case to court in the hope of getting a better settlement, Hopkinson advised her lawyer that he had evidence that would prevent any court from allowing her more than normal alimony, and would prove that she was not a suitable person to have charge of her children. Hopkinson said,

She has borrowed money of…Joseph Bonaparte and you know what is the understanding when a married woman borrows money of a single gentleman without the knowledge of her husband. (8)

In 1829, Delia finally accepted the terms of the divorce: their daughter would remain with her; their son would stay with Stewart. Stewart would pay all of Delia’s debts incurred prior to 1825 and would pay her $800 per year. Delia took take up residence at her mother’s home in Washington, near Lafayette Square. She continued to call herself Mrs. Commodore Stewart.

On May 31, 1835, in New York, Charles and Delia Stewart’s daughter Delia married John Parnell of Ireland. Delia Stewart Parnell became the mother of the Irish nationalist political leader Charles Stewart Parnell. Delia Stewart later went to Ireland to be with her daughter. She died in Dublin on September 7, 1861, age 74.

Charles Stewart was without orders for five years after the court-martial. Around 1827 he began a long-term relationship with a woman named Margaret Smith, who moved into Montpelier and with whom he had a son, Edward Livingston Smith (he later assumed his father’s last name). From 1830 to 1833, Stewart served on the Board of Navy Commissioners, the principal advisory body to the Navy Secretary. In 1837 he returned briefly to active duty as commander of the USS Pennsylvania, America’s largest sailing man of war. In 1840 he was suggested as a possible Democratic candidate for the presidency.

In addition to serving in various advisory capacities to the Navy, Commodore Stewart was eventually given command of the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It was from this post that he retired in 1861 at the age of 83. In 1862, he was promoted to Rear Admiral on the retired list.

In the years between his commissions Stewart turned to farming, though he did not have much success at it. He was so annoyed at his neighbours’ pigs overrunning his fields and turnip patches that he threatened to shoot every trespassing porker, a sentence he grimly carried out.

A good sailor never made a good farmer. When the proprietor was at home the farm did badly enough; when he was away it did worse. Yet the Commodore was not impoverished. (10)

Charles Stewart died in Bordentown on November 6, 1869 at the age of 91. His funeral was the largest Philadelphia had ever seen. He is buried at Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.

You might also enjoy:

Fanny Fern on Marriage in the 19th Century

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Joseph Hopkinson, Joseph Bonaparte’s Great Friend

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American Sister-in-Law

  1. Robert Hallowell Gardiner, Early Recollections of Robert Hallowell Gardiner, 1782-1864 (Hallowell, ME, 1936), p. 167.
  2. Ibid., p. 168.
  3. Ibid., p. 168.
  4. Ibid., p. 169.
  5. Ibid., p. 170.
  6. Autobiography of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, U.S. Navy, 1798-1877, edited by William James Morgan, David B. Tyler, Joye L. Leonhart, Mary F. Loughlin (Washington, 1978), pp. 114-115.
  7. Early Recollections of Robert Hallowell Gardiner, p. 172.
  8. Autobiography of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, pp. 165-166.
  9. Early Recollections of Robert Hallowell Gardiner, p. 176.
  10. “Old Ironsides,” Hours at Home, Vol. 10 (March 1870), p. 474.

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Stewart ... was sensual, fond of gaming and of convivial company, ... neither knowing nor caring anything for the accomplishments of polished life. [Delia], with a cold temperament and indifferent to the pleasures of the table, placed her happiness in shining in society.

Robert Hallowell Gardiner