On February 29, 1820, Secretary of the Navy (and future Supreme Court Justice) Smith Thompson wrote someone (probably President Monroe) that David Farragut and seven other Midshipmen were entitled to be examined for promotion in the Navy. The named individuals “were at sea, and not in a situation to offer themselves, and of course cannot, under the Rules & Regulations of the Navy, become Candidates for promotion. It is, however, thought, justice to them requires, that when examined they should be entitled to their relative rank, according to merit, among those who were examined.”
Farragut arrived home from the Mediterranean on November 20, 1820. He later wrote that “I was ordered to New York for my examination, and went in much trepidation, for this was only the second examination which had been held in our naval service, and we had very little information as to what course would be pursued by the Board. I felt qualified in seamanship, but doubtful as to mathematics.” While studying to be a Naval lieutenant, Farragut became fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic. He passed the exam on his second try.
Farragut wasn’t actually nominated to be a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy until December 16, 1824 (not enough vacancies). Navy Secretary Samuel Southard’s message accompanying Monroe’s list of Naval nominees provides a great deal of insight into the promotion process:
“. . . [T]he Department, for several successive years, appointed a board of competent officers, to examine midshipmen of a particular age in the service. All of the age specified were required to offer themselves for this examination, and if they failed to do so, without a satisfactory excuse, they were to be considered out of the service. The understanding . . . was, that [the officers] should, at an early day after their examination, be promoted, if their character and conduct were found to be correct, and they exhibited a proper degree of professional skill. Some of them did pass the examination in the first years, and were promoted. Others were examined in 1820, ’21, ’22, who have not yet received commissions. Most of them are skillful and highly meritorious, and it seems due to them that their promotion no longer be delayed. Since their examination, also, many officers of the higher grades have died and resigned, amounting in number, probably to more than those now proposed for promotion; and it has often happened within the last two years [it happened to Farragut], that the services of most of these midshipmen have been necessary in the character of lieutenants, and they have temporarily acted as such.”
My own Samuel Southard autograph: