See his biography written in 1816 by H. A. S. Dearborn (ed. by J. Barnes, 1931).
The war tended to make trade difficult for neutrals. Bainbridge had therefore to expect, and when he could to elude or beat off, much interference on the part of French and British cruisers alike. He is said to have forced a British schooner, probably a privateer, which attacked him when on his way from Bordeaux to St Thomas, to strike, but he did not take possession. On another occasion, he is said to have taken a man out of a British ship in retaliation for the impressment of an American seaman by HMS Indefatigable, then commanded by Sir Edward Pellew. When the United States navy was organized, in 1798, he was included in the corps of naval officers, and appointed to the schooner Retaliation. She was on one occasion seized by the French, but afterwards released.
In 1800, Bainbridge was sent to carry the tribute which the United States still paid to the dey of Algiers to secure exemption from capture for its merchant ships in the Mediterranean. Upon arrival in the 24-gun George Washington, he made the tactical mistake of anchoring in the harbor of Algiers--directly under the guns of the fort. The dey demanded that he ferry the Algierian ambassador and retinue to Constantinople or be blown to bits on the spot. With great disgust, Bainbridge raised the Algerian flag on his masthead and submitted to the embarrassment of serving as the dey's messenger service.
When the United States found that bribing the pirate Barbary states did not work, and decided to use force, he served against Algiers and Tunis. In command of Philadelphia, when she ran aground on the Tunisian coast on 29 December 1803, he was imprisoned until 3 June 1806. On his release, he returned for a time to the merchant service in order to make good the loss of profit caused by his captivity.
With the conclusion of the campaign against the Barbary states, the US Navy was downsized and nearly all of her frigates remained in port. Congress forced a change to this policy in early 1809. Bainbridge took command of the frigate President in 1809 and began patrolling off the Atlantic coast in September of that year. Bainbridge was transferred to shore duty in June, 1810.
When the War of 1812 broke out between the United Kingdom and the United States, Bainbridge was appointed to command the frigate Constitution (44), in succession to Captain Isaac Hull. The Constitution was a very fine ship of 1,533 tons, which had already captured the HMS Guerrière. Under Bainbridge she was sent to cruise in the South Atlantic. On the 29 December 1812 he fell in with HMS Java, a vessel of 1,073 tons, formerly the French frigate Renommée of 40 guns. She was on her way to the East Indies, carrying the newly appointed lieutenant-governor of Bombay. She had a very raw crew, including very few real seamen, and her men had only had one day’s gunnery drill. The United States Navy paid great attention to its gunnery, which the British Navy, misled by its easy victories over the French, had greatly neglected. In these conditions, the fate of the Java was soon sealed. She was cut to pieces and forced to surrender, after suffering heavy losses, and inflicting very little damage to the Constitution. During the action, Bainbridge was wounded twice.
After the conclusion of the war with Britain, Bainbridge served against the Barbary pirates in the Second Barbary War.
Several ships of the Navy have since been named USS Bainbridge in his honor. Bainbridge Island, Washington is named after Commodore Bainbridge, as well as Bainbridge, Ohio, near Chillicothe, Ohio. Bainbridge, Georgia is named for him, as well as Old Bainbridge Road in Tallahassee, a major route. The now deactivated Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Port Deposit, Cecil County, Maryland was named for him.