Thomas Jefferson Papers
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James Riley to Thomas Jefferson, 19 December 1818

From James Riley

New York Decr 19th 1818

Venerable Sir

Having (Since my return from Slavery in Africa) been appointed by mr James Simpson our old Consul in Morocco, his agent for Settling his accounts with Government (of about 23 years standing) and to petition Congress in his behalf for arrearages of pay to which he has always considered himself Justly entitled or for such other relief as Congress shall deem fit to afford him, in his present embarrassed circumstances, occasioned by his long residence in a Barbarous1 Country where his necessary expenditures have from the first been far more Considerable than his Salary allowed by law,

I take the liberty (though personally a stranger2) to enclose you a printed Copy of his representation & petition, which I shall in a few days cause to be laid before Congress, with a request that you will have the goodness to examine the Document. particularly, as many of the facts therin stated must have come within your official knowledge when Secretary of state & President of the United States

If mr Simpsons statements are true (which I have no reason to doubt from his general character) and if he has uniformly & faithfully as well as oeconomically discharged the Various duties of his office, with a pointed regard to the Public good,3 I think there cannot exist a doubt but he is entitled to the consideration & munificence of the government & the Country4

I have Visited mr Simpson & partook of his bounty & hospitality when in distress, he has expended besides his Salary all his private property in the Public service and has been forced to the humiliating necessity of applying5 to Congress, in order to enable him to pay debts he has been obliged to contract for his ordinary subsistence I have also to request you in mr Simpsons name to make such remarks on his representation & Petition as your knowledge of facts, benevolent character and Justice6 shall dictate and to forward them together with Such observations as you may think proper, to the Honle the Secy, of State, as early as convenient, in order that he may thereby be prepared to answer such questions as a committee of congress may propose on this, to mr Simpson, most interesting Subject,7

I have in common with my unprejudiced country-men always admired the sense & wisdom that conceived & wrote the declaration of our independence & the Statesman, philanthropist, & Philosopher, to whom my Country & mankind8 are indebted for Such unparralled benefits and I cherish a hope that it will be yet in my power once to behold the Father of our most Valuable institutions (the envy & the admiration of the civilized World,) that I may tell my Children with emotions of delight, I have seen the immortal Jefferson; reverence & adore & practice his liberal & enlightened, religious & republican principles & transmit them, as far as in you lies, to the latest posterity unimpaired

Please forgive this effusion of grattitude from the heart of one who has tasted & drank of the bitter cup of affliction in Barbary, & who has seen much of the tyranny and oppression heaped upon the devoted heads of civilized & christian Communities in Europe, & who can contrast with deep sensibelity their situation compared with ours

I should be happy to receive a line from you in Washington where I expect to be in 10 Days,

Wishing you health & every blessing, I am with considerations of veneration & Esteem & the most profound respect, Your most humble & devoted Servant

James Riley

RC (ViW: TC-JP); addressed: “Honle Thomas Jefferson Late President of the United States Monticello Virginia”; endorsed by TJ as received 28 Dec. 1818 and so recorded in SJL. Printed in W. Willshire Riley, ed., Sequel to Riley’s Narrative: being a series of Interesting Incidents in the Life, Voyages and Travels of Capt. James Riley (1851), 338–40. Enclosure not found.

James Riley (1777–1840), mariner and author, was a native of Middletown, Connecticut. He began a sailing career at age fifteen and commanded his own ship within five years. Riley’s maritime activities stalled during the Napoleonic wars, but in 1815 he set sail for the Cape Verde Islands as master and supercargo of the brig Commerce. After it was shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, a group of nomadic Arabs enslaved him and the other survivors. Riley managed to secure their purchase by a trader bound for Morocco, where the British consul ransomed the group. He returned to the United States in 1816 as a celebrity and published a popular account of his hardships in captivity. After several years in Washington as an agent for James Simpson, the United States consul at Tangier, Riley moved west, working in 1819 as a deputy surveyor in Ohio and Indiana before settling in Ohio with his family in 1821. There he spent several years as a farmer and miller and served in the lower house of the Ohio legislature, 1823–24. Following a series of financial setbacks and the onset of ill health, Riley moved with his family to New York in 1826. Two years later he resumed a seafaring career, eventually forming a partnership that specialized in trade between Morocco and the United States. As a result of his experience as a slave, Riley supported the work of the American Colonization Society and campaigned against the admission of Missouri as a slave state. He died at sea (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; Riley, An Authentic Narrative of the loss of the American Brig Commerce [1st ed., New York, 1817; 3d ed., New York, 1818, Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 7 (no. 334), TJ’s copy in CSmH]; Sequel to Riley’s Narrative; New York Evening Post, 8 Apr. 1840; Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 20 Apr. 1840).

On this date Riley sent a similar letter to James Madison (Madison, Papers, Retirement Ser., 1:394–6).

james simpson, United States consul at Gibraltar, 1794–96, and at Tangier thereafter, began to petition Congress in February 1818, initially requesting payment of $4,000 a year for his service since 1795 and later expanding his request to include a housing allowance. His application remained unsettled at his death in 1820 (JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States description ends , 1:157–8, 209, 3:217 [28, 29 May 1794, 19, 20 May 1796, 15 May 1820]; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States description ends , 11:203, 406, 13:157–8 [3 Feb., 1 Apr. 1818, 21 Jan. 1820]; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States description ends , 8:154–5, 287, 9:129–30, 411 [15 Jan., 19 Feb. 1819, 31 Jan., 13 May 1820]). Following his release from captivity, Riley visited Simpson in Tangier and stayed at the latter’s house in January 1816 prior to returning to the United States (Authentic Narrative [3d ed.], 381–2).

1Sequel to Riley’s Narrative: “barbarian.”

2Sequel to Riley’s Narrative: “personally unacquainted.”

3Sequel to Riley’s Narrative: “with a due regard to the public interest.”

4Sequel to Riley’s Narrative: “of his Government and country.”

5Sequel to Riley’s Narrative: “appealing.”

6Sequel to Riley’s Narrative: “sense of justice.”

7Sequel to Riley’s Narrative: “important subject,” with following two paragraphs omitted.

8Preceding two words interlined.

Index Entries

  • Adams, John Quincy; as secretary of state search
  • Congress, U.S.; petitions to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as president search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as secretary of state search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; praised for search
  • Riley, James; as agent for J. Simpson search
  • Riley, James; as slave search
  • Riley, James; identified search
  • Riley, James; letters from search
  • Simpson, James; as U.S. consul at Gibraltar and Tangier search
  • Simpson, James; petition of search
  • slavery; in North Africa search