Report on Petition of Charles Colvill
The Secretary of State, to whom was referred, by the House of Representatives, the Petition of Charles Colvill, praying to be paid the Amount of his Ransom from the Algerines, and of his Travelling Expenses, and that Measures be taken for procuring the Ransom of his late Fellow-Captives, with Instructions to examine the same, and report his Opinion thereon, has had the same under Examination, and thereupon Reports
That, as to so much of the Petition as prays that Measures may be taken for procuring the Ransom or Relief of Captains Obrian and Stevens, with their respective Crews, now at Algiers, he begs Leave to refer the House to his two Reports, laid before Congress at their last Session, on the Subject of those Captives, and of the Trade of the United States in the Mediterranean; wherein he stated as fully as was, or is now in his Power, the Situation of those Captives, the different Means, which might be adopted for their Liberation, leaving to the Wisdom of Congress to decide between these Means; since which, no Event of Consequence has come to the Knowledge of the Secretary of State, except that of the Death of the then Dey, and Succession of one of his Ministers to his place, the Effect of which Event, on the Practicability of liberating the Captives, is not known.
And as to so much of the Petition, as prays that the Petitioner may be paid the Amount of his Ransom, together with his Expenses in returning from Algiers to Philadelphia, it is submitted to the Consideration of the House, whether this Precedent might not be considered as authorizing the Friends of the Captives, or other private Persons, or Societies, to enter into Treaty for our Captives, separately, and to bid without Restraint, on the Presumption that the Public were to repay the Price; and whether this would not have the precise Effect of establishing a high Tariff for our future Captives, and thereby attracting piratical Expeditions against them of Preference, which has hitherto been so much the Obstacle to the Ransom of our unfortunate Countrymen: but the Secretary of State is of Opinion that whensoever they shall be ransomed at a Price which the Government shall approve, that then a corresponding Sum ought to be allowed by the United States for reimbursing the Ransom of this Petitioner: and that, in the meantime, such Sum might be advanced to the Petitioner, on Account thereof, as may relieve his present Necessities.
Nov. 14. 1791.
PrC (DLC); in clerk’s hand, except for date and signature; on verso in clerk’s hand: “Recorded and Examined.” FC (DNA: RG 59, SDR). Tr (DNA: RG 59, MLR); endorsed by Lear. Report was transmitted in TJ to Speaker of the House of Representatives, 14 Nov. 1791 (PrC in DLC).
On 4 Nov. 1791 the House of Representatives and the Senate both read petitions from Charles Colvill of Philadelphia, who had been captured by Algerian pirates in 1785 while serving on the Dauphin and ransomed from captivity five years later through the efforts of relatives who raised about $1,700 to secure his release (see Richard O’Bryen to TJ, 12 July 1790). Colvill’s petition to the Senate requested reimbursement for the money his brothers had expended to redeem him from captivity, and his petition to the House asked that he be paid “the amount of his ransom from slavery among the Algerines, together with his expenses in travelling from Algiers to Scotland, and from thence to America; as, also, that measures may be taken for procuring the ransom, or relief from slavery, of Captains O’Brian and Stevens, with their respective crews, being citizens of the United States, and now in slavery at Algiers.” The Senate referred the petition it received from Colvill to a committee considering the plight of American captives in Algiers, while the House submitted its copy of the petition to TJ with a request that he report on it to that body (Petition of Charles Colvill to Congress, 4 Nov. 1791, DNA: RG 59, MLR; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826, 9 vols. description ends , i, 449; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, Gales, 1820–1821, 5 vols. description ends , i, 336; attested copy by John Beckley of House resolution on Colvill of 4 Nov. 1791, DNA: RG 59, MLR).
The House and the Senate continued to consider Colvill’s petitions even after the submission of TJ’s report, but in the end they evidently accepted the wisdom of TJ’s contention that acceding to these solicitations would merely encourage the Algerians to demand more exorbitant ransoms in order to secure the release of any Americans they captured. None of the Philadelphian’s requests for money were granted; indeed, Colvill was still petitioning the House as late as 1796 to recompense him for the expenses incurred by his redemption (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826, 9 vols. description ends , i, 453, 580, 581, 586, 587, ii 515, 523; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, Gales, 1820–1821, 5 vols. description ends , i, 349, 354, 394).
Colvill’s call for additional measures to redeem his former shipmates in Algiers enjoyed greater success. Within less than a month after TJ’s report was submitted to the House of Representatives, the Senate committee to which Colvill’s petition had been referred asked the Secretary of State to devise a plan for negotiating a treaty of peace with Algiers and ransoming the American captives. TJ promptly complied with this request, and several months later the American government officially adopted such a plan (see Pierce Butler to TJ, 2 Dec. 1791; TJ to Pierce Butler, 2 Dec. 1791; TJ to John Paul Jones, 1 June 1792).
The two reports cited by TJ are printed as Documents iii and iv in group of documents on reports on Mediterranean trade and Algerine captives, under 28 Dec. 1790. In preparation for his report on Colvill, TJ wrote a brief letter to Tobias Lear on 9 Nov. 1791, requesting “a copy of the Resolution of Senate [he believes of Feb. 1. 1791] advising the redemption of our captives at Algiers” (RC in DLC: William W. Corcoran Papers; see also JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States … to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress, Washington, 1828 description ends , i, 72).