Thomas Jefferson Papers

James Leander Cathcart to Thomas Jefferson, 27 August 1821

From James Leander Cathcart

Washington 27th Augt 1821

Venerable and respected Sir

After a lapse of more than fourteen years, permit me most respectfully to enquire, how do you enjoy your health? and to hope that it may be long preserved in as perfect a state as I have ever wish’d it to be in—

Vicissitude my good Sir marks all human events! and how many of them have I experienced since I first had the honor of your personal acquaintance in 1796: then just return’d from a cruel state of captivity of eleven years continuance, in which I arrived at the highest station a christian could attain, which enabled me to be of essential service to my country in laying the basis of our first Treaty with Algiers, at the risk of my life, and on very favorable terms, considering that at that period we had more than one hundred of our fellow citizens in chains, & not one vessel of war a float to protect our commerce, and that Portugal at the same time offer’d through the mediation of Spain assisted by Great Britain, a larger sum than was promised by the United States for peace, which by my influence and Agency was rejected, although that power had a squadron station’d at Gibraltar sufficient to confine the whole navy of Algiers in their ports; and it is well known to Captn Richard OBrien who is the only survivor of all those who were in anyway connected with our first negotiation with that Regency, that I was offer’d by those powers a gratuity and employment which would have render’d me independent for life, if I would use my influence with the Dey & Minist[r]y so as to effect a peace for Portugal on the same terms that I procured peace for the United States, which before our Treaty was sign’d, I rejected with disdain; it is likewise establish’d by document on file in the Dept of State, in addition to the preceding, that I procured a Truce with Tunis for eight months, by my own personal influence, without instructions, & without puting the United States to any expense whatever, that my life was for many months in jeopardy, in consequence of my exertions to repress the Deys impatience under the unavoidable delays which took place in fulfilling the stipulations of the Treaty after it was enter’d into, & that to prevent a rupture, which besides the capture of our vessels, & the enslaving of our fellow citizens, would have envolved in its consequence the loss of all the presents which had already been made to that Regency, to a very considerable amount, I purchased a Polacca at Algiers, man’d her with Moors & navigated her at my own expense, with despatches to Alicant, Lisbon, & Philadelphia, and a letter from the Dey to General Washington then President of the United States, which insured a further respite of nine months & enabled the United States to comply with their agreements, & saved the peace of the nation; and let it be remember’d, that services render’d in 1794.5.6 were of importance in proportion to our total want of the means to repel insult & indignity offer’d to us by the States of Barbary, and ought not to be forgotten in 1821 when we have a fleet of sufficient force to annihilate the whole naval force of the Ottoman empire—My conduct while one of the Commissioners to effect an alteration in our treaty with Tunis, and the arrangement which I made with the Bashaw of Tripoli without instructions in 1799, was highly approved, and was of much importance, for in lieu of a vessel of war of fourteen guns, & a cargo of maratime and military stores, worth at least 60,000 dollars, besides the risk of taking them out during the disturbance with France, which had been promised as the price of peace, and which I was authorized by my instructions to assure the Bashaw should be sent out as soon as possible; notwithstanding his great impatience, two years having elaps’d since our Treaty was concluded with him, I prevaild upon him to receive 18,000 dollars in cash & bills, and received his receipt under the Seal of the Regency in full of all demands from the United States for ever; & altho’ this perfidious Chief in little more than two years afterwards, declared war against us, I temporized with him a sufficient length of time to alarm our commerce, and a thing unprecedented in the annals of Barbary, not one of our vessels* were captured by his Cruisers, although the Mediterranean was crowded with them, but on the contrary, his Admiral, and Vice Admiral were blockaded by our Squadron in the bay of Gibraltar; & had Commodore Dale arrived only four days sooner, he would have captured the whole of the Tripolitan Squadron—

The appointments which I receiv’d afterwards for Tunis, & Algiers, only subjected me to trouble, vexation, & expense; the price of my acceptance at Tunis was a promise, that I would use my influence to induce the government to present the Bashaw of Tunis with the Adams, or another Frigate of equal force, this I peremptorily refused to do, & destroy’d his expectation of ever receiving a Frigate from us; had I temporized in order to promote my own interest, a promise to recommend the measure, at some future period would have been construed by the Bashaw to have been a promise of the Frigate, & would have subjected me to the merited censure of my own government, to which I prefer’d the enmity of the Bashaw, great personal inconvenience & expense, & the ruin of all my prospects; besides it was known that before I had left the United States, that I had recommended to our government to prohibit their Consuls in the Barbary States from every description of commerce, & that I had acted upon that principle when the Bashaw of Tripoli offer’d, indeed he requested me, to take the choice of fourteen Sweedish prizes, or all of them, which were then in his Port, on credit, and on very advantageous terms, which I politely declined, and that during the whole time I was Consul in Barbary, that I kept myself independent of the Jews & their colleagues, by having no commercial dealings with them whatever; this produced a coalition between the Jew brokers in the three Barbary States, and those concern’d with them in trade, who were dependent on them for loans, who represented me as a person inimical to the interests of those States, which was certainly true, so far as they operated against our own, & prevented me from being received, because they knew that I would neither trade with them, nor employ them to transact the business of the United States, which I was competent to transact myself, without paying them, heavy brokerage for their imaginary influence, which would only subject me to their impositions, a proof of this was evidenced by the release of the Brig Catharine of Newyork, which was brought into Tripoli with a cargo worth 50,000 dollars which I procured, without puting the United States to any expense whatever; a reference to the accounts of our Consuls at Algiers who were always dependent on the Jews, will prove, that hardly any vessel that was sent in by the Cruisers of that Regency, was ever released without a considerable expense, indeed my accounts speaks a very plain language, their whole amount from 1797 to 1805 including my compensation, & every other expense, does not amount to the value of the vessel of war, & maratime & military stores which I was authorized to promise to that Regency by my instructions, or rather to confirm the promise already made when Peace was concluded; to which may be added the imbecility of our commanding officer, for which he was dismiss’d the service immediately after his return to the United States; These Sir are the true causes of my returning home in 1805 in much worse circumstances than when I went out, while others who neither possess’d the knowledge of the manners, customs, or language of the Country, or had the same opportunity that I had, return’d home in independent circumstances, & although I do not assert, that they were enrich’d by the spoils of their country, I do not hesitate to say without fear of contradiction, that the priviledges which they enjoy’d, could not be obtain’d by any Consul, without sacrificing the interests, & in some instances the honor of the nation they represented—

My next tour of duty was to Madeira for more than eight years, during which period it was found necessary to resort to restrictive measures, & war, which destroy’d all my prospects of a commercial nature, & I suffer’d severely; except the duties of the Consulate, & the procuring flags of truce for four Cartels, in which I restored a great number of my fellow citizens to their country, I had it not in my power to be of any great service, & I return’d to the United States to make some commercial arrangements, some months after the peace in 1815—On my arrival I found that our late President the worthy & respected Mr Madison before his departure from the seat of government during the recess, had order’d a commission to be made out for me as Consul at Cadiz, as this was unsolicited on my part, & evidently given to me as a reward for former services, it was too flattering a mark of approbation for me to refuse accepting, although the state of commerce was such, as not to authorize very flattering expectations; I therefore left a certainty of small importance indeed, for an uncertainty, which might, or might not meliorate my situation; I went to Cadiz in the winter season without my family, & took possession of the Consulate, return’d in the same, & in the spring took my family to Spain, where we remain’d until the summer of 1817 when I was obliged to return home, to prevent myself from being involved in debt, as the trade between the United States and Cadiz was so inconsiderable, & had so many competitors, that it did not furnish means sufficient to pay house rent, much less to maintain a large family, & to pay the impositions of the officers of the Spanish govt levied annually under the title of presents, without the payment of which, it was impossible to transact business in any of the public offices, & we would be subjected daily to the most vexatious acts of injustice! Thus what was intended as a reward for my former services only precipitated my ruin, & by circumstances which was not under the control of any human being; Four years have since elaps’d during which, except for some months in which I was employ’d on an Agency in Louisiana, & the territory now State of Alabama, exposed a great part of the time to the inclemency of the weather in an open boat on the Gulf of Mexico, the lakes, Mississippi, Tombegbe, & Alabama rivers, I have been soliciting employment from government without success; the money which I received from Congress in 1820 arrears of old accounts, is all expended in paying the debts contracted for the maintenance & education of my family before I received it, and I am now in the fifty fifth year of my age, after so many years faithful service in difficult, responsible, expensive, & unproductive situations, in which my conduct has met the approbation of every successive administration of our government since it commenced, reduced to indigence, afflicted with the rheumatism, which renders great bodily exertion impossible, & with a family of ten children to maintain and to educate, the eldest of six of whom is only fourteen years, & the youngest fourteen months old, whose chief dependence is on the precarious hire of a carriage & horses for support—

Until 1818 I had not the most distant idea that it was necessary for a person who had been so long in public service as I have been, to solicit recommendations from any one, but my friends inform’d me that it is customary, & procured for me those of which the inclosed are copies, and are from influential characters, the appointment then solicited has not been made, others which I have applied for, have been given to more fortunate candidates, & I find myself neglected & my services and recommendations forgotten; while the very circumstance of my having been employ’d abroad for so many years, renders me less capable to provide for my family, than those who have been stationary, & have taken advantage of circumstances, & made connections, either political, or commercial, which have insured them permanent employ.

Under these distressing & mortifying circumstances, knowing the goodness of your heart, I have ventured, most respectfully to solicit your kind aid, and patronage, a letter of recommendation from you my good Sir would have more weight than all I have, or may be able to procure, and would induce the President to take my situation into consideration, & grant my request, but should any unsurmountable impediment prevent the success of my application in so direct a manner, may I flatter myself that you will have the goodness to express your opinion (either to me, or in any other way most eligible to you) of my former services, and how far you think they merit, & give me a claim for future employment in common with my fellow citizens—

I am very sensible both of the nature & magnitude of the request, & fear that I may be accused of presuming too much on your Philanthropy in making it, but when I look around me, & see my little children in danger of being in want of food, & what is worse, education, for I would sooner attend them to their graves, than see them grow up in ignorance, a secret monitor emboldens me to make the request, & tells me that you are a father yourself, & that when you (on reflection) perceive that a few lines from you will raise the drooping spirits, & form the fortunes of a large family & their descendants, that strong must be the reasons indeed which will induce you to with hold them

I have conversed with many of the Senators, who have express’d some surprize that amongst the many appointments which have been made in the last four years that I have not been able to procure a situation, they would recommend me themselves, but say, as it is their duty to confirm, or to reject, it would have the appearance of interfering with the executive authority, & several of them have assured me, that any appointment which the President would confer on me,would be confirm’d by the Senate

My necessities are of such a nature, that I would accept of any appointment either at home, or abroad, which would furnish me with the means to educate my children, to this (to me) all important point, all my energies are directed, to sacrifice my own ease & comfort for their benefit is a duty to which I would submit most cheerfully, but as I never intend to remove my family from the United States again, having already expended a small fortune in passages & the loss on sales of furniture, I would certainly prefer a situation of less importance at home to any abroad which would be offer’d to me; yet I would gladly have accepted the appointment to Buenos Ayres which was confer’d on a person who had not a large family born in public service, in Barbary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, & the United States to support as I have, whose services have not been so important as mine, & with whose talents & knowledge of the Spanish language, I have the ambition to think, that mine (poor as they may be supposed to be) might have been held in competition—


Should I be so fortunate as to succeed in this my appeal to your philanthropy, gratitude & the prayers of a large family is the only tribute we have to offer, which with the consciousness of having done a generous act, I am persuaded is to a noble mind the most acceptable, & inspires feelings the most enviable; should disappointment & misfortune still be our portion, I respectfully request you, not to lessen the personal esteem I have experienced on so many occasions, nor the good opinion which you formerly express’d of my conduct & abilities to the Senate in 1802 for I am not conscious to have merited it, but to attribute my presumption to the great anxiety which I feel for the welfare of an almost helpless family who are generally esteem’d amiable, & whatever may be their fate, you may be assured, that as they ever have implored, they will still continue to implore the Omnipotent ruler of the Universe to prolong your valuable life, & to bless you with temporal & eternal happiness—

With the highest respect & veneration, and with the most cordial esteem, permit me the honor to subscribe myself

Good & respected Sir Your often Obliged & most devoted Obedient Servt

James Leander Cathcart

Yet! notwithstanding my services have been approved, & I have been told that the administration is well disposed towards me, I am neglected, & left with my wandering tribe of Africans, Italians Spaniards, Portuguese, and Americans, to pine away, in anxious expectation and want, without any provision being made for me, while frequently I have the additional mortification of seeing others preferred to me; this unfortunate circumstance brings to my recollection an anecdote of James the 2nd of England, who in conversation with a Mr Floyd who had render’d some service to his country, and was gentleman in waiting for the day, observed, “That he never knew a modest man get forward in a Court,” To which Mr Floyd laconically replied, “Whose fault is that Sire”? The Monarch stood corrected, and Mr Floyd was provided for!!!—

RC (DLC: TJ Papers, 213:38033–8, 215:38447); dateline adjacent to closing and signature; mutilated; enclosures subjoined; with postscript in Cathcart’s hand following all enclosures; beneath signature: “To the Venerable & much Respected Thomas Jefferson of Virginia”; endorsed by TJ on final page of postscript as received 6 Sept. 1821 and so recorded in SJL.

more than fourteen years had elapsed since the last letter between Cathcart and TJ, which was one from the former dated 19 Dec. 1806 (DNA: RG 59, LAR, 1801–09).

While he was a slave in Algiers, Cathcart attained the station of chief Christian secretary to the Dey and Regency, a post that he claimed enabled him to advocate for the reception of an American negotiator for the 1795 United States Treaty of Peace and Amity with Algiers. He also assisted in the negotations, especially in regard to the sum paid for the treaty and the ransoming of other American hostages (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, repr. 1968, 20 vols. in 10 description ends ; Miller, Treaties description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and other International Acts of the United States of America, 1931–48, 8 vols. description ends , 2:313). Late in 1795 Cathcart helped to obtain a truce with tunis guaranteed by Ali Hassan, dey of Algiers (Miller, Treaties description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and other International Acts of the United States of America, 1931–48, 8 vols. description ends , 2:426). A polacre (polacca) is a ship with two or three masts each formed from a single spar (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ).

The 5 May 1796 letter from the dey of Algiers, Ali Hassan, delivered by Cathcart to George Washington, requested that the United States comply with the terms of the 1795 treaty (DNA: RG 59, CD, Algiers). As special diplomatic agent to Tunis, Cathcart helped William Eaton secure the alteration in 1799 of the 1797 Treaty of Peace and Friendship that had been negotiated by Joseph E. Famin (Miller, Treaties description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and other International Acts of the United States of America, 1931–48, 8 vols. description ends , 2:386, 414–5). Cathcart also used $1,500 in bribes to facilitate the 1799 arrangement with Yusuf Qaramanli, pasha and bey of Tripoli. When further demands went unmet Tripoli declared war on the United States in May 1801 (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, repr. 1968, 20 vols. in 10 description ends ).

In June 1802 Tripolitan corsairs captured the brig franklin, an American merchant vessel from Philadelphia (Gardner W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs [1905; repr. 2005], 111–2). Commodore Richard dale arrived at Gibraltar at the helm of an American squadron on 1 July 1801 and blockaded two of Tripoli’s ships under the command of Murad Reis (Allen, Our Navy, 91, 94). The brig catharine had been captured and detained by Tripoli in September 1800 before the commencement of the First Barbary War, with Cathcart formally protesting the detention and plundering of the ship in his capacity as United States consul at Tripoli (Allen, Our Navy, 90).

In 1802 Richard V. Morris was made commanding officer of the United States naval squadron dispatched to Tripoli. He was also charged with overseeing negotiations with Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco. Morris was relieved of duty the following year due to his lack of success (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, repr. 1968, 20 vols. in 10 description ends ). cartels were ships used to exchange prisoners or proposals between hostile parties in times of war (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ).

The United States Congress passed on 15 May 1820 “An act for the relief of James Leander Cathcart,” according to which he received from congress $4,691 as reimbursement for funds he had spent as consul (JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States description ends , 9:417, 425; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States description ends , 13:539, 542–3). James Robinett was appointed United States consul at buenos ayres around May 1821 and held the position until the end of the year (Harold F. Peterson, Argentina and the United States, 1810–1960 [1964], 67).

On 1 Feb. 1802 TJ nominated Cathcart as consul at Algiers in a letter to the senate. In response to a query regarding this nomination, nine days later TJ advised Senator Abraham Baldwin that Cathcart was “pretty well known” to him and described him as “the honestest & ablest consul we have with the Barbary powers: a man of very sound judgment & fearless” (PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, James P. McClure, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 44 vols. description ends , 36:487, 557).

The anecdote of James II and David Floyd seems to have originated in a 1711 letter from George Granville (later Baron Lansdowne) to his younger cousin William Henry Granville, 3d Earl of Bath. It was widely reprinted without attribution thereafter. In George Granville’s telling of the story, the monarch merely “stood corrected, and was silent” (ODNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, 60 vols. description ends , 23:359, 361; Mr. Pope’s Literary Correspondence [London, 1735–37], 3:105).

Cathcart sent a similar letter and enclosures to James Madison on 18 Sept. 1821 and to John Adams on 12 Mar. 1822 (Madison, Papers, Retirement Ser., 2:384–91; MHi: Adams Papers).

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

* *The Franklin, the only vessel captured during the war was taken many months after the arrival of our Squadron

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; correspondence of search
  • Adams, USS (frigate) search
  • Algiers; 1795U.S. treaty with search
  • Algiers; American captives at search
  • Algiers; U.S. consulate at search
  • Ali Hassan, dey of Algiers; and diplomatic negotiations search
  • An act for the relief of James Leander Cathcart (1820) search
  • Baldwin, Abraham; as U.S. senator search
  • Bath, William Henry Granville, 3d Earl of; correspondence of search
  • Buenos Aires; U.S. consul at search
  • Cádiz; U.S. consul at search
  • Catharine (brig); captured by Tripoli search
  • Cathcart, James Leander; family of search
  • Cathcart, James Leander; letter from search
  • Cathcart, James Leander; seeks position search
  • Cathcart, James Leander; TJ on search
  • Congress, U.S.; and compensation for consuls search
  • Dale, Richard; American naval commander search
  • Eaton, William; as U.S. consul at Tunis search
  • Famin, Joseph Etienne; negotiates treaty with Tunis search
  • Floyd, David; and James II, king of England search
  • Franklin (brig); captured by Tripoli search
  • Hammuda Pasha, Bey of Tunis; and relations with U.S. search
  • James II, king of England; anecdote of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; letters of application and recommendation to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; J. L. Cathcart search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as president search
  • Jews; in Barbary states search
  • Lansdowne, George Granville, Baron; correspondence of search
  • Madeira Islands; U.S. consul at search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); and appointments search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); correspondence of search
  • Monroe, James (1758–1831); and appointments search
  • Morris, Richard Valentine; dismissal of search
  • O’Brien, Richard; and U.S. negotiations with Algiers search
  • patronage; letters of application and recommendation to TJ search
  • Portugal; and Algiers search
  • Qaramanli, Yusuf, pasha and bey of Tripoli; and diplomatic negotiations search
  • Reis, Murad; as Tripolitan naval commander search
  • Robinett, James; as U.S. consul at Buenos Aires search
  • Senate, U.S.; and appointments search
  • Tripoli; relations with U.S. search
  • Tunis; 1797U.S. treaty with search
  • Tunis; U.S. truce with search
  • Washington, George; correspondence with Ali Hassan, dey of Algiers search