James Madison Papers

To James Madison from James Leander Cathcart, 15 December 1803

From James Leander Cathcart

Nr: 16.

Leghorn 15th: Decr: 1803.


The enclosed papers1 will inform you of the loss of the United States Frigate the Philadelphia, of the deplorable situation of the Officers & crew, & of the steps which I have taken to alleviate their present sufferings until provision is made for them by government.

I have not a word to offer in extenuation of this fatal accident, it envolves incalculable consequences, & changes our position not only with Tripoli, but the whole of the Barbary States.

How glorious it would have been to have perish’d with the Ship, but how apt are we all to prefer a precarious, nay an ignominious life of slavery to a glorious death which would transmit our names to posterity and have establish’d a national character which time could not efface; while humanity recoils at the idea of launching so many souls into eternity, every thing great glorious & patriotic dictates the measure, & our national honor & pride demanded the sacrifice.

In compliance with your orders of the 16th: of last July,2 I have deliver’d cash & effects to Mr: Lear & to his order to the ammount of 32,000 dollars which with the bills I accepted drawn by Mr: Eaton while he remain’d at Tunis, the Credit I have forwarded for the relief of the crew of the Philadelphia & my own Salary & expences, ammounts to a sum considerably greater than that deposited in my hands for public use, exclusive of the cost of two suits of cloathing which I am preparing for each of those unfortunate men, I therefore request you to forward me cash or a credit on London to the ammount of ten thousand dollars to answer my engagements & for which I will hold myself accountable until final settlement.

The provision necessary for the crew of the Philadelphia while in captivity will ammount to about 2000 dollars per month, if sent out in cash in any of our vessels of war, Malta is the most proper place for its deposit on account of its proximity to Tripoli if a sum is to be negociated for that purpose Leghorn is the only place in the Mediterranean where it can be done to advantage, Exchange upon London is this day at 51d: for one per da 8/r or Leghorn current dollar.

If Government concludes to redeem our fellow Citizens immediately & sue for peace on the Bashaw’s own terms, it will cost us three hundred thousand dollars at least, exclusive of Consular presents & an Annuity of ten or fifteen thousand dollars; & if a Frigate is not given gratuitously to Tunis we will have a War with that Regency the succeeding year to the conclusion of a Peace with Tripoli, and it is not very probable that Algiers will view those concessions with indifference, to carry on the war to any effect it will be necessary to keep constantly two or three Frigates besides the light vessels now in this sea and ten gun boats which may be built in this port or in Naples in about five months & will cost about fifty thousand dollars, therefore viewing our present situation in any point of view we have little to expect but difficulty & an enormous expence, it remains for government to determine which mode of procedure will be most conducive to our interests.

If coercive measures had been pursued on the commencement of the war with Tripoli we should not at this moment be reduced to our present humiliating situation, if an accomodation for cash should now be determined on, it would be adviseable to send it on board the vessel that takes the negotiator to Tripoli, any sum in dollars may be procured in Leghorn for bills upon London provided sufficient time is given to procure it in, otherwise as in the purchase of Bullion in general, advantage will be taken, and its price will raise in proportion to the exigency of the demand.

I have not heard of Comodore Prebble since he was on his passage to Algiers, on his hearing of the above melancholy event, the first idea that he will conceive as an Officer will undoubtedly be to proceed off Tripoli with the small vessels & endeavor to entirely destroy the remains of the Frigate if he finds their is any possibility of the Tripolitans heaving her off the bank, in order to prevent them from useing her against us which would render them considerably more formidable, & consequently render it necessary to ⟨keep a greater⟩3 force upon their coast.

I send copys of this communication & enclosures to different parts of the Mediterranean in order to facilitate its speedy arrival, & I request you to acknowledge its receipts as soon as possible.

With grief as poignant, as any of the sufferers can possibly feel for this most unfortunate event, I have the honor to continue very respectfully. Sir Your most Obnt. Servnt:

James Lear. Cathcart

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