James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Lee, 20 January 1802

From William Lee, 20 January 1802

United States Agency Bordeaux Jany 20th. 1802


I take the liberty to enclose you a list of the Vessels which have entered and cleared at this Port from the 26 Octr. (the day on which I took charge of the Agency) to the 31 December. I wish it was more perfect but such is the unaccomodating disposition of our American Captains that there is no persuading them into any measure of public utility not enforced by the Government. Were they obliged by laws to exhibit their manifest and other papers to me, it would then be in my power to give a correct state of the supplies recd. at this market by which, means our merchants would be enabled to make accurate calculations.

I am much harrassed with the complaints and sufferings of American seamen, twenty of whom I have now in the Hospitals and there are at least one hundred and fifty strolling about the streets of this City in the greatest distress. Some of these men have been turned on shore from their respective Vessels upon the most frivo⟨lous⟩ pretences. Many have been discharged from Ships which have been sold, but most of them have collected here from Spain and different ports of the Republic; and they conduct in general in so unruly a manner, that the Commissary of Po⟨lice⟩ has lately written me the following letter respect⟨ing⟩ them.

Copy by translation

Liberty Equality

Police of Bordeaux

No. 3625

Bordeaux 25 Nivose 10th. Year of ⟨the⟩ French Republic One & indivisible

The Commissary General of Police

To the Agent of the United States of Ame⟨rica⟩


I am informed that a great many foreign sailors, most of whom call themselves Ame⟨ricans,⟩ are strolling about the streets of this City, and that ⟨those⟩ not belonging to any vessels have no place of resid⟨ence⟩ and therefore very easily escape the Inspection of ⟨the⟩ Police, and the ⟨research⟩ of the Citizens who feed and furnish them with necessaries. Their conduct author⟨izes⟩ me to consider them as vagabonds, and it is to be feared that they will disturb the public tranquillity.

It is therefore with a view of preventing such consequences as well as for the sake of your nation, that it appears to me an object of the first moment to compel these american Seamen to repair to their respective Ports. If you are of my opinion as I am sure you must be, I invite you to take such steps as you think necessary to hasten their departure from Bordeaux; and in case you need my interference to put this plan into execution, I will cooperate with you in the most efficacious manner.


for the Commissary General

the Secretary General

(sign’d) Babert

On receiving this letter, I assured the Commissary that I would do every thing in my power to remedy the evil he complained of; and accordingly, I have been for some days past, occupied in distributing among the American Vessels now in Port, all the idle Sailors to be found: and I have been so successful, that in a few days I hope to have only to provide for the Invalids and those who are in the hospitals; which I shall do by furnishing them with provisions, and procuring them a passage, in some Vessel, bound to the United States: the Captain of which, I shall take the liberty to refer to y⟨ou⟩ for such compensation, as you may judge fit to make.

The Ports of Europe are at this moment full of this valuable class of our Citizens; and it appears ⟨to me⟩ that if one of our national ships now in the Mediter⟨ran⟩ean, was ordered to visit on her return home some ⟨of⟩ the principal places, and to take on board all those Seamen who may be found in distress, or even if a ship was ordered out from America for that purpo⟨se,⟩ it would be attended with much less expence to the U States than the present mode of providing for thes⟨e⟩ fugitives.

In venturing this hint, permit me to ⟨go⟩ further, and suggest the necessity of a revisal of the law for the protection of Seamen, which in its present state is quite inadequate for the purposes intended. ⟨If⟩ Captains were not allowed to discharge their Crews in foreign ports upon any pretext whatever, it would put ⟨an⟩ end to the cruel treatment which seamen frequently experience from them, in order that they may be forced to ask for their discharge. When a vessel is sold abroad the captain should be obliged to procure his Crew a passage home, and to support them until they arrive there. As the Law at present stands, it is optional with the Master whether to find them a passage or to furnish them with a certain sum of money for that purpose, which has generally been fixed at two months advance; but the Captain has it always in his power to bring the sailors in debt, and of their two months advance there remains but a trifle. These alterations would go a great way toward preventing our seamen from becoming a charge to government and from entering into foreign service to the prejudice of the Commerce of the United States.

Among the many frauds practised upon our Citizens is one which I beg leave to mention to you as I fear, it is not in my power at present to remedy it, the Consular Convention not being in force nor any Law defining clearly the powers & duties of Consular agents.

Foreign merchants settled within the United States, and particularly Frenchmen are in the habits of purchasing damaged Tobacco Cotton Rice &c. at public auction which articles they Invoice at the highest market price, and then ship them taking care to be well covered by Insurance. When arrived at this port, the Captain as is usual makes his declaration and enters his protest of which the Consul procures a copy being well instructed to cause a survey ⟨of⟩ the Goods. This is usually done by a Broker in the pres⟨ence⟩ of two Justices of the Peace who create such an avera⟨ge⟩ of which they draw up a proce verbal (& for which they a⟨re⟩ well paid) as suits the factor and his friends who af⟨ter⟩ disposing of the goods at public sale come upon the underwriters for loss on sales damages &c. There are several French houses in NYork and Philadelphia ⟨who⟩ have made large fortunes by this nefarious practice⟨. In⟩ addition to the losses which our underwriters susta⟨in⟩ by this means the staple articles of the United States are lowered in estimation by the sale of this trash and if ⟨this⟩ abuse is not corrected our Commerce will suffer greatly therefrom. I am now contending with the chambe⟨r⟩ of Commerce for my right to appoint in behalf of the underwriters a person on each of these surveys and I ho⟨pe⟩ I shall succeed to my wishes.

I shall occasionally trouble you with such occurrences as I think worthy your notice and have ⟨the⟩ honor to remain with great resp⟨ect⟩ Your Obt. Servt.

William Lee

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