George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Mathew Irwin, 9 July 1789

From Mathew Irwin

Philada 9th July 1789


Knowing the multiplicity of important matters which claim your Excellency’s attention, I should not presume to intrude upon your time with any thing relative to my private affairs—The purport of the inclosed, will (I hope) plead my excuse for troubleing you herewith—Capn Obrien having fully described his situation, makes it unnecessary for me to say much, I shall only add, that your Excellency may be assured he is a Man of the strictest veracity and honor, and in the worst of times was a staunch Friend to his Country, in the year 1780 he was first Leiutenant of the Ship Congress (of which Vessell I was a principal owner) when she Captured the Savage Sloop of War after a very obstinate engagement, in which the Congress lost 33 men,1 and I have reason to beleive that the owners were indebted to the Intrepidity and good conduct of Obrien for takeing the British Ship, which Vessell was Maned with 120 Britons.

By the Capture of the Ship Dauphin, by the Algerines, (of which Vessell and Cargoe I owned ⅚th and my Brother ⅙th) I lost as much of my Fortune as the British Cruizers in the last 18 Months of the War could not deprive me of, however I have my Liberty, but poor Obrien & his Crew are Slaves.

however desirous I am of the redemption of those men, I shall not take the liberty of urgeing your Excellency thereon, your humanity and goodness of heart being too well known to me to think that necessary. I will only take the liberty of suggesting, that if Congress can not at present redeem those unfortunate people, I am of opinion a suffitient sum might be raised by subscription, if a Paper was forwarded to each Sea Port, accompanied with a recommendation from your Excellency, or The Honorable The Congress—I sincerely congratulate your Excellency on your recovery from your late indisposition, that you may enjoy long Life and happiness is the ardent wish of Sir Your Excellencys Most Obdt humble Servt

Mathw Irwin

ALS, DNA:PCC, item 59.

Mathew Irwin (d. 1800) was a Philadelphia merchant who served as a captain in Malcolm’s Additional Continental Regiment from 1777 until he resigned in 1778, and as a lieutenant in the 2d cavalry, Pulaski’s Legion until the end of the war. Irwin was also a partner in the privateering firm of Irwin, Barclay, Coxe, & Mitchell during the war years. After the Revolution he returned to Philadelphia and set up business with his brother in the firm of Mathew and Thomas Irwin & Company. Irwin became master of rolls and recorder of deeds for Philadelphia in 1785 and was an active member of the Hibernian Society. He subsequently moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Irwin’s letter concerned a diplomatic problem that occupied an inordinate amount of the time and correspondence of the state department during GW’s two terms of office and complicated the United States’ attempts to develop a thriving Mediterranean trade. In late July 1785 the schooner Maria out of Boston, owned by William Foster, Isaac Stephens, captain, was seized by an Algerian xebec three miles south of the Portuguese coast. The ship, her master and mate, and a crew of four seamen were taken to Algiers where, according to the practice of the Algerian corsairs, they were sold into slavery. A week later the Dauphin, out of Philadelphia and owned by the Irwin brothers, met the same fate. The Dauphin carried a crew of eleven, a mate, and two passengers. Her master Richard O’Bryen (O’Brien; c.1758–1824) was to become the spokesman for the increasing numbers of American prisoners held in Algiers. During the ten years the American seamen remained in captivity, O’Bryen bombarded United States diplomats with appeals for stronger efforts to secure their release. Although marauding vessels from Algiers and the other Barbary states had plagued European maritime powers for generations, the capture of the Maria and the Dauphin introduced the new American government to the viable—if expensive—combination of tribute and ransom adopted by other nations to insure the safety of their ships and seamen in Mediterranean waters.

News of the capture of the two American ships was received in the United States in October 1785, and by 28 Dec. the first of many petitions from the Algerian captives was read in Congress (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 29:906–7). John Lamb of Connecticut, already informally instructed by Congress to consult with the American ministers in Paris and London on the possibility of making commercial treaties with the Barbary states, was ordered by Jefferson and Adams to open negotiations with Algiers for the release of the captives. For Lamb’s instructions and his ineffectual negotiations with the dey, see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 8:542–45, 616–17, 18:384–90; O’Bryen to Jefferson, 8 June, 12 July 1786, and to William Carmichael, 11 July and 13 Sept. 1786, all in DNA: RG 59, Consular Despatches, Algiers, and his letter to Jefferson, 25 Sept. 1787, DLC: Jefferson Papers. As Jefferson later explained in his report to GW on the Algerian captives, 28 Dec. 1790, at least some of Lamb’s problems arose from the dey’s increasingly exorbitant ransom demands for the captives. The two American ministers organized Lamb’s Algerian mission without direct instructions from Congress and “while acting thus without Authority, they thought themselves bound to offer a Price so moderate as not to be disapproved. They therefore restrained him to Two hundred Dollars a Man; which was something less than had been just before paid for about Three hundred French Captives, by the Mathurins, a religious Order of France, instituted in ancient Times for the Redemption of Christian Captives from the infidel Powers. On the Arrival of the Agent at Algiers, the Dey demanded Fifty nine thousand four hundred and ninety six Dollars for the Twenty one Captives, and could not be brought to abate but little from that Demand. The Agent, therefore, returned in 1786 without having effected either Peace or Ransom” (DNA: RG 46, First Congress, President’s Messages—Foreign Relations). Early in 1787 Jefferson opened highly secret discussions in Paris with the Mathurins, but the French Revolution put an end to the Mathurins’ efforts. For Jefferson’s description of his lengthy negotiations with the order, see his report to GW, 28 Dec. 1790. See also ASP, Foreign Relations, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:102–3.

Appeals from O’Bryen and his fellow prisoners became increasingly desperate by the late 1780s because of the change in policy by United States officials. Advances made through the office of the Spanish consul at Algiers to alleviate the sufferings of the captives were discontinued and, in order not to raise the ransom demands of the dey, no official notice was taken of their letters. As Jefferson noted in his report to GW, as late as December 1790, the captives still believed their government to be indifferent to their fate. “It would have been unsafe to trust them with a secret, the disclosure of which might for ever prevent their redemption, by raising the demands of the captors to sums which a due regard for our seamen, still in freedom, would forbid us to give. this was the most trying of all circumstances, & drew from them the most afflicting reproaches” (DLC: Jefferson Papers). The subject of Irwin’s letter was not unfamiliar to GW who received considerable information in the late 1780s, not only about the capture of the American ships and their crews but about the increasing attempts of opportunists to exploit the families of the captives. See, for example, Thomas Thomson to GW, 12 Aug. 1788, Mathew Whiting to GW, 25 Oct. 1789, GW to Thomson, 24 Aug. and 18 Sept. 1788, and to Whiting, 18 Nov. 1789.

1Irwin is referring to the engagement off the South Carolina coast, 6 Sept. 1781, in which the Congress, a Philadelphia privateer, captured the British naval sloop Savage.

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