George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 12 July 1790

From Thomas Jefferson

Paris July 12. 1790.


Means which the Congress may make use of in order to force the Regencies of Barbary to make Peace with them.

The Flag of the United States cannot be displayed ’till after the Congress shall have made peace with the Regencies of Barbary. The consideration of the advantages which the anglo-americans would derive from this navigation, have already induced the Congress to attempt negotiations with this haughty Regency, which dictates to the other two the conduct they are to pursue; but these advances have been rejected, because the Algierines who renounce a War ordered by Islamisme, and their particular statutes against Christians, only from fear or the convenience of a majority, are at the present moment very far from contracting new alliances.

The Congress can then flatter themselves by force only, to obtain peace with them, & now is the time to make use of it; for if the Portuguese should cease to guard the straight of Gibraltar with the same care and success, the Vessels of the United States could not without great danger even approach the coasts of Europe.1

But what is the plan which the Congress can follow to bring about an accomodation? The States are so far distant that it is impossible to think of a bombardment. Since the inexcusable errors commited by the Spaniards before Algiers,2 the bombardment of this place requires double the precautions & forces that were formerly requisite. In all the attacks, badly conceived & still worse executed, the Algierines have learned to fortify the weak parts of their Cities, and have provided themselves with one hundred Sloops, gunners & bombadiers, against whom it will be proper to guard.

Nor is it even very certain that a cruise pursued with rigour, would render the pirates of Barbary more docile to receive propositions for Peace. Besides, the support of3 the naval forces destined to pursue them, would occasion to Congress a very great annual expence, for which all the return wou’d be the doubtful hope of a remote accomodation.

Naples for some years has always had at Sea, frigates and Chebecks to protect commerce and cruise against the Barbarians. The efforts of all these armaments have hitherto been unsuccessful; but I conceive that more experience & more information in the conduct of the Officers who commanded these Vessels, would eventually secure more success. I am not less certain that neither Algiers nor Tunis think of making peace with that Power, as long as these means are pursued.

However, the Congress have no other measures left, but there exists between them & Naples this essential difference; that is to say, the cruise which can only be an expence to Naples, may become a very Lucrative & advantageous object for the United States: their position and distance enable them in making War on the Barbarians, to attack an enemy possessed of a rich booty, without fearing resentment or any reprisal from him; and it is probable that the damages which they may do, will determine him in a little time to solicit an accomodation, which will be so much the more binding as his own interest will have sealed the condition.

Algiers, Tunis & Tripoli are only provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and altho’ the Porte has for a long time ceased to send Pachas there, the Sultan of Constantinople is always considered by them as the sovereign Lord: his will is there respected—his orders executed. He gives the title of Pacha to two of the train of Chiefs which are at the head of the Regencies every two years. He sends an officer to them with an honorary Vest as a sign of confirmation of the dignities & power with which he has invested them. This ceremony which keeps alive the remembrance that they are only his subjects, is considered as an augmentation of pay for the Militia, who from duty as well as interest are entirely devoted to him. The money in these three States is struck in his name. Every Friday they have public prayers in the Mosques for his prosperity. In a word, every disobedience to his orders would be there regarded as a rebellious act, pregnant with the most serious consequences.

It is above all in the Regency the most formidable for Christianity—in the Kingdom, where the Militia is the most numerous, and the grand Seignor has the most power; because the Turks, of which that Militia is composed, ever look upon themselves as subjects of the Empire, and preserve for their sovereign the greatest respect and most profound devotion.

The connexions of the Barbarian Regencies with the Porte, are not confined to simple respect and deference. On the accession of a new Sultan they are bound to send him an Embassy with rich presents & slaves. Constantinople on her part gives them from time to time, Vessels proper for cruising & warlike Stores. She permits them to recruit throughout her provinces, and if the metropolis is at War, the Regencies must take part in the quarrel, & send to her succour all their maritime force.

The Ottoman Porte has probably withdrawn it’s Pachas from Barbary, only to be able to alledge to the complaints of her allies, the pretext of her inability to suppress excesses, which she applauded in secret and artfully encouraged. But Russia has known how to develope the dark springs of this policy—and at the time of her last treaty of Peace of Cainardy,4 she stipulated that the Grand Seignior should be responsible for the injuries & damages that her subjects might suffer from the Regencies of Barbary.

The Emperor from this example obtained the same conditions. A capija Bacha5 sent by the Porte with a Khat-i-cherif, caused all the Vessels & slaves to be restored, which the corsairs had taken under the Austrian flag. The Emperor without making a particular treaty of peace with the Regencies of Barbary—without even the expence of supporting a Consul with them, finds his merchant-men more respected than those of more formidable maritime Powers.

At the peace which will follow the present War, the Heir of the Austrian States, and the Empress of Russia will without doubt exact the same advantages; and it is pretended that the King of Prussia, in gratitude for the efforts he made to prevent the ruin of the Turkish Empire, has already obtained the safety of his Flag in the Mediterranean.6

Hence it follows that Algiers and Tripoli are always part of the Ottoman Empire, and that Congress should not make any scruple in reimbursing themselves on all the subjects of the Grand Seignior for the unprofitable cruises which their Vessels shall make on the coasts of Barbary. The Turks & the Greeks have many coasting vessels in the Archipelago. It is also probable that this navigation will be much encouraged in the issue of the present War, & the numerous prizes which the United States may take from them, will not only largely pay the expences of the armaments, but make the Porte feel that it is important for her to cause a cessation of hostilities, against which she has no means of reprisal. Congress with regard to Turkey will find themselves in a much more advantageous situation, than that of the States of Barbary with regard to the commercial powers of Europe, as the latter are not sheltered from bombardments, & on the contrary the enemies of Congress have not even an idea of the route to the States.

In commencing hostilities it is of importance to strike a great blow, and as, in order to succeed, the destination of the armaments must be kept secret, it is proper that Congress should defray the expences the two first years. They might afterwards abandon this advantageous cruise to mercantile speculation, & the following is the plan they may pursue.

A Frigate of 40 guns, and two others of less force should be armed, prefering, in the choice of these Vessels, the fastest sailers, that they might on occasion avoid a too unequal Combat. It appears to me that these are sufficient, either to destroy the Barbary corsairs, or to cruise in the Levant. They should sail from the American Continent soon enough to arrive at Lisbon about the vernal equinox. There the armaments should take in such refreshments as they may stand in need of, & might announce, without affectation, that they are bound on a cruise against the Barbarians. The Commandant alone should be informed of the real design.7

From the Vernal equinox to the end of June the three Frigates should keep on the coasts of Spain, Provence, Italy or Barbary according to the information they may have of the cruise of the Pirates who then make their first appearance. If they possess themselves of any of their chebecs, they could send them to Malta to sell the slaves.

About the first of July they go to Malta to repair & take in refreshments & pilots acquainted with the Mediterranean & Levant. They also there reinforce their crews, for the purpose of manning, without weakening themselves, the important prizes which they may make. According to the richness of the cargoes Malta, Leghorn & Genoa are the places to which they should be sent. If the commandant should find a good Galliot to be sold at Malta, it would be well to purchase it, as well for the purpose of chase, as to take the Turkish and Grecian batteaux which ply along the coasts. This Galliot might be armed in the Maltese mode, which is well constructed for embarkation. From Malta, without having divulged his project, the Commandant might go directly into the road of Damietta, bearing in his route English colours. He would there find two caravels of the Grand Seignior, taking in rice & linen for the coast of Syria. (I suppose the Turkish war will then be terminated.) These caravels have half their crews on Shore four leagues distant from their Vessels, and their lower batteries out of order. The three American frigates would then be able to carry them off.

If when the Commandant shall arrive in the road of Damietta, the two caravels should have already sailed, he might pursue them on the coast of Syria, and find them in the road of Caiphe, or Seyde, or Baruthe or Tripoli, and always anchor’d so far from the land that the forts cannot protect them.

In case he should have the good luck to take them, he could conduct them to Malta or Cagliari, and from thence, with the approbation of Congress, find one of the Turkish Officers of the Vessels with a Letter, in which he should propose to the Porte the restitution of these caravels on the following conditions.

1st That the Grand Seignior shall make peace with Congress without requiring any present.

2. That he oblige Algiers to restore to the United States, the Anglo-americans which they hold in bondage, and to pay the value of the Vessels & Cargoes which they have taken from them.

3. That he compel the Regencies of Barbary to respect for the time to come the Flag of the United States.

It is beyond a doubt that the Porte, who never piques herself on honor except when her interest is in question, would accept with resignation such generous offers.

But in case the two Caravels should not be taken, then the armaments of Congress might fix their cruise on the route of Alexandria, & paying due respect to European Vessels which form caravans, should confine themselves to stopping all the Turkish & Grecian Vessels they came across. In a little time they would acquire booty sufficient to compensate Congress amply for the expence of the expedition, independent of the share of the Crews. The Grecian seamen should be landed at the first Island, and the Turks guarded in order to be sold at Malta, which is destitute of slaves since the redemption by the late Emperor of Morocco. A common man now sells there for 100 Louis d’or.

The armaments of Congress will recollect that it would be imprudent to enter the straights of Rhodes, Slancho & Chios, where the Ottoman fleet resort during the fine weather. On the approach of Winter there is no other danger in the Archipelago than the shoals & winds, the fleet having then returned to Constantinople. From towards the first of October until the begining of December, the Commandant of the Naval forces of the United States must endeavour to be on the coasts of Barbary in order to pursue the corsairs, which during that period make their second sally. In calm seasons, the Vessels which the Regencies of Algiers & Tunis send to Sea consist of Galliots or other rowing vessels.

The person who gives these ideas with the sole motive of being useful to a wise & enlightened Nation, has requested the Minister of the United States residing at Paris not to mention his name; but if this project be adopted—if every thing succeeds agreeable to his wishes—if, in fine, the success of the armaments recommended lead near to a peace, the only end which a friend of humanity has in view, then he shall be very glad to be known, because from the knowledge he has of the Eastern Languages he may still be useful in the formation of treaties.

He requests Congress to be well assured, that no person will labour for their interests with more zeal and disinterestedness than himself.

N.B. The present existing Marine of Algiers is composed of,

1. Corvette of 30 guns, 6 pounders, given by France.

5. Chebecs, one of which of 30 guns in the actual service of the Gd Seignior in the Archipelago.

1. small new chebec, built at Bougie.

2. Galliots, which go out in calm weather, &

1. Frigate of 40 guns of 18 pounders wch will be finished in September.

The Naval forces go out together from the Porte of Algiers & afterwards separate.8

LB, DLC:GW; D, in hand of Henry Remsen, Jr., MHi: Adams Papers; D, in French, DLC: Jefferson Papers.

By the time the secretary of state showed this document to GW, the state-sponsored pirates of the Barbary Regencies along the North African coast had enjoyed many centuries of preying on Mediterranean shipping, and Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli still collected tribute and ransoms from Christians. By the eighteenth century France and Great Britain had accepted the system of paying for the privilege of making peace treaties with the heavily fortified Islamic city-states. Before the Revolutionary War American merchant ships in the Mediterranean were protected by British payments and the British navy; but after the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the United States was forced to work out its own policy to protect its citizens and trade in the Mediterranean.

GW, Jefferson, and other American policymakers were inclined to reject the system of tribute and forced gifts as inappropriate to republican states composed of virtuous freemen. In 1786 GW asked: “In such an enlightened, in such a liberal age, how is it possible the great maritime powers of Europe should submit to pay an annual tribute to the little piratical States of Barbary?” Their debasement by dealing with infidels for the lives of Christians exemplified lack of national honor and Old World corruption. He believed America wanted only the power, not the will, to deal forcefully with the Algerines. “Would to Heaven we had a navy able to reform those enimies to mankind,” GW lamented to his friend the marquis de Lafayette, “or crush them into nonexistence.” He considered that “such a banditti. . . might for half the sum that is paid them [as tribute] be exterminated from the Earth” (GW to Lafayette, 15 Aug. 1786, 25 Mar. 1787, both LB, DLC:GW).

GW may have underestimated the costs and difficulty of razing Algiers, but he was fully aware that the confederation of American states could afford neither a war against the Algerines nor their exhorbitant extortions: “It seems almost Nugatory to dispute about the best mode of dealing with the Algarines when we have neither money to buy their friendship nor the means of punishing them for their depredations upon our people & trade,” he wrote to Lafayette in the spring of 1787. “If we could command the latter I should be clearly in sentiment with you and Mr Jefferson, that chastisement would be more honorable, and much to be prefered to the purchased friendship of these Barbarians.” With John Jay, he thought that an Algerian crisis might compel the American states to unite more closely for their common defense. “Vain is it to talk of chastising the Algirines, or doing ourselves Justice in any other respect, till the wisdom and force of the Union can be more concentred & better applied” (GW to Lafayette, 25 Mar., 15 Aug. 1787, both LB, DLC:GW; 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 18:393–98).

GW considered the Algerian actions of 1785 well deserving of chastisement. The Confederation Congress had succeeded in establishing regular diplomatic relations only with Morocco, the sole Barbary power to renounce piracy, when a Spanish-Algerian truce opened the straits of Gibraltar to the corsairs. That summer Algerian cruisers captured their first two American merchant vessels in the Atlantic, enslaving the officers and crews. Congress was unable to exert any effective pressure on the dey of Algiers to obtain the release of the surviving prisoners, who were finally freed in 1796. Contrary to GW’s hopes, the new federal government also proved unable to protect the nation’s honor through force (Thomas Barclay to GW, 18 Feb. 1789, source note, David Salisbury Franks to GW, 12 May 1789 and note 3, Mathew Irwin to GW, 9 July 1789 and source note and enclosure, Giuseppe Chiappe to GW, 18 July 1789 and notes, Isaac Stephens to GW, 23 Sept. 1789, Matthew Whiting to GW, 25 Oct. 1789 and notes, GW to Sidi Mohammed, 1 Dec. 1789 and source note, Conversation with Thomas Jefferson, 23 Mar. 1790 and note 2; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:51, 52n.; see also Irwin, U.S. Diplomatic Relations with Barbary, description begins Ray W. Irwin. The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers, 1776–1816. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1931. description ends 20–53).

Jefferson, who shared GW’s disgust over the idea of paying tribute to the Algerines, searched for more honorable alternatives. As minister to France he worked through Lafayette in attempting to create an “Antipiratical Confederacy” including at least the smaller European nations that traded in the Mediterranean. The opposition of both the French and English courts as well as differences between American diplomats and the refusal of the Confederation Congress to finance American participation forced abandonment of such a policy, and the United States attempted to come to terms with the Algerines in the traditional European way. Jefferson, however, evidently had not given up hope of an antipiracy convention by the summer of 1790 and provided GW with a copy of his 1786 plan (see n.7 below).

In the summer of 1790 the American chargé d’affaires in Paris provided Jefferson with a new ray of hope, sending him not only detailed information about Algerian armaments and politics but also a plan designed to take advantage of the weaknesses of both. William Short wrote to the secretary of state on 7 July 1790: “Some days ago a person who has resided many years at Algiers, called on me in company with M. Volney whom you know, to speak of a means of procuring peace with that Regency on advantageous terms.” After abstracting the above proposal, which he thought it his duty to communicate, “as it may lead to something towards the business with Algiers,” Short added, “this person’s long residence at Constantinople and at Algiers gives him an opportunity of being fully acquainted with the relations which subsist between those two countries.” Short probably either held his letter several days until he could prepare and enclose a written version of the proposal or forwarded the proposal to Jefferson later under separate cover. Jefferson received Short’s 7 July letter on 25 Oct. 1790 and sent it to GW at Mount Vernon two days later (Jefferson to GW, 27 Oct. 1790; 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 17:14–16, 643–45).

No direct evidence exists as to when Jefferson delivered the actual proposal to GW. It may have been forwarded as an enclosure to Short’s letter on 27 Oct. 1790. Jefferson undoubtedly elaborated on Short’s abstract, however, after the president arrived in Philadelphia in November 1790. He also drew on the anonymous proposal in his report to Congress on American trade in the Mediterranean, which he presented first to the president on 28 Dec. 1790 (Jefferson to GW, 28 Dec. 1790; see also 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 18:423–30).

Because several aspects of the proposal could not be publicly countenanced, such as attacks on nonbelligerent Turkey or the use of British flags by the commander of an American retaliatory expedition, Jefferson neither widely circulated the document nor appended it to his congressional report. After translating the original from the French himself, mistakenly identifying its author as the comte de Volney, he had his chief clerk, Henry Remsen, Jr., make a copy of the English version. Jefferson probably presented this copy to GW, as the letter-book copy in DLC:GW is identical to it, and the president apparently passed it on to Vice-President John Adams. No retained copy is in the records of the State Department (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 18:407–8, 422).

1In September 1793 Portugal did in fact sign a truce with Algiers that resulted in another Atlantic cruise of the corsairs that netted the Algerines eleven more American merchant vessels with their crews in the following two months (Irwin, U.S. Diplomatic Relations with Barbary, description begins Ray W. Irwin. The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers, 1776–1816. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1931. description ends 57–60).

2The repulse of a 500–ship, 25,000–man armada under Count O’Reilly by Algiers and its allies on 7 July 1775 proved utterly humiliating to Spain. In August 1783 seventy-five Spanish ships bombarded the city, damaging the dey’s palace and hundreds of houses but accomplishing little else. A combined expedition of Spanish, Portuguese, Neapolitan, and Maltese forces the following year was able only to exchange artillery fire with Algerian warships and coastal batteries.

3The preceding three words were interlineated by the copyist.

4The treaty ending the Russo-Turkish war that had begun in 1768 was signed at the Bulgarian village of Kutchuk-Kainarji on 21 July 1774.

5A capigi bashi was an official envoy of the Ottoman Porte.

6War between Catherine II of Russia and the Ottoman porte broke out again in 1787, and Emperor Joseph II of Austria reluctantly joined his Russian ally in February 1788. On 31 Jan. 1790 Frederick William II’s minister at Constantinople signed a treaty with the porte providing for Prussia’s entry into the the war in the spring of 1791. After Joseph’s death on 20 Feb. 1790, his brother and successor Leopold II, through the Convention of Reichenbach signed on 27 July 1790, agreed to make peace with the porte through the mediation of the British, Prussians, and Dutch. Catherine did not come to terms with the Ottomans until January 1792.

7The copyist wrote in the left-hand margin next to this paragraph: “Note. It would be best if the first battery was of at least 18 pounders; that caliber has the advantage in fighting at a distance, the turkish vessels, which in the principal combats, exhaust their powder & their ardor, & miss, from their inexperience in levelling, almost all their objects.”

8On the same page in GW’s letter book as the proposal to use force against the Barbary states are the undated “Proposals for concerted operation among the Powers at War with the piratical States of Barbary,” which state:

“1st. It is proposed that the several powers at War with the piratical States of Barbary (or any two or more of them who shall be willing) shall enter into a Convention to carry on their operations against those States in Concert, beginning with the Algierines.

“2. This Convention shall remain open to any other Power who shall at any future time wish to accede to it; the parties reserving a right to prescribe the Conditions of such accession, according to the circumstances existing at the time it shall be proposed.

“3. The object of the Convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual Peace, without price, & to guaranty that peace to each other.

“4. The operations for obtaining this Peace shall be constant cruises on their coast with a Naval force now to be agreed on. It is not proposed that this Force shall be so considerable as to be inconvenient to any party. It is believed that half a dozen Frigates with as many Tenders or Xebecks, one half of which shall be in cruise, while the other half is at rest, will suffice.

“5. The force agreed to be necessary shall be furnished by the parties in certain quotas now to be fixed; it being expected that each will be willing to contribute in such proportion as circumstances may render reasonable.

“6. As miscarriages often proceed from the want of harmony among Officers of different Nations, the parties shall now consider & decide, whether it will not be better to contribute their quotas in Money, to be employed in fitting out & keeping on duty a single Fleet of the Force agreed on.

“7. The difficulties & Delays too which will attend the management of these operations if conducted by the Parties themselves separately, distant as their Courts may be from one another, and incapable of meeting in consultation, suggest a question whether it will not be better for them to give full powers for that purpose to their Ambassador or other Minister resident at some one Court of Europe, who shall form a Comittee or Council for carrying this Convention into effect; wherein the vote of each member shall be computed in proportion to the quota of his sovereign, and the majority so computed, shall prevail in all questions within the view of this Convention. The Court of Versailles is proposed on account of its neighbourhood to the Mediterranean, & because all those powers are represented there who are likely to become Parties to this Convention.

“8. To save to that Council the embarrassment of personal solicitations for Office, and to assure the parties that their contributions will be applied solely to the object for which they are destined, there shall be no establishment of Officers for the said Council, such as Commis Secretaries, or of any other kind with either salaries, or perquisites, nor any other lucrative appointments, but such whose Functions are to be exercised on board the said Vessels.

“9. Should War arise between any two of the parties to this Convention, it shall not extend to this Enterprize, nor interrupt it: but as to this, they shall be reputed at Peace.

“10. When Algiers shall be reduced to peace, the other piratical States, if they refuse to discontinue their piracies, shall become the objects of this Convention, either successively or together, as shall seem best.

“11. Where this Convention would interfere with Treaties actually existing between any of the parties, & of the said States of Barbary, the Treaty shall prevail, and such party shall be allowed to withdraw from the operations against that State” (DLC:GW).

Jefferson probably delivered a copy of his plan for an antipiracy convention to GW with the proposal to use force, and GW’s letter-book copy differs only in minor details of spelling and capitalization from the original prepared by Jefferson in France sometime before 4 July 1786. On 4 July 1790 Jefferson wrote to Edward Rutledge: “force alone can do our business with the Algerines. . . . Nothing but a perpetual cruize against them, or at least for 8. months of the year and for several years, can put an end to their piracies: and I believe that a confederacy of the nations not in treaty with them can be effected so as to make that perpetual cruize, or our share of it, a very light thing, as soon as we shall have money to answer even a light thing” (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 10:560–68, 16:600, 18:377–81, 392, 408–10).

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