At the time when Washington took office, the captains and crews of two American vessels, which had been seized by Algerine Corsairs in 1785, still remained in captivity. The Continental Congress had made some efforts in their behalf which were contemptuously received. The Dey of Algiers did not wish any treaty with the United States; but he did want $59,496.00 for the twenty-one captives whom he then held. Farther than that negotiation had not progressed. Agents of the United States were advised that, if such a high amount were paid, the Corsairs would pursue American vessels in preference to those of any other nation, and that the shrewd thing would be to pretend indifference to the fate of the captives. This advice was acted upon even to the extent of cutting off the supplies which had been forwarded to the captives through the Spanish consul at Algiers. The summary method which was pursued was that of dishonoring bills drawn by him to cover his expenditures.
Jefferson, who while Minister to France had been closely connected with these proceedings, was called upon by Congress for a report upon them, not long after he took office as Secretary of State. This report, December 28, 1790, set forth the fact that the Mediterranean trade, which had employed from eighty to one hundred ships with about twelve hundred seamen, had been almost destroyed. In the interest of the negotiations, it had been necessary “to suffer the captives and their friends to believe for a while, that no attention was paid to them, no notice taken of their letters,” and they were “still under this impression.” Jefferson contented himself with submitting the facts in the case, remarking that “upon the whole it rests with Congress to decide between war, tribute, and ransom. If war, they will consider how far our own resources shall be called forth, and how far they will enable the Executive to engage, in the forms of the Constitution, the cooperation of other Powers. If tribute or ransom, it will rest with them to limit and provide the amount; and with the Executive, observing the same constitutional forms, to make arrangements for employing it to the best advantage.”
The problem which Jefferson thus put before Congress was a singularly difficult one. Among the captives was Captain Richard O’Brien, whose ship, the Dauphin of Philadelphia, was taken July 30, 1785. He had a ready pen and, apparently, had unrestricted access to the mails. His letters were those of a shrewd observer and depicted a situation that bristled with perplexity. The Algerines had about a dozen vessels, their armament ranging from ten to thirty-six guns, but of these vessels only two belonged to the Government, the others being private ventures. Though they preyed on merchantmen, they avoided engagements, and did not come out at all if there were vessels cruising for them. A blockade was effective only while it lasted. Whenever it was raised, out came the Corsairs again. An occasional bombardment of their port did not cow them and had no permanent effect. A French official described it as being “like breaking glass windows with guineas.” The Algerines made treaties with some Powers in consideration of tribute but refused peace to others on any terms; as they did not desire to shut out all opportunity for their time-honored sport of piracy.