Papers of John Adams, volume 18

To James Warren

To the Marquis de Lafayette

To John Adams from Thomas Jefferson, 11 January 1787 Jefferson, Thomas Adams, John
From Thomas Jefferson
Dear Sir Paris Jan. 11. 1787.

Mr. Jay, in his last letter to me, observes that they hear nothing further of the treaty with Portugal. I have taken the liberty of telling him that I will write to you on the subject, & that he may expect to hear from you on it by the present conveyance.1 the Chevalier del Pinto being at London, I presume he has, or can inform you why it is delayed on their part. I will thank you also for the information he shall give you.

There is here an order of priests called the Mathurins, the object of whose institution is the begging of alms for the redemption of captives. about 18 months ago they redeemed 300, which cost them about 1500 livres a peice. they have agents residing in the Barbary states, who are constantly employed in searching and contracting for the captives of their nation, and they redeem at a lower price than any other people can. it occurred to me that their agency might be engaged for our prisoners at Algiers. I have had interviews with them, and the last night a long one with the General of the order. they offer their services with all the benignity & cordiality possible. the General told me he could not expect to redeem our prisoners as cheap as their own, but that he would use all the means in his power to do it on the best terms possible, which will be the better as there shall be the less suspicion that he acts for our public. I told him I would write to you on the subject, & speak to him again. what do you think of employing them, limiting them to a certain 541 price, as 300 dollars for instance, or any other sum you think proper? he will write immediately to his instruments there, & in two or three months we can know the event.2 he will deliver them at Marseilles, Cadiz, or where we please, at our expence. the money remaining of the fund destined to the Barbary business may I suppose be drawn on for this object. write me your opinion if you please, on this subject, finally, fully, & immediately, that, if you approve the proposition, I may enter into arrangements with the General before my departure to the waters of Aix, which will be about the beginning of February.3

I have the honour to be with very sincere esteem and respect Dear Sir your most obedient & most humble servt.

Th: Jefferson

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “H. E. / Mr. Adams.”; endorsed: “Mr Jefferson Jan. 11. 1787. / ansd. Jan. 25.”; notation by CFA: “published in his Writings / vol 2d. p 80.” That is, Jefferson, Correspondence, ed. Randolph, 2:80–81.


For JA’s response to John Jay regarding the Portuguese treaty, see his 9 Jan. letter to Jay, and note 1, above. Jefferson’s letter to Jay referring him to JA for information on the Portuguese treaty was also of 9 Jan. (Jefferson, Papers , 11:30).


On the evening before he wrote this letter, Jefferson met with Father François Maurice Pichault, head of the Church of St. Mathurin order in Paris. Jefferson’s interest in the Mathurins, an order long dedicated to redeeming Christian slaves from Barbary captivity, stemmed from their recent redemption of 300 French captives in Algiers—the same site where John Lamb had failed to obtain the release of American prisoners.

With the funds earmarked for the Barbary negotiations now dwindling, JA counseled Jefferson against using the Mathurins as intermediaries in his 25 Jan. reply, below. But Jefferson persisted with the plan, proposing it to Jay on 1 Feb. (same, 11:101–102). Jay laid Jefferson’s scheme before Congress three months later, along with a petition from Hannah Stephens, wife of the captive Isaac Stephens. Congress appropriated the requested money, but in the end nothing came of the proposal. The Mathurin negotiators, discouraged by the high price of $555 set for each American sailor, were further concerned by news that an allowance was sent to the prisoners. They indicated a willingness to pay a high ransom, but made little progress toward winning the sailors’ release. In 1789, when anticlericalism overtook France, the Mathurins were brutally suppressed, and Jefferson lost his link to the order (James G. Lydon, “Thomas Jefferson and the Mathurins,” Catholic Historical Review, 49:194–202 [July 1963]).


Jefferson planned to take the waters at Aix-en-Provence to rehabilitate his dislocated wrist. However, the illness and subsequent death of the Comte de Vergennes and the opening of the Assembly of Notables delayed his departure from Paris until 28 Feb. 1787, and then his visit to the spa formed part of his excursion through southern France and northern Italy, which lasted until 11 June (Jefferson, Papers , 11:186, 415–464, 469).