Commodore Edward Preble and Tobias Lear sailed to the Mediterranean together in the summer of 1803, aboard the USS Constitution; Lear charged with improving American relations with Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco, and Preble with projecting American military might into the region, to protect American trading interests. The letters in this collection address the capture of the USS Philadelphia and the subsequent destruction of that ship by American forces in the bay of Tripoli; Preble's capture of the ship that was used in the American attack on the Philadelphia; strategies for ransoming the crew of the Philadelphia; Preble's blockade of the port of Tripoli and his attacks on Morocco and Tripoli; and much more. The letters in this collection are dated September, 1803 to December, 1804. Four of the letters appear to be completely in Preble's hand, while the other ten are in secretarial hands.
One of the most compelling aspects of the archive is Preble's address of the situation of the captured ship, USS Philadelphia, and his plans for a prisoner exchange in order to free its crew. He alludes to plans being formed with regard to Tripoli (likely the attack on the Philadelphia, which would take place a month later), but tells Lear that he is loath to brief him by letter, but will send someone to Algiers to fill him in on his plans: "I hope this capture will enable me to effect the release of some of our countrymen and I have proposed an exchange. I shall write you as soon as I know the results of my proposition to the Bashaw & shall by the next opportunity send you copies of my letters. It will not do to be too anxious for the ransom of our friends, as the Bashaws demands will undoubtedly be too exorbitant to meet the concurrence of our government...". In the subsequent letters, Preble continues to discuss the situation, and the possibility of paying a ransom for their freedom: "While I was at Malta I received proposals from the Bashaw of Tripoly's agent for a peace...I had several consultations with him and assured him we never would consent to pay a cent for Peace or Tribute. He then proposed that we should give the Bashaw 500 dollars for each of the Philadelphia's officers and crew—a schooner in exchange for the frigate, and make peace without money or tribute and that they would exchange 60 Americans for the sixty Tripolines in my possession. This would be gaining peace on more reasonable terms than is expected by our government. Say 300 American captives; 60 Tripolines deduct'd; leaves 240 at 500 doll. each, $120,000 and we should gain something by exchanging one of the worst schooners for the frigate." Ultimately, Tobias Lear negotiated an agreement with Tripoli in 1805, in which the United States paid $60,000 in ransom for the crew of the Philadelphia. The agreement drew much scorn in the United States, most of it directed at Lear.
Tobias Lear (1762-1816) is best known for his service as George Washington's personal secretary, and for his diplomatic work. Lear's activities in that capacity were clouded by controversy, as he was suspected of destroying several of Washington's personal papers after the General's death. Thomas Jefferson appointed Lear as consul to Saint Domingue during the reign of Touissant Louverture, a position he held for a year, until May, 1802. Shortly afterwards, Jefferson appointed Lear as consul general to the Barbary states. Stationed at Algiers, he held the sensitive post until 1812, when the dey of Algiers expelled him. Lear's tenure as consul in Algiers was controversial as well, as he negotiated a treaty with the pasha of Tripoli in 1805, which included provisions to pay a ransom of $60,000 for the captive crew of the American ship, USS Philadelphia. During the War of 1812 Lear negotiated with the British over prisoner-of-war exchanges in northern New York. He committed suicide in 1816.
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