On December 1, 1789, George Washington sat down to write a letter to an old friend of his country. Ironically, however, the letter recipient was someone that Washington had never met. Just over seven months earlier, Washington had been inaugurated the first president of the United States and had set up his office in the country's temporary capital of New York City.
In the intervening months, he had begun putting together his cabinet, gotten Mrs. Washington and the two grandchildren they were raising settled in their new house, organized a scheme for his official entertaining, survived a near-fatal illness, and taken a one-month tour of the New England states. Now, as he started the letter, he began with the salutation, "Great and Magnanimous Friend." The recipient of the letter he wrote that day was Mohammed Ibn Abdullah, the Emperor of Morocco.1
Sidi Mohammed learned about the American colonies' struggle for independence through the French consul assigned to Morocco and via European newspapers. He began reaching out to the Americans on December 20, 1777, by including them on a list of countries who would be welcomed in Moroccan ports. In an effort to assist the process of opening diplomatic relations with the new country, several months later the Moroccan Emperor appointed a French merchant, Etienne Caille, to serve as consul for unrepresented nations—including the new United States—at his court.
Caille got to work quickly, writing on April 14, 1778 to Benjamin Franklin the American minister to France. Upon receiving the letter, Franklin sought the advice of French officials, who suggested that "it was not safe to have any correspondence with him." Caille also tried to get through to the Americans via their minister in Madrid, John Jay.2
The American response must have disappointing. Years after Sidi Mohammed had first offered to open his ports to American shipping, president of the Continental Congress Samuel Huntington wrote to a friend to say that he had just received a letter on "Behalf of the Emperor inviting these United States to trade in his Ports."3 It was another three months, in December 1780, before the President of Congress finally responded to the Emperor, assuring him of congressional desire "to cultivate a sincere and firm Peace, and Friendship with your Majesty, and to make it lasting to all Posterity."4
Relations continued at a slow pace for another four years—seven years after the Emperor's initial overtures to the Americans. In May of 1784, the Continental Congress "Resolved, That treaties of amity, or of amity and commerce, be entered into with Morocco, and the regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoly, to continue for the same term of ten years, or for a term as much longer as can be procured." After noting "That the occupations of the war and distance of our situation have prevented our meeting [the Emperor's] friendship so early as we wished," Congress also "Resolved, That a commission be issued to Mr. J. Adams, Mr. B. Franklin and Mr. T. Jefferson, giving powers to them…to make and receive propositions for such treaties of amity and Commerce, and to negotiate and sign the same, transmitting them to Congress for their final ratification; and that such commission be in force for a term not exceeding two years."5
However, in Morocco, the Emperor would not have known about these developments until months later. Feeling that he needed to do something dramatic to get the Americans' attention, he ordered the capture of an American ship and held it until he was sure that progress was finally underway. In August 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend at home, confirming the story, explaining: "You have been told with truth that the Emperor of Marocco has shewn disposition to enter into treaty with us: but not truly that Congress has not attended to his advances and thereby disgusted him. . . His dispositions continue good. As a proof of this, he has lately released freely and cloathed well the crew of an American brig he took last winter."6
The new American special agent for Morocco, Thomas Barclay, was appointed in October 1785 and arrived in the country the following summer. Within a week of his arrival in June 1786, Barclay met twice with the Emperor and was able to report that, "It will be agreeable…for you to know that the last draught of the treaty is made, and will probably be signed in a few days, and that our stay here will not exceed that of a week from this time."7 The treaty negotiations were completed by the middle of July 1786 and Barclay set out for Europe. It took another year for the treaty to go into effect, signed by two of the Americans ministers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, in January 1787. The treaty was ratified by Congress in July of the same year, and finally signed by the president of Congress on July 18, 1787." It would remain in effect for fifty years.8
It had taken almost ten years to bring the treaty to fruition, but when George Washington sat down to write his letter to the Emperor of Morocco, he knew that this friendship was significant. After explaining the change in the government with the adoption of the new Constitution, and introducing himself as the new head of the American government, Washington assured Sidi Mohammed that "The Encouragement which your Majesty has been pleased, generously, to give to our Commerce with your Dominions; the Punctuality with which you have caused the Treaty with us to be observed…make a deep Impression on the United States, and confirm their Respect for, and Attachment to your Imperial Majesty."
Washington continued, explaining that, "It gives me Pleasure to have this Opportunity of assuring your Majesty that, while I remain at the Head of this Nation, I shall not cease to promote every Measure that may conduce to the Friendship and Harmony, which so happily subsist between your Empire and them." Washington closed with these words of blessing: "May the Almighty bless your Imperial Majesty, our great and magnanimous Friend, with his constant Guidance and Protection."9 Sadly, in keeping with the tenor of the confusing and complicated negotiations, Sidi Mohammed never received George Washington's letter—the Emperor passed away two months before the missive arrived.
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. "George Washington to [Sidi Mohammed], The Emperor of Morocco, 1 December 1789," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 30, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.:Government Printing Office), 474-6.
2. "Samuel Huntington to Etienne d'Audibert Caille," Letters of Delegates to Congress, Vol. 16 (September 1, 1780-February 28, 1781), eds. Paul H. Smith and others (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1989), 519n.
3. "Samuel Huntington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 4 September 4, 1780," Letters of Delegates to Congress, Vol. 16 (September 1, 1780-February 28, 1781), eds. Paul H. Smith and others (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1989), 16 & 17, 17n3 & 17n4.
4. "Samuel Huntington to the Sultan of Morocco, [December 1780]," in Letters of Delegates to Congress,16:519 & 519n, 16:520.
5. "Resolution, 7 May 1784," Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 26:361-362.
6. "Thomas Jefferson to John Page, 20 August 1785," The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 8:418-419.
7. "Thomas Barclay to American Peace Commissioners, 26 June 1786," The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 10 (June 22, 1786-December 31, 1786), ed. Julian P. Boyd and others (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), 71-2.
8. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 585.
9."George Washington to [Sidi Mohammed], The Emperor of Morocco, 1 December 1789," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 30, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.:Government Printing Office), 474-6.