Danger on the High Seas

During the months of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, trading in Philadelphia came to a standstill. In late December, the port became alive once again with activity. With the danger now past, Girard’s concerns turned once again to the problems of trying to protect American ships on the high seas. During the War of Independence, the American colonies relied on the French navy to protect them from Britain. When President Washington took the advice of Alexander Hamilton to declare the United States neutral in the conflict between France and England, Frenchmen took this action as an affront. Had Washington forgotten the great sacrifice France had made to help the young nation fight off the British? Britain was convinced that without the help of General Lafayette and his troops, there would not have been a new nation.  Now in the 1790s, France would not be there to help the American merchant ships.  At a time when France had trouble at home with a dangerous revolution and war once again with Britain, the native country of Stephan Girard needed a good friend who unfortunately decided to remain neutral.
So angry was the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson at President Washington’s decision that he resigned his position saying that neutrality in this case was a grave mistake. Girard showed his sadness and dissatisfaction with this policy as well when he wrote:  “The war now being carried on by the European pirates is very disturbing to our commerce… Our ships are not only stopped and plundered daily but even run the risk of being taken to the ports of these despots.”
In a letter to Alexander Hamilton, Girard asked that the Federal Government take steps to have his ship released from a French port. “Justice and the interests of a citizen of the United States may require.”  
The danger on the high seas became now twofold for Americans. Not only did they have the belligerent British to contend with, they now had a disenchanted friend who was now an angry new enemy.
From our perspective of the 21st century, we may better understand President Washington’s decision for neutrality. The angry son-in-law had eloped with the King’s colonies but was still an Englishman at heart eager to cause the Crown no more grief and certainly not add insult to injury by siding with France against Britain. The Americans and the British spoke the same language (apologies to George Bernard Shaw), had the same customs and, in most cases, followed similar religious practices. Few members of the Federal Government spoke French – Franklin and Jefferson were notable exceptions. Girard and his fellow French countrymen were stricken by Washington’s decision. They felt betrayed that America did not fully appreciate the dedication of the French people to liberty and independence. Perhaps Girard had tried harder than most to show his adoptive country that Frenchmen could show nobility of spirit in their generosity to the needy and bravery in times of mass suffering. Perhaps Girard felt that his physical handicap and his inability to express himself fluently in English would never be fully compensated by his extraordinary intelligence, his hard work and his remarkable patriotism to the United States of America.
Girard was becoming more and more a public figure, so great was his desire to have the government take up this cause. He took to the streets and sponsored a rally in support for a change in US Foreign Policy. Focus was placed on three areas of concern: (l) better protection for US merchant ships, (2) compensation for loses due to confiscations, (3) higher tariffs on goods exported to the US from countries failing to respect US trade.
To pacify those Americans who also wanted the government to take a more progressive position in the matter of protecting US interests, a meeting was arranged between John Adams and Lord Howe. Negotiations predictably failed. Lord Howe could not recognize the independence of the King’s colonies or negotiate with a legislative body, the existence of which the King had not acknowledged.
While waiting for the nation to tire of having its merchant ships taken or destroyed, Girard let his anger show. When both presidents—Washington and Adams failed to take measures to protect American merchant ships, Girard took matters into his own hands. He had guns mounted on the decks of his cargo vessels. He also sent ships out in convoys so they could protect one another. On a voyage to Cuba, his two ships carried 48 guns.
During the early months of 1794, Britain had seized two of Girard’s ships and France had seized the remaining three ships. Piracy was hidden under the guise of necessary war time conditions allowing nations at war to do what they deemed necessary for their own war efforts. In a speech to a crowd of interested supporters on March 18th 1794, Girard accused Great Britain of violently seizing American ships; attempting to impose limits on American commerce; imprisoning American citizens and forcing some into the British navy; encouraging Barbary States, especially Algiers, to prey on American ships; refusing to abandon British outposts on America’s western frontier; and fomenting war with Indians. The speech was very effective. Thousands in attendance started to bring pressure on President Washington and on Congress. Because of the tensions that this issue created, John Adams did not seek a second term. He had barely had a victory for his first term and because his popularity had suffered when so many American ships had been seized, he opted not to run a second time.
     In addition to the dangers that British and French warships posed, American merchant ships had to fear the Spanish who kept ships in Florida and the West Indies to search for easy pickings on the open seas. To make matters worse for Girard and other merchant mariners, North Africa joined in the fray showing such brutality in their kidnapping, pillage and rape of any ship within sight of the Barbary Coast. These pirates were especially vicious in dealing with European and American interests. In 1785, the Dey of Algiers was extorting tremendous sums in exchange for prisoners his ships had taken. During the presidential administrations of Washington and Adams, the US government paid about two million dollars to Barbary pirates in extortion payments. It wasn’t until 1801 that President Jefferson had a navy powerful enough to destroy the Barbary pirates. Stephen Girard’s voice had at last been heard.

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