A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 20, 2015

George Washington Writes a Letter to the Sultan of Morocco: Our Oldest Treaty Always in Force

Surely this needs no caption
Sunday (February 22) will be George Washington's actual birthday (adjusted for the Gregorian calendar), though we celebrated last week on the President's Day holiday. Back in 2013, I posted a 1789 letter Washington wrote to the Sultan of Morocco,  but this is not a rerun of that post, but rather a fuller contextualization of the origins of US-Moroccan relations.

The US-Moroccan Treaty of Friendship of 1786, ratified by the Confederation Congress under the Articles of Confederation (before the US Constitution), has been renegotiated on occasion but is said to be the oldest US treaty still in force and never broken.
Sultan Muhmmad III ibn ‘Abdullah
I've noted more than once that Morocco had actually been trying to get our attention since 1777, when, on December 20, 1777, the Sultan of Morocco, Sidi Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah, also known as Sultan Muhammad III, issued a decree allowing any ship bearing the flag of the new United States of America, to put in at Moroccan ports. Both Morocco and the United States now retroactively see this as the first recognition of the US by a foreign power. (France would be the second, but not until 1778; in 1776, a port in the Dutch East Indies fired a salute to a US-flagged ship, but that did not represent the Dutch home government, which eventually followed the French lead.)

I suspect the painting of the Sultan is not contemporary; it's from Wikipedia.

The problem was, the US didn't immediately notice. In fact the day before the Sultan's decree, on December 19, 1777, George Washington and the Continental Army went into winter camp at a place called Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and spent a winter when the sunny shores of Morocco doubtless seemed terribly remote and the prospects of winning the war seemed almost as remote.

The Sultan's move came at a time when most European powers were paying tribute to the North African ("Barbary") states to permit them to trade; the American Declaration of Independence meant that the British tribute no longer granted them privileges.

In 1778 the Sultan appointed  a French merchant in Salé, next to Rabat, as consul for those countries not represented by consuls in Morocco. Caille wrote to Benjamin Franklin, the American representative in Paris, in 1778, suggesting negotiations for a treaty with the United States.

Late in 1780, according to a history published by the US Embassy in Morocco, the Continental Congress approved the idea, telling Caille to move toward such a treaty. But only after the 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain did the project move forward. In May 1784 Congress authorized Franklin, John Adams (US envoy to London), and Thomas Jefferson (the new envoy to Paris) to negotiate the deal. In October 1784, a Moroccan corsair seized an American merchantman in the Atlantic, and the Sultan pointedly noted that he had been asking for a treaty for several years. In 1785, Thomas Barclay, US Consul-General in Paris, was sent to Morocco to negotiate the terms. Adams in London wrote to Jefferson in Paris, "If Mr. Barclay will undertake the voyage, I am for looking no farther. We cannot find a steadier, or more prudent man." Barclay reached Marrakesh, then the Sultan's capital, on June 19, 1786. On June 28 the treaty was signed and sealed by the Sultan; you can read the English text here.

It was valid for 50 years and was indeed renewed in 1836. An additional article was added on July 6, 1786. Jefferson signed it in Paris on January 1, 1787; Adams signed in London on January 25, and the Confederation Congress ratified it and it entered into legal force on July 18, 1787. It remains in force.

Before getting to Washington's letter to the Sultan, a side note: in 1821 the Sultan's successor gave the US the property which became the US Consulate in Tangier. (The first Consul had arrived in 1797.) That site is now the oldest US diplomatic property abroad in continuous use, and it was the first overseas extraterritorial property named to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Site. It served as the US Legation until 1956, when with Moroccan independence an Embassy was opened in Rabat, and today is the he Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies, with a museum and cultural center.

But I started this out as a George Washington's birthday post, so let's focus. In the same year, 1787, of the Treaty of Marrakesh, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia produced a new US Constitution which, after due ratification by the states,entered into force in 1789.  In that year, too, as anyone who lives in Washington or has ever seen a dollar bill knows, George Washington was elected President. On December 1, 1789. he responded to a 1788 letter from the Sultan to which no one had replied.

The text, from the Mount Vernon website (image of original above):                                             
City of New York December 1, 1789

Great and Magnanimous Friend,
           Since the date of the letter which the late Congress, by their President, addressed to your Imperial Majesty, The United States of America have thought proper to change  their government and institute a new one, agreeable to the Constitution, of which I have the honor, herewith, to enclose a copy. The time necessarily employed in the arduous  task, and the disarrangements occasioned by so great though peaceable a revolution, will apologize, and account for your Majesty’s not having received those regularly advised marks of attention from the United States which the friendship and magnanimity of your conduct toward them afforded reason to expect.
           The United States, having unanimously appointed me to supreme executive authority in this Nation. Your Majesty’s letter of August 17, 1788, which by reason of the dissolution of the late-government, remained unanswered, has been delivered to me. I have also received the letters which Your Imperial Majesty has been so kind as to  write, in favor of the United States, to the Bashaws of Tunis and Tripoli, and I present to you the sincere acknowledgements and thanks of the United States for this important  mark of your friendship for them.
           We greatly regret the hostile disposition of those regencies toward this nation, who have never injured them, is not to be removed, on terms of our power to comply with. 
           Within our territories there are no mines, wither of gold or silver, and this young nation just recovering from the waste and dissolution of a long war, have not, as yet, had time to acquire riches by agriculture and commerce. But our soil is bountiful, and our people industrious, and we have reason to flatter ourselves that we shall gradually become useful to our friends.
           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, and the just and generous measures taken in the case of Captain Proctor, make a deep impression on the United States and confirm their respect for and attachment to Your Imperial Majesty.
           It gives me great pleasure to have the 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, and shall esteem myself happy in every occasion of convincing Your Majesty of the high sense (which in common with the whole nation) I entertain the magnanimity, wisdom and benevolence of Your Majesty.
           May the Almighty bless Your Imperial Majesty, our Great and Magnanimous friend, with His constant guidance and protection.  
                                                                                              - George Washington


John T. said...

Did the French Protectorate especially under Vichy France have any impact on either the legal status or enforcement of the treaty?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Great question. I dont know but you may have given me a future post subject. Do see my Casablanca Conference posts.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Though Rick Blaine's Club Americaine obviously kept the faith in Casablanca, Major Strasser notwithstanding. Play it, Sam.

John T. said...


Look forward to that post!

As to Rick's a former State officer has opened a homage bar http://www.rickscafe.ma/about.htm

According to the Cafe's website she wanted to "do something to demonstrate American values" post 911.

Opening a bar to make money seems highly appropriate - a veritable twofer of the best in American values.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Thanks for the link. It won't be the same without Nazis, Bogsrt, Bergmann, or peter Lorre. Also Casablanca's boring: Fez, Marrakech, Tangier, even Rabat by preference.

Ab Hamdoun said...

John, this treaty happened way before the french polluted, I mean enteres Morocco in 1912.