A Proposed Alliance of the Knights of Malta and the United States of America

Postwar Politics (>1783)

April 17, 2017
by Bruce Ware Allen Also by this Author


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On the face of it, there would seem no greater natural disparity between the two countries,  one an ancient aristocratic pan-European (but mostly French) Catholic military theocracy, the other a modern, egalitarian, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant confederation.  Nevertheless, during the American Revolution, a healthy number of Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem helped finance and fight for the nation seemingly at odds with all they stood for.  The Knights, headquartered in Malta but spread across Europe, were also well represented in the post-war Society of the Cincinnati, an exclusive club open to senior officers who had served the American Revolution.  Most notable was Pierre-Andre de Suffren de Saint-Tropez, who resigned his knightly role as General of the Galleys of the Order to serve under Admiral De Grasse.  Other members included the Chevalier de Luzerne, first French Minister to the United States, the Count de Colbert-Maulevrier, the Chevalier de Vallongue, the two Counts de Lameth, the Viscount de Noailles, and the Viscount de Mirabeau.

The value of the knights’ service (this at a time when the Order, unlike France proper, was technically neutral) was not lost on the Americans. At war’s end, Benjamin Franklin as Ambassador to France had a special commemorative medal struck for Grand Master Rohan, which he had delivered with a the following note:

I have the honour to address to Your Eminent Highness the medal which I have lately had struck. It is an Homage of gratitude, my Lord, which is due to the interest you have taken in our cause; and we no less owe it to your virtues and to your eminent highness wise administration of government.

Permit me, my lord, to demand your protection for such of our citizens as circumstances may lead to your ports. I hope that your eminent highness will be pleased to grant it to them, and kindly receive the assurances of the profound respect etc.[1]

The sentiments were genuine enough, but Franklin was nothing if not practically-minded. The knights’ headquarters were on Malta, a small rock of an island smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, possessed of a superb deep water harbor and capable of providing shelter from foul weather and Barbary corsairs.  With America now independent, the British navy no longer protected American sailors in the Mediterranean and they could use all the help they could get.

All of which Grand Master Rohan would have appreciated when he responded:

I have received with the most lively sensibility, the medal which your excellency sent me, and the value I set upon this acquisition leaves my gratitude unbounded. This monument of American liberty has a distinguished place in my cabinet. Whenever chance or commerce shall lead any of your citizens or their vessels into the ports of my island, I shall receive them with the greatest welcome. They shall experience from me every assistance they may claim, and I shall observe with infinite pleasure any growing connexion between that interesting nation and my subjects, especially if it will tend to convince your excellency of the distinguished sentiments with which I am the grand-master.[2]

The Grand Master was a progressive man, fond of Voltaire and Rousseau, so his support of the new republic comes as less surprising than it might.  With the success of the revolution, however, egalitarianism was becoming more than just an intellectual fashion. It began to have teeth.  The contradictions between a titled aristocracy and representative rule were not lost on hard-core French revolutionaries, for whom the Ordre de Cincinnatus was a step backwards.  Honoré, Count de Mirabeau the elder, wrote Considerations sur l’Ordre Americain de Cincinnatus, a pamphlet suggesting that the order was the thin end of the wedge of social stratification.  All hereditary orders of this sort – and he gave the Knights of St John as an example – were inherently bad and to be abolished lest they bring down the nascent American republic.  His younger brother the Viscount de Mirabeau, himself a member of the Cincinnati, saw value in the Knights of St John, considered them as an unofficial French asset, and not to be alienated.[3]

As to the Society of the Cincinnati, it had no official status or power, nor would it ever.   Although ranks and titles were mooted, principally by those who hoped to get them – Margrave was a favorite – they were firmly dismissed when Washington declined the offer of a crown, pointing out the absurdity of trading King George the Third for King George the First.  With the Constitutional Convention of 1789, the country was officially free of republic (“… if you can keep it,” as Benjamin Franklin famously cautioned).[4]

The ratification of the American Constitution coincided with France’s own revolution, which played out with less happy results, particularly for the Knights of St. John. Within a year, France had outlawed tithes, the greatest source of the Order’s revenue.  In 1791, the wearing of the eight pointed Maltese Cross was banned. In 1792, the king was executed and the Order was forced to sell its remaining assets.  That same year, the first French armies began to cross into Italy.  The Order’s holdings on that peninsula cannot have been far from their thoughts, nor the possibility that their days in France, or even on Malta itself, might be numbered.

The knights had been down this road before.  In 1291 they were forced from the Holy Land to the Island of Rhodes, a matter of force and skullduggery.  In 1520, they were forced from the island of Rhodes off Turkey to the island of Malta.  There, in 1565, they had held off the full force of an Ottoman siege in 1565, their finest hour.  In 1565, however, they had had the support of patrons from Spain.  This time, they were strictly on their own.

Desperate to reverse the forces of revolution that were tearing France apart, the Chevalier D’Estourmel lent King Louis 12,000 francs of the Order’s money to fund the abortive flight to Varennes (June 1791), the failure of which led to the king’s beheading. By September of 1792, he and the last official representative of the order to France, the aristocratic Bailli de Virieu, departed the Orders’ Paris office. The last men standing at the Order’s Paris embassy were the very plebeian but very loyal father and son clerks named Jean-François Eleozar Paul de Cibon, the latter “a man of great probity and well known for his attachment to the interests of Malta.”[5]

Portrait of Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc (Musee de la Legion d’Honneur)

With no one to say no, and no one else present to take on any kind of responsibility, the decidedly bourgeois son of necessity styled himself chargé d’affaires de Malte and took on the task of maintaining the Order’s rapidly diminishing fortunes. He managed to get himself accredited in the Almanach National and, to the extent possible, tried to maintain diplomatic relations with any powers willing to talk to him.  Through the offices of Pierre Doublet, Head of the French Secretariat and confidant of the Grand Master, he made weekly and bi-weekly reports back to Grand Master Rohan, and attempted to keep lines of communication open between the new French government and Malta, a task made the more difficult by Rohan’s refusal to grant him any official status.[6]  The knights, officially, demanded four grandparents of unimpeachable aristocratic birth.

Official or not, Cibon was nevertheless a regular at diplomatic affairs and was himself nearly ruined in his attempts to reciprocate hospitality without much in the way of support from Malta other than grudging permission to sell some of the Order’s remaining silver plate.

It was, however, Cibon that the American Minister James Monroe (another member of the Cincinnati) addressed to discuss a visit of the American fleet to Malta and a proposed alliance between the Order of Malta and the United States.[7]

With the approval of Grand Master Rohan, who perhaps had gazed into the future and was grasping at straws, Cibon in turn reached out to Monroe in a letter dated October 26, 1794:

The Chargé d’Affaires of Malta, has the honour to communicate to Mr. Monroe, Minister plenipotentiary of the United States of America, the annexed reflections, and to request that he will be pleased to weigh them in his mind, and give him frankly the result.

Mr. Cibon seizes this occasion to renew to Mr. Monroe an assurance of the respect and attachment with which he is, &c. If there are nations who by their position, their industry, and their courage, become naturally opposed to, and rivals of each other; so there are other nations who with as much courage and industry, feel a motive to esteem, approach and unite together, to increase their mutual prosperity, and to render themselves reciprocally happy by a continual exchange of attentions, regards and services. The United States of America and the Island of Malta, notwithstanding the distance which separates them, do not appear to be less bound to cultivate a close and friendly union between them, by motives of interest, than they are by those of a benevolent amity.

It is principally towards the Mediterranean that the American sailors, guided by their industry, present themselves in great numbers, forgetting the danger to which they are exposed of becoming a prey to the Algerian corsairs who cover that sea.

The Island of Malta, placed in the centre of the Mediterranean, between Africa and Sicily, offers by its position to all navigators, an asylum, provisions and succor of every kind. Of what importance would it not be for the American commerce to find upon this stormy sea, fine ports, provisions, and even protection against the Algerian pirates.

In exchange for the succours and protection, by means where-of the American vessels might navigate the Mediterranean freely and without inquietude, would the United States consent to grant, in full right, to the Order of Malta some lands in America, in such quantity as might be agreed on between the two governments, placing such lands under the immediate protection and safeguard of the American loyalty?

Thus the commerce of the United States would find, in the Mediterranean, ports to secure it from storms, and vessels of war to protect it against the pirates of Algiers; in exchange for which Malta would possess in America property granted forever, protected by the United States, and guaranteed by them in a manner the most solid. [8]

It was a carefully considered offer, with advantages for both sides.  Safety for the new nation, and the prospect of yet another new home for the Order, with an option to grow. Geography did not confine the knights’ imagination; as early as the sixteenth century, one of their members had tried and failed to create an outpost in Brazil.  The earlier expedition, however, was bravado; Rohan’s request was deadly serious.

Monroe took nearly a month to reply, somewhat pointedly addressing him in the fashion of the French revolutionaries:

To the Chargé d’Affaires of Malta. Paris, 22d November, 1794.


I have received with great pleasure the considerations you were pleased to present to me; pointing out the mode by which the United States of America and the Isle of Malta may be serviceable to each other. It is the duty of nations to cultivate, by every means in their power, these relations subsisting between them, which admit of reciprocal good offices, and I am persuaded the United States will omit no opportunity which may occur to testify that disposition towards the Island of Malta.

The Americans have, it is true, received already great injury from the Algerines, and it is their intention to adopt such measures as shall prevent the like in future. The Island of Malta by its situation and maritime strength possesses the means of yielding that protection, and your suggestion on that subject merits, in my opinion, the serious consideration of our government, to whom I have already transmitted it.

“The United States possess at present extensive and very valuable territory. It is their intention to dispose of it by sale; by which however the right of soil only will be conveyed; the jurisdiction still remaining with them. The government too of such territory is already prescribed: It must be elective or republican, and forming a part of the existing national system. I have thought proper to add this information that you may know the powers of our government in relation to this object. Permit me to assure you, that as soon as I shall be instructed thereon, I will immediately communicate the same to you. [9]

The matter seems to have stopped there.  From the American point of view, what Cibon was proposing was an impossibility (though they were happy to establish a mission on Malta in 1796).

For the Order, the end game was soon played out.  Cibon continued to send status reports to his masters back in Malta and carry on what negotiations he could, reporting honestly and painfully the deteriorating situation in France and struggling to maintain the Order’s interests and their archives.[10]  When Rohan died in 1797 and the German knight von Hempesich took his seat, it was Cibon, now formally confirmed as chargé d’affaires, who was charged with announcing the new Grand Master’s elevation and extending that man’s rather naive and desperate hopes for good relations and commerce between Malta and France.

It was, alas, too late.  Eleven months later Napoleon, one his way to conquer Egypt, invaded Malta, expelled the knights, and made the island French.  Despite glowing referrals from his fellow bourgeois Doublet, virtually nothing was done for the clerk, and he disappeared without trace into history.[11]

Two years later the British ousted France from Malta, and never quite got around to restoring the power of the Order.  In 1834 the wandering knights were forced to a temporal home within the Holy See, which they have retained ever since. [12]

James Monroe by contrast went on to become the fifth president of the United States (1817-1825) and architect of the Monroe Doctrine which posited that America would tolerate no European interference in the western hemisphere – a western hemisphere void of America’s friends, the Knights of St. John

As a practical matter and with the best will in the world, there was little enough that America could have done to help the knights retain power in Malta.  Regrettably, the knights’ removal from the island meant that they were of no use to America when America needed help against the Barbary corsairs in 1801 – 1805.  Britain, by contrast, was happy to see her former colony struggle without the protection of the Royal Navy; moreover, as masters of Malta they had, by 1800, an important trade in livestock with Tripoli, a trade they were reluctant to jeopardize.[13]    In the War of 1812 between America and Britain, again the British looked on with equanimity as the Barbary corsairs harassed their American cousins. As for Malta, it was no longer a refuge for American sailors but rather a holding pen for American prisoners of war.[14]

Could it have happened, could the knights have found a new home in North America?  There were, after all, already thirteen self-governing political entities under “American loyalty.”  More would soon follow.  Given the ties of shared sacrifice between the knights and the American revolutionaries and mutual esteem, it must have seemed to Cibon as a more than reasonable suggestion, and indeed, with a few minor tweaks on either or both sides, one can just about see it coming to fruition. Another of history’s might-have-beens.

Happily, no ill feelings lingered.  The Order of the Knights of St. John today, now entirely devoted to their role as Hospitallers rather than soldiers, provide free health care to American poor, and if the Order  has no formal alliance with the United States, they do at least have a Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.


[1]  Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: M’Carty & Davis, 1834), 525.

[2]  Franklin, Memoirs, 542.

[3] For American reaction to the society, see Markus Hünemörder, The Society of the Cincinnati: Conspiracy and Distrust in Early America (New York: Berghan Books, 2006).

[4]  Papers of Dr. James McHenry on the Federal Convention of 1787, The American Historical Review vol. 11, (1906), 618.

[5]  Pierre Marie Louis de Boisgelin de Kerdu, Ancient and Modern Malta, vol 2, part 2 (London: Richard Phillips, 1805), 35.

[6]  Frederick W. Ryan, The House of the Temple: A Study of Malta and its Knights in the French Revolution (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1930), 238.

[7] Pierre Jean Louis Ovide Doublet, Mémoires historiques sur l’invasion et l’occupation de Malte par une armée Française, en 1798 (Paris: Librairie de Firmin-Didot et Cie, 1883), 387.

[8] James Monroe, Writings of James Monroe, vol II, Stanislaus Murray Hamilton, ed.  (New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 1899), 128.

[9] Monroe, Writings, 128.

[10]  Léonce Celier, “L’ambassade de l’ordre de Malte à Paris et ses archives,” Revue d’histoire de l’Église de France, Tome 22. N°96, (1936): 317-337.

[11]  Doublet himself helped negotiate the terms of surrender of Malta to Napoleon and was made Secretary General to the Commission of Government, later Commissioner during the occupation.  With the arrival of the British, he was exiled and lived a thin existence in Rome and Tripoli, only at the end of his life being permitted to return to Malta for good.  See Doublet, Memoires historiques.

[12] Dennis Castillo, “’… The Knights Cannot Be Admitted’: Maltese Nationalism, the Knights of St. John, and the French Occupation of 1798-1800,” The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 79, No. 3 (Jul., 1993): 434-453;   Giovanni Bonello, “The ‘Declaration of Rights,’ 1802, and William Eton,” in Giovanni Bonello, Histories of Malta – Travesties and Dynasties (Valletta: Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2011), 109-124.

[13] Kola Folayan, “Tripoli and the War with the U.S.A., 1801-5,” The Journal of African History Vol. 13, No. 2 (1972): 261-270.

[14] The Library of Congress has a short diary of Obadiah Stevens, one such prisoner. https://lccn.loc.gov/mm96006327.


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