Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates

June 4, 2009 by Jay Henderson
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I was intrigued to note President Obama’s reference to Thomas Jefferson in his speech this morning directed to the Muslims. Two centuries ago, American trading vessels were being harassed and captured by the pirates of Barbary (North Africa) - - the Islamic militants of their day, as it were. President Jefferson’s response amounted to “send in the Marines,” and in they went to the shores of Tripoli, a venture immortalized in the Marine Corps hymn.

The Barbary Pirates were sponsored by various Muslim caliphates located on the African shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The local rulers demanded payment of tribute in return for laying off a country’s vessels. In 1784 Congress appropriated $80,000 as tribute to the Barbary states and directing its ministers in Europe, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to begin negotiations with them. The efforts at diplomacy foundered early and in July 1785 Algerians captured two American ships and the dey of Algiers held their crews, demanding a ransom of $60,000.

Thomas Jefferson, then the United States envoy to France, opposed the payment of tribute. In his autobiography, Jefferson later wrote that he “endeavored to form an association of the powers subject to habitual depredation from them . . . [proposing] articles of a special confederation.”

Jefferson argued, “The object of the [confederation] shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace.” Jefferson’s efforts were unrewarded owing to “apprehensions” among the invited nations that England and France would follow their own paths, paying tribute as they had done for many years. Wrote Jefferson: “and so it fell through.”

In the absence of international co-operation, the United States continued to negotiate for cash settlements. In 1795 America paid nearly a million dollars in cash, naval stores, and a frigate to ransom 115 sailors from the dey of Algiers. Treaties provided for annual “gifts” to Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli.

After Jefferson became president in 1801 he refused to make payments demanded by Tripoli and the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. Jefferson dispatched a squadron of naval vessels to the Mediterranean. This show of force quickly awed Tunis and Algiers into ending their alliance with Tripoli. The frigate Philadelphia and her crew were captured in Tripoli in 1803, invoking criticism from his political opponents, but this setback did not deter Jefferson from his chosen course during four years of war. In 1803-1804, the American fleet forced Morocco out of the fight and inflicted five bombardments upon Tripoli. In 1805, an American fleet threatened to capture Tripoli and install the brother of Tripoli’s pasha on the throne, and the pasha became a man of peace, negotiating a treaty brought an end to the hostilities. The treaty of 1805 required the United States to pay a ransom of $60,000 for each of the sailors held by the dey of Algiers. In December 1806, Jefferson reported to Congress that “The states on the coast of Barbary seem generally disposed at present to respect our peace and friendship.” Hostilities nonetheless recurred intermittently until 1815, when naval victories by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur finally led to favorable treaties.

I wonder what impact, if any, this very real lesson of history will have for the current administration.