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Thomas Jefferson: The Pirate War: To The Shores Of Tripoli

10 minute read
Christopher Hitchens

Within days of his March 1801 inauguration as the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson ordered a naval and military expedition to North Africa, without the authorization of Congress, to put down regimes involved in slavery and piracy. The war was the first in which the U.S. flag was carried and planted overseas; it saw the baptism by fire of the U.S. Marine Corps–whose anthem boasts of action on “the shores of Tripoli”–and it prefigured later struggles with both terrorism and jihad.

The Barbary States of North Africa–Algiers, Tunis, Morocco and Tripoli (today’s Libya)–had for centuries sustained themselves by preying on the maritime commerce of others. Income was raised by direct theft, the extortion of bribes or “protection” and the capture of crews and passengers to be used as slaves. The historian Robert Davis, in his book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800, estimates that as many as 1.25 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved. The Barbary raiders–so called because they were partly of Berber origin–struck as far north as England and Ireland. It appears, for example, that almost every inhabitant of the Irish village of Baltimore was carried off in 1631. Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe both mention the frightening trade in their writings; at that time, pamphlets and speeches by survivors and escaped slaves had a huge influence on the popular imagination. James Thomson’s famously rousing 1740 song Rule Britannia, with its chorus about how Britons “never shall be slaves,” was a direct allusion to the Barbary terrorism.

Jefferson was appalled by this practice from an early stage of his career. In 1784 he wrote to James Madison about the Barbary depredations, saying, “We ought to begin a naval power, if we mean to carry on our commerce. Can we begin it on a more honorable occasion or with a weaker foe?” He added that John Paul Jones, the naval hero of the Revolutionary War, “with half a dozen frigates” could subdue the slave kingdoms of North Africa.

The year 1784 saw the American brig Betsey, with her crew of 10, captured by a Moroccan corsair while sailing with a cargo of salt from Spain to Philadelphia. Soon after, Algerian pirates grabbed the Dauphin and the Maria on the high seas of the Atlantic and took their crews captive. The situation was becoming worse because the British fleet had withdrawn protection of American vessels after the former colony declared its independence, and the U.S. had no navy of its own. Secretary of State John Jay decided to do what the European powers did and pay tribute to the Barbary sultans in exchange for safe passage as well as for the return of captured American slaves.

America’s two main diplomats at the time were John Adams in London and Jefferson in Paris. Together they called upon Ambassador Abdrahaman, the envoy of Tripoli in London, in March 1786. This dignitary mentioned a tariff of three payments–for the ransom of slaves and hostages, for cheap terms of temporary peace and for more costly terms of “perpetual peace.” He did not forget to add his own commission as a percentage. Adams and Jefferson asked to know by what right he was exacting these levies. The U.S. had never menaced or quarreled with any of the Muslim powers. As Jefferson later reported to the State Department and Congress, “The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners.”

Jefferson’s recommendation was that the Administration refuse any payment of tribute and prepare at once to outfit a naval squadron to visit the Mediterranean in strength. Ultimately, he proposed, America should arrange for an international concert of powers composed of all those nations whose shipping and citizens were preyed upon. “Justice and Honor favor this course,” he wrote, adding that it would also save money in the long run.

Adams agreed with the sentiment but did not think the recommendation was feasible. Congress at that time was in no mood to spend money for a fleet. Jefferson, however, never let the subject drop. In 1787 he approached Jones, who was down on his luck in Paris, out of work and having woman troubles as usual. Would Jones be interested in a job offer from Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, who Jefferson happened to know was looking for an admiral? That admiral’s task would be to clear out the Turkish fleet from the Black Sea, on Russia’s southern border.

Why would Jefferson want to act as recruiter for a European monarch? First, because he wanted to keep Jones employed and give him the type of combat experience that would befit the potential chief naval commander of the United States. Second, because three of the four Barbary States–Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis–were part of the Turkish, or Ottoman, Empire. Britain, which rather encouraged the Barbary powers to attack American ships, used Turkey as a counterweight in its war against Catholic powers on mainland Europe. Why shouldn’t the U.S. reply in kind by discreetly helping Russia make life hard for the Turks?

Jones set off for St. Petersburg in May 1788, presented the Empress with a copy of the new U.S. Constitution, took command in the Black Sea and inflicted some hard blows on the Turkish fleet. He proposed going to the source by leading a Russian fleet into the Mediterranean, where it could interrupt Ottoman shipping between Constantinople and Egypt. For all this activity on the “infidel” side, Jones was rewarded by having a price put on his head by the ruler of Algiers. Meanwhile, however, he fell from favor at Empress Catherine’s court and began to lose his health. Jefferson did not know this and had since become Secretary of State. In this capacity, he persuaded President George Washington to commission Jones to lead a delegation to Algiers, empowering him to give an ultimatum to the ruler. The package containing the commission and the instructions arrived in Paris only days after Jones had died there, in July 1792, from jaundice, nephritis and pneumonia. But Jefferson was still not discouraged.

The next year, 1793, saw Jefferson’s retirement as Secretary of State and his withdrawal to Monticello. Like many of his temporary “resignations,” this one was well timed. It meant that he did not have to express an opinion in the congressional debates on the military budget. Many of his Republican colleagues opposed the expense, as well as the principle, of having a permanent army and navy. The Federalist supporters of Adams, furthermore, desired a larger military budget in order to conduct hostilities against revolutionary France, a regime for which Jefferson felt sympathy. But by staying out of the political battle and biding his time, Jefferson ensured that when the hour struck for his own project, he could call on a fleet that Adams had built for him. In 1794, partly moved by the letters from American sailors held in Barbary dungeons and slave pens, Congress authorized the building of six frigates, three of which–the Constitution, the United States and the Constellation–were already completed. In July 1798 funds were approved for a Marine Corps as well.

Jefferson became President in early 1801, shortly after Yusuf Karamanli, the ruler of Tripoli, unwisely issued an ultimatum to the U.S.: If it did not pay him fresh tribute, he threatened, he would declare war on America. The new Commander in Chief coolly decided to let the ultimatum expire and take the declaration of war at face value. He summoned his new Cabinet, which approved the dispatch of a naval squadron and decided not to bother Congress–which was then in recess–with the information. He did not, in fact, tell the elected representatives of his plans until the fleet was on the high seas and too far away to be recalled.

Over the next four years, in what Jefferson laconically described as a “cruise,” the new American Navy bombarded the harbors of Algiers, Morocco and Tunisor threatened them with bombardment–until the states gradually agreed to cease cooperating with Karamanli. The Tripoli government, however, remained defiant and even succeeded in boarding and capturing the Philadelphia in 1803. That led directly to an episode that, as Henry Adams records in his history of the two Jefferson administrations, used to be known to every American schoolboy. In February 1804, Captain Stephen Decatur Jr. sailed straight into Tripoli harbor and set on fire the captured Philadelphia. In August 1804 he helped rescue its crew from a gruesome imprisonment, bombarded the fortified town and boarded the pasha’s own fleet where it lay at anchor. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, Decatur is said by legend–and by some eyewitnesses–to have slain the very officer who, some hours before, had killed his brother, Lieut. James Decatur.

This rescue was inspiring news for the folks back home and other captives and slaves in North African hands, but the event was almost eclipsed by another daring raid the following year. In April 1805, Captain William Eaton put together a mixed force of Arab rebels and mercenaries and American Marines, and in a maneuver that has since been compared to that of the charismatic T.E. Lawrence, led a desert march from inland that took Tripoli’s second city, Derna, by surprise. Lieut. Presley O’Bannon of the Marine Corps hoisted the Stars and Stripes over the captured town, and the Marine anthem preserves his gesture to this day.

That did not bring the conflict to a complete close, but it signaled the beginning of the end. Over the next few years, all four of the Barbary States signed treaties with America renouncing piracy, kidnapping and blackmail. Algiers had to be bombarded a few more times, and there was an awkward moment during negotiations in Washington when the Tunisian representative, Sidi Soliman Melli Melli, made it clear that he expected to be amused at public expense by some ladies of the night. (Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison were able to arrange an off-the-record State Department budget for that purpose, thus demonstrating that they understood the facts of life.)

Taken together with some of Jefferson’s other ambitious and quasi-constitutional moves–the Louisiana Purchase and the sending of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the West–the Barbary war exposed him to some Federalist and newspaper criticism for his secrecy, high-handedness and overly “presidential” style. But there was no arguing with success, and some historians believe that just as Jefferson was able to make use of Adams’ Navy, so Madison, when he became President, was able to deploy Decatur’s Navy, battle hardened and skillful, in the sterner combat of the War of 1812. Those who like to look for lessons for today might care to note that Jefferson did not act unilaterally until he was satisfied that European powers would not join his coalition and that he did not seek to impose a regime change or an occupation of the Barbary States. And those who ponder the ethics of history might take a crumb of comfort from the fact that though he could not bring himself to abolish slavery in the U.S. and even supported its retention in Haiti, Thomas Jefferson at least managed to destroy it somewhere.

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