July 11, 1786 – Letter from Jefferson to John Adams on Strategy Regarding the Barbary Coast

In 1662, England made the first treaty with a Barbary ruler, agreeing to pay “tribute” in exchange for the ruler’s calling off attacks on that nation’s ships. Tributes were often subject to renewed negotiations lest the piratical attacks resume. Nations like England were said to have agreed to the treaties rather than destroying the pirate ships because it not only protected their own ships but provided for the destruction of competing, non-paying merchant marines.

Map of the Barbary Coast

In 1784, the American Continental Congress, finding that their commerce was impaired by the pirates, agreed to enter into tribute negotiations. It appointed Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as peace commissioners. In 1785, Congress authorized a maximum of $80,000 for payment to all the Barbary states.

John Adams met several times with His Excellency Abdrahaman, envoy of the sultan of Tripoli. Adams felt he had gone the extra mile to please the envoy, but he soon realized that $80,000 was considered insufficient, and was not enough money to avert a war.

Jefferson, serving in Paris as U.S. Minister to France, wrote to Horatio Gates on December 13, 1784:

Our trade to Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean is annihilated unless we do something decisive. Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these pirates. If we yeild [sic] the former, it will require sums which our people will feel. Why not begin a navy then and decide on war?”

On July 3, 1786, Adams corresponded with Jefferson, opining that paying tribute would be more economical and easier than convincing the people of the United States to fund the building of a navy.

But Jefferson still favored a military solution. In a letter on this date to John Adams, he acknowledged that “I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro’ the medium of war.” He wrote further, “However if it is decided that we shall buy a peace, I know no reason for delaying the operation, but should rather think it ought to be hastened. But I should prefer the obtaining it by war. And then he listed his reasons, which included “justice,” “honor,” and “respect in Europe.” He believed that if the U.S. went to war on this issue, it would no doubt be joined by Naples and Portugal. Thereafter, “many, if not most of the powers of Europe (except France, England, Holland and Spain if her peace be made) would sooner or later enter into the confederacy, for the sake of having their peace with the Pyratical states guarantied by the whole.”

Jefferson as a young man

Nevertheless, nothing much happened, and by the time Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in March of 1801, he inherited the troubled relations with the Barbary states.

As the Monticello website reports:

The new president very quickly made his decisions. He would arrange the payments long overdue to the rulers in Algiers and Tunis and following his convictions of earlier years he would send the navy to deal with the maritime forces of Barbary, of whose strength he himself prepared an estimate from documents sent him by the Navy department.”

Jefferson sent a letter to Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli of Tripoli in which he emphasized “our sincere desire to cultivate peace & commerce with your subjects.”

But even before the letter was received, Pasha Qaramanli declared war on the United States on May 14, 1801 by chopping down the flagpole at the American consulate in Tripoli.

U.S. Navy Schooner Enterprise capturing the Tripolitan Corsair Polacca Tripoli August 1, 1801

During the following three years the pasha maintained his demands and the United States, rotating ships and crews, maintained its naval presence in the Mediterranean as well as diplomatic efforts to make peace.

The war was finally resolved in 1805 after a great deal of both military conflicts and diplomatic wrangling.

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