Editor's Note: This column was coauthored by Bob Morrison.
When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams served the infant American republic as diplomats in Paris in 1785, they were both deeply concerned about the Barbary pirates.
These pirates, Muslims living in North Africa, had been preying upon American merchant vessels plying the Mediterranean.
It was customary for the rulers of these Barbary states to enrich themselves by taking American sailors—and those as well from European ships—and holding them hostage. The Europeans paid off the hostage takers. It was thought cheaper than fighting them.
Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Adams ventured forth to Versailles to meet with America’s great friend, the Comte de Vergennes. France’s Foreign Minister had sent millions of livres his king could ill afford in order to sustain America’s struggle for independence. He also sent thousands of disciplined French troops who made all the difference at Yorktown.
Jefferson and Adams hoped to enlist France’s aid in suppressing the Barbary pirates. “God and fear, fear and gold—those are the only things they understand in those courts,” said Vergennes of the Barbary rulers. Jefferson wanted to fight them. Adams thought it would be cheaper for the cash-strapped United States to pay off the kidnapers. It was perhaps the beginning of the clash that would bitterly separate these two giants of the Revolution.
For fifteen years afterward, America paid ransom and tribute to these Muslim kidnapers. Jefferson constantly urged Americans to fight. He recommended sending Captain John Paul Jones to vindicate Americans’ honor and independence. But throughout the administrations of Presidents George Washington and John Adams, America paid up rather than fight. By 1800, the United States was paying out fully one-fifth of our federal treasury to these pirates. It was never honorable. And it was no longer cheap.
In 1801, however, Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States. He defeated John Adams in a close election. One of the many changes wrought by what Mr. Jefferson called “the Revolution of 1800” was a change in policy toward the Barbary pirates. President Jefferson stopped paying these Muslim hostage takers. He resolved to fight them instead. He sent naval Capt. Stephen Decatur to the Mediterranean. He ordered in the U.S. Marines. They fought bravely and gained fame on “the shores of Tripoli.”