Thomas Jefferson faced a lingering foreign crisis early in his administration. For more than twenty years, he had been urging military action against Arab corsairs on the Barbary coast. These were fast, cheap warships that preyed upon merchant shipping along the northern shore of Africa. Various Arab rulers there would regularly declare war against European countries and then begin seizing their ships and men. The captured crews would be held for ransom or sold in the market as slaves. “Christians are cheap today!” was the auctioneer’s cry.
This practice had been going on for centuries.As many as a million and a quarter Europeans had been enslaved by Muslims operating out of North Africa. When he served as America’s minister to France in the mid-1780s, Jefferson had once confronted an Arab diplomat, demanding to know by what right his country attacked Americans in the Mediterranean:
The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered 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.
Confronted by such obstinacy, Jefferson appealed to John Adams, who was then America’s minister to England. But Adams was unwilling to fight. Jefferson resolved from those early days to fight the Muslim hostage-takers. “We ought to begin a naval power, if we mean to carry on our own commerce. Can we begin it on a more honourable occasions or with a weaker foe?” he wrote to James Madison in 1784. The kidnapping and ransoming of American merchantmen continued for nearly twenty years.
The Washington and Adams administrations had gone along with the European practice of paying off the Barbary rulers. It was a protection racket, pure and simple. Adams believed paying tribute was cheaper than war. “We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever,” he said. Paying off the Barbary rulers was not cheap. When Jefferson came into office, the United States had already paid out nearly $2 million. This was nearly one fifth of the federal government’s yearly income!
The Bashaw of Tripoli declared war on the United States in 1801. Jefferson was determined to fight rather than pay tribute. Jefferson sent Commodore Edward Preble in command of the USS Constitution to strengthen America’s naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea. Preble stirred American hearts with his spirited reply to an arrogant British naval captain who had challenged him in to identify himself when shrouded in fog.“This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donnegal, 84 guns,” the captain hailed, demanding Preble put over a boat and prepare to be searched. “This is the United States ship Constitution, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel. Strike your matches, boys!” Faced with this threat of cannon fire, the Royal Navy captain backed down. Before Preble could arrive, however, the USS Philadelphia went aground off Tripoli harbor. TheBashaw took the crew captive.
Young Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur knew that he must not allow the Bashaw to convert the Philadelphia to his own use. He stole into the harbor by night and set the ship ablaze. America’s consul in Tunis, William Eaton, followed this daring exploit. He gathered a motley crew of U.S. Marines, sailors, Greek and Arab mercenaries and their camels. Eaton marched his men five hundred miles across the Libyan desert to take the coastal town of Derna. Three U.S. warships, in a coordinated attack, bombarded the town. From this stunning victory, the Marine hymn takes the line “to the shores of Tripoli” and their officers still wear Mameluke swords shaped like Arab scimitars. Stephen Decatur added to his reputation by offering this famous toast: “Our Country: In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country right or wrong!”
By 1805, the pirates had had enough. Jefferson’s willingness to use force had triumphed in America’s first war on terror in the Middle East.