“The Policy of Christendom has made Cowards of all their Sailors before the Standard of Mahomet. It would be heroical and glorious in Us, to restore Courage to ours. I doubt not we could accomplish it, if we should set about it in earnest. But the Difficulty of bringing our People to agree upon it, has ever discouraged me.”*
So wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, ministers of the United States to Britain and France respectively, in 1786, expressing their mutual distaste for having to pay the Barbary pirates to stop seizing American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean and enslaving their crews and/or holding them for ransom. By “Christendom” he meant most of the European powers, which simply paid tribute to the pirates to leave their merchant vessels alone.
Adams himself proposed paying the bribe in order to allow American traders to sail the Mediterranean unmolested, reasoning that, in terms of money, the amount of trade possible there would far outweigh any “Sum of Money” paid to the pirates. He proposed that, not out of pragmatism, but because he doubted that “our People” – meaning Congress – would be willing to approve a navy that would punish the pirates and protect American ships.
For Adams and Jefferson, it was a matter of finding the money to build and sustain such a navy. Even when America had a navy, its merchant vessels remained the prey of not only Islamic pirates, but were harassed or obstructed by British and French navies, as well, a practice that with Britain led to another war, and near-war with France. Adding to their frustrations was an ineffectual Congress hamstrung by war debt and the anemic Articles of Confederation, not to mention civil unrest that culminated in Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts.
And Congress had authorized only $80,000 with which to bargain with all the Barbary States, not nearly enough to satiate the looting appetites of a single one of them. And this money could be had only on credit – from loans to the U.S. by principally Dutch bankers. For example, the “Bashaws” of the Barbary States had various “sliding scales” of prisoner ransom values, say, from $300 for a common seaman to $1,000 or more for a ship’s captain.
This would have been in addition to a substantial flat purchase price, the exorbitant commission and expenses demanded by an Islamic “ambassador” or negotiating party for deigning to discuss the matter, and spectacular “presents” to the ruler of a Barbary nation as a gesture of “good will,” all of it in cash. (These amounts were in real money, that is, gold and silver.)
Adams and Jefferson were at the time attempting to conduct negotiations with the Algerian Dey with envoys authorized by Congress for that purpose. But even if they had managed to “treat” successfully with Algiers and paid the tribute, there remained the Deys, Beys and Pashas of Tunis and Tripoli to placate, not to mention the Porte, or the Sultan of Turkey in Constantinople, whose pirates also raided the Mediterranean. A treaty of “peace” with one would not necessarily mean an end to the others’ depredations. (A treaty with Morocco was ratified by Congress in July, 1786.) And there were no guarantees that any of the Barbary “regencies” would not renege on a treaty and resume its raiding. They all knew that the U.S. had no way of enforcing the terms of a treaty or of retaliating if the terms were violated.
In a letter of July 3, 1786, to Jefferson in Paris, Adams outlined his “premises” concerning the dilemma:
1. We may at this Time, have a Peace with them [the Barbary pirates], in spite of all the Intrigues of the English or others to prevent it, for a Sum of Money.
2. We never Shall have Peace, though France, Spain, England, and Holland Should use all their Influence in our favor without a Sum of Money.
3. That neither the Benevolence of France nor the Malevolence of England will be ever able materially to diminish or Increase the Sum.
4. The longer the Negotiation is delayed, the larger will be the Demand.
Jefferson was more adamant concerning the Barbary pirates, preferring to send a squadron of American warships to the Mediterranean to deal permanently with the corsairs. In his reply to Adams of July 11, after conceding the “practical” wisdom of paying tribute, he wrote:
I acknowledge I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war….I should prefer the obtaining [of] it by war.
1. Justice is in favor of this opinion.
2. Honor favors it.
3. It will procure us respect in Europe, and respect is a safeguard to interest.
4. It will arm the federal head with the safest of all the instruments of coercion over their delinquent members and prevent them from using what would be less safe.
5. I think it least expensive.
6. Equally effectual.
But, the conundrum was insoluble for as long as the U.S. government lacked the will and the means to act. It had no “instrument of coercion.” The Continental navy of the Revolution had been disbanded. The only country that offered America any assistance was Portugal, which in 1786 ordered its navy to protect American merchantmen at the Strait of Gibraltar. Jefferson further proposed to Adams the idea of a naval alliance between the U.S., Portugal, and Naples (then capital of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies) to confront the Barbary nations and end their outrages. Nothing came of it. All the European diplomats on speaking terms with Jefferson and Adams advised that the U.S. pay the tribute.
While Jefferson remained in Paris as minister, he made arrangements with the Catholic Order of Mathurins, which had for centuries begged alms with which to buy the freedom of chiefly Frenchmen taken captive by the Barbary pirates. The head of the order agreed to try to redeem as many Americans as he could, especially from the Algerians. Before enough funds could be collected, however, the French Revolution occurred and the new, anti-cleric government dissolved the Mathurins.
Treaties were signed between the U.S. and all the Barbary States in the late 18th century, but these more or less lapsed when the British navy barred American merchantmen from the Mediterranean during the War of 1812. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, together with the treaty between the U.S. and Britain the same year, the Barbary States again felt free to raid American vessels.
The United States Navy was created by an act of Congress on April 30, 1798. Between 1805 and 1815, under Jefferson’s and Madison’s administrations, the Navy and its Marines solved the problem, restoring Adams’ “Courage” to the American standard.
The moral of this narrative is that while Americans, particularly Jefferson and Adams, held the rational moral principle regarding the proper way to deal with the Barbary States – with retaliatory force – they lacked the means. But when they had the means, they acted on that principle. The European powers, on the other hand, particularly Britain, France and Spain, possessed the “instruments of coercion” – large and powerful navies – but chose instead to submit to Moslem extortion in policies of craven pragmatism.
It was not until the U.S. took the moral “high ground” that European nations abandoned their “pragmatic sanction.” For example, British admiral Exmouth, commanding an Anglo-Dutch fleet, reduced Algiers in 1816 when it reneged on the treaty it made with American commodore Stephen Decatur the year before, and forced the Dey to sign a second treaty that reaffirmed Decatur’s terms.
Today, the U.S., in addition to the West, is being raided and plundered and held hostage by a new gang of Barbary States – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and even our “ally” Pakistan, not to mention all the oligarchical/feudal Gulf States now thriving on seized Western oil assets. No nation, not even the U.S., can agree on the proper action to take against them, or whether any action would be proper. This is because they lack, not the “instruments of coercion,” but rather the moral courage to assert their selfish existence.
Jefferson almost had it right when he nearly said, in reply to Adams in 1786, that the rationally moral is the practical.
*The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959). Ed. Lester J. Cappon. All of the quotations and most of the information in this commentary come from this work. Also, complete texts of all the treaties with the Barbary States are available at Yale Law School’s Avalon Project site.