Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Coast War


The Greeks and Romans had no standing armies, yet they defended themselves. The Greeks by their laws, and the Romans by the spirit of their people, took care to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army. Their system was to make every man a soldier and oblige him to repair to the standard of his country whenever that was reared. This made them invincible; and the same remedy will make us so.” –Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814


Whether it be because there is a god, karma, poetic justice, or the kind of luck the Irish have had, life has a way of making you put your money where your mouth is. Thomas Jefferson made it clear where he stood in his first inaugural address in 1801:


“…it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our government… peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”


The most radical liberal of the American Revolution, and the most outspoken opponent of standing armies and foreign wars, would have those convictions tested by the chaos of a diverse planet and be the first president to wage war in foreign territory.


Jefferson’s principled stance against foreign alliances always had a blind spot when it came to France. Compelled by revolutionary fervor, he stood by the French Revolution much longer than anyone of his intelligence should have, and this is one of the reasons opponents of his theoretical stances have ammunition to use against him. During his tenure as U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson had his first interactions with the Barbary Pirates.


The Barbary States consisted of 3 semi-autonomous provinces under Ottoman rule; Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, as well as the independent Sultanate of Morocco. To be clear, this early departure from non-intervention was for what has to be the most justifiable foreign war in American history. The pirates of these states made their living kidnapping and selling into slavery or ransoming anyone they could get their hands on.


Between 1500 and 1800 as many as 1.25 million Europeans were captured and sold as slaves in North Africa. Coastal areas in southern Italy, Sicily, and Spain were abandoned for centuries due to the constant raids by corsairs who operated with the blessings of the Ottoman Empire who maintained their own massive slave economy dependent on central and eastern Europe.


From 1784-1815, pirates captured nearly 700 American citizens. Jefferson dealt with this often as the Minister to France. France protected American shipping after independence until 1783 under the Treaty of Alliance. When the U.S. made independence official, the pirates took advantage of the lapsed treaty. The brigantine Betsey was taken in October 1784, and in response Thomas Jefferson sent envoys to negotiate treaties with Morocco and Algiers.


This set into motion a pattern of the Barbary States demanding increasing tributes to refrain from attacking American ships. At the height of this pacification in 1795 the U.S. paid over $1 million to Algiers, at the time about 20% of the entire U.S. budget (quick reminder that the budget has grown to $4.147 trillion as of 2017) for the release of over 100 sailors and passengers. The payment was repeated annually for 15 years.


Negotiations were nearly impossible due to the unwillingness to compromise on the North African side. In early negotiations between Jefferson, John Adams, and ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, a representative of Tripoli, Jefferson writes that the ambassador offered this in response to a peace treaty:


“It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”

– American Peace Commissioners to John Jay, March 28, 1786, Thomas Jefferson Papers


By the time Jefferson took office in 1801, congress had passed legislation authorizing six frigates to be purchased and prepared for a potential conflict in the Mediterranean. Jefferson had been publicly calling for a cessation of payments to the extortionists and this fleet would be put to use under his command.


When Tripoli demanded $225,000 as a bribe and Jefferson refused as promised, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the U.S.


The war lasted four years, with the U.S. allying with Sweden and Sicily, using Sicily as a naval base. Eventually U.S. forces and mercenaries battered and blockaded the North African states into submission, crescendoing in the first American flag planted on foreign soil in the Tripolitan city of Derma.


I offer all the evidence justifying this war, and sincere empathy for the position Jefferson was put in, hoping to illustrate the impossibility of remaining relentlessly principled in a position of true power. Lord Acton made a T-shirt out of this point. Before and after his presidency Jefferson was tortured by the direction of his great liberal revolution, sure that central banks and standing armies would create homes for tyrants and would be emperors.

There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army.”

–Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789


He was right. The smallest government in the history of the world became the largest. A self-regulated militia became the world’s largest standing military, navy and air force. It all started with viewing American merchants as an interest of the American nation, a mercantilist relic of a concept that ran counter to every principle of American liberalism.


In this new free society the burden of self-defense in foreign territories was to be the responsibility of the free individual who traveled to seek his fortune. Taxing the nation as a whole to load the public coffers with ransom money for a special class of merchants who alone would reap the rewards of their perilous adventures was the first step into fast moving waters.


Jefferson knew this as well as anyone. He was as well read and as sincere of a radical for individual liberties as public office has ever known. He mourned his mistakes and begged a next generation to attempt, reinvigorated, to manage a liberal society by principle rather than situational pragmatism.


My position is the same as Thomas Jefferson’s was in his inaugural address:


Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels, in the form of kings, to govern him? Let history answer this question.”