Many of us are familiar with the story of John Adams through the award-winning DVD series.
But did you know that it was John Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson, who had to confront America’s first foreign policy crisis: the Barbary pirates?
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the North African Barbary states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli engaged in piracy of European merchant shipping. The pirates routinely captured and confiscated ships, crews and cargo, enslaving or ransoming crews and passengers. England, France and Spain entered into treaties with the Barbary states whereby they would pay “protection money” to be left alone. These powerful European nations preferred bribery to war, partly because they perceived an economic benefit from the threat of pirates to merchant shipping of other European nations.
After the American Revolution, the British of course no longer protected American merchant ships which had traded extensively in the Mediterranean before the war.
As a result, in July of 1785, Barbary pirates seized two American ships off the coast of Portugal and forced 21 American sailors into slave labor. Another ship was seized but freed its American crew once a ransom of $25,000 was paid.
History records them as the Barbary Pirates. In fact, they were blackmailing terrorists, hiding behind a self-serving interpretation of their Islamic faith by embracing select tracts and ignoring others.
Thus began the first foreign policy crisis for the US – how to deal with the Barbary pirates who demanded “tributes” from the US in return for the safe passage of her ships and ransoms for captured sailors and passengers now that we no longer sailed under the protection of Britain.
The capture of the three American ships created an early and important foreign policy crisis for the United States. The US response to the Barbary crisis was impacted by two factors: we had no money and we had no navy.
The Continental Navy had been disbanded in 1784, which was primarily a cost-saving measure. It was not reestablished until the Navy Act of 1794 because many Americans, including John Adams, viewed a strong navy as the best national defense against foreign threats (and they were all uncomfortable with the idea of having a standing army after their experience with recent British occupation).
Financially, it would require a significant expense at a time when the budding Federal government found itself in precarious financial condition in the years following the Revolution. The Continental Congress had borrowed $40 million to finance the war, and found itself having to borrow money from foreign sources just to pay the interest on the existing foreign debt.
While George Washington and John Adams were in office, the US acquiesced to the demands (i.e. bought peace) of the Barbary States as all the while the Barbary pirates continued to capture more US ships and crews.
In 1786, John Adams met with Arab diplomats from Tunis to discuss the escalating situation. He was told by the Ambassador to Tripoli that “America was a great nation, but unfortunately a state of war existed between America and Tripoli. . .”
On March 28, 1786, John Adams detailed what he saw as the main issue:
“We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the grounds of their pretensions to make war upon a Nation who had done them no injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation.
“The Ambassador (the pirates actually had an Ambassador!) replied that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in the Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged 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 prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” (Any of this sounding familiar, Americans?? Some things never change . . .)
Hence, without a treaty of peace there could be no peace between the two. His Excellency was prepared to arrange such a treaty . . the sooner the better. Were a treaty delayed, it would be harder to get.
Adams summoned Thomas Jefferson, the new ambassador to nearby France to discuss the issue.
They both then met with the Ambassador who told them that peace with the Barbary States might cost $200,000 to $300,000 guineas (a huge amount). The request for such a large sum of money left them no choice but to refer the matter to Congress.
Adams’ position was to pay tributes as had always been done. Jefferson was disgusted, declared it was throwing money away and suggested war was the only solution.
In 1794, Congress approved the construction of 6 ships – the birth of the US Navy – in anticipation of fighting the Barbary pirates. And in 1795, Congress approved a treaty with Algiers that led to the release of the hostages the following year – at a cost to the US of nearly $642,500 in cash, munitions and a 36-gun frigate, besides a yearly tribute of $21,600 worth of naval supplies! Ransom rates were officially set for those Americans already in Barbary prisons: $4,000 for each passenger, $1,400 for each cabin boy.
When Washington died in 1799, the Pasha of Tripoli, informed President Adams that it was customary when a great man passed away from a tributary state to make a gift in his name to Tripoli. The Pasha thought Washington to be worth about $10,000.
When by 1801 no tribute had been received, the Pasha summoned the American representative to his court, demanded that his hand be kissed and to relay to the US that the annual tribute would be raised to $250,000 plus $25,000 annually in goods of his choice. If refused, the alternative was war.
The reason no tribute had been paid is that Thomas Jefferson had become President, three ships including the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) had been completed, and the United States Marines were steaming towards the Barbary Coast. The battles were legendary; hence we have “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn. OORAH!!