What We Can Learn From Jefferson & the Barbary States

Thomas Jefferson. (Photo: Public Domain)
Thomas Jefferson. (Photo: Public Domain)

Looking back at American history can give us lessons about what may or may not work in contemporary counter-extremism efforts. Some of the same mistakes being made today have been made before. Before making them again, we should learn from them. 

Remember that time Thomas Jefferson attempted regime change in Tripoli to stop an Islamist state from terrorizing Americans? He then backed out halfway through and decided to pay off the Islamist pirates instead, leaving America’s local partners in the lurch after making these “partners on the ground” march 500 miles through the desert.

A little background: During the Revolutionary War, American shipping had been under the protection of the French navy. But following independence, the United States had to look after itself and that meant dealing with piracy.

So, in 1784, Jefferson, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, were sent as emissaries to the Barbary States — Morocco, Tripoli, Algiers and Tunis — on the North African coasts. Their mission was to secure a deal that would prevent those states from capturing American ships and selling their crews into slavery (which was an ongoing problem).

In 1785, the American negotiators met with the Tripoli’s ambassador in London and asked him why they carried out these raids. Jefferson recorded the conversation saying:

“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 enslave; and that every mussulman [sic] who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”

Despite this chilling justification, the Americans continued to try and buy off the pirates, in keeping with the practice of other European states of the time. It should be noted that most historians agree that the primary motivation for Barbary state-backed piracy was an economic protection racket rather than faith.

Agreements were first concluded first with Morocco (in 1786), followed by Algiers (1795), Tripoli (1796) and Tunis (1797).

The Treaty of Tripoli took pains to make it clear that the United States did not have anything specifically against Islam. It reads:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims); and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Mohammedan) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

But the dey (ruler) of Tripoli did not deem the tribute sufficient and declared war on the United States in 1801.

After war was declared, Jefferson dispatched a naval squadron to the Mediterranean with orders to “chastise their insolence … by sinking, burning, or destroying their ships and vessels wherever you shall find them.”

The war dragged on inconclusively for four years. The U.S. navy blockaded the Tripoli harbor, but did not have the strength to smash the corsair fleet and force a surrender.

The turning point came when the U.S. mounted an operation to effect regime change in Tripoli. They hired mercenaries in a campaign to replace the dey of Tripoli with his brother. The U.S. marines fought an engagement at Derna in 1805 (the same city in Libya that was captured by the Islamic State in October 2014).

This pushed Tripoli to agree to a peace deal.

The United States then abandoned their local partner again! Instead of carrying out the planned regime change, they paid a ransom of $60,000 for all captured America sailors and agreed to a peace.

Although the peace ended the conflict with Tripoli, it didn’t end the problem of piracy. It wasn’t until 1815 that the American navy returned to finish the job and forced Algiers to surrender. The Barbary Wars also foreshadowed today’s cavalier treatment of local partners.

Once the wars were over, the pirate states did not return to attacking American shipping, indicating that the Barbary States did not put as much stock in ideology as perhaps they presented during negotiations.


What can we learn from looking back at this episode in American history? First, Jefferson’s approach put American interests first. Second, he wasn’t afraid to risk war to secure them.

Most importantly, the difficulties Jefferson faced in dealing with Islamist piracy is illustrative for today’s policy makers.

Attempts to appease the Barbary States only led to increased demands until war forced the issue. And when war came, it had to be prosecuted conclusively and fully before there was a final end to the problem.

We can also learn from Jefferson’s poor treatment of his local allies. If America is truly committed to its founding ideals, then perhaps the state shouldn’t be manipulating foreigners into fighting their battles then refusing to fulfill its promises to them, as it is doing right now in betraying the Kurds

Such behavior gives legitimacy to accusations of Western hypocrisy and undermines trust that being on America’s side is worth it.

America should also not be afraid of standing up for its principles. It is both the expedient and morally correct thing to do.

In conclusion, we should also be aware of a critical footnote to Jefferson’s dealings with the Barbary States: namely that none of his policies impacted his or America’s commitment to individual freedoms.

Jefferson was a staunch supporter of religious liberty, which he embedded into American political culture. In addition to the Declaration of Independence, he co-authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became the precursor to the First Amendment protections for religious liberty in the United States constitution.

The statute proclaimed “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”



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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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