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Thomas Jefferson sent the Navy, Marines to defeat Muslim terrorists

Updated: May 28

When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he planned to prioritize reducing the national debt. The U.S. wasn't at war, and the Treasury never had much money.

So his party assumed that he wouldn't try to rebuild the Navy. One of President John Adams' last acts as his predecessor was to sell most of its ships to an eager commercial market.

But four Muslim states on the Barbary Coast of northern Africa had a history of kidnapping the crews of American military and merchant vessels for ransom.

To stop these abuses, the pirates demanded an annual lump sum in advance, like insurance. Europeans paid it, and the Continental Congress and the administrations of Washington and Adams followed their example. Adams' vice president, Jefferson, was opposed.

"Jefferson had written a couple of reports on the 'Barbary pirates' when he was a diplomat and believed their demands kept escalating because the only thing they understood was power," Brian Kilmeade, co-author with Don Yaeger of "Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates," told IBD. "Although the U.S. Navy was tiny when he became president, he wasn't intimidated by the pirate fleets and decided the challenge required a military response. The First Barbary War was America's first confrontation with Islamic terrorism, and it has lessons for today."

Virginia start

Jefferson (1743-1826) was born on a plantation in Shadwell, Va. He was a brilliant student and at 16 attended William & Mary College in Williamsburg, where his law professor introduced him to the thinkers of the European Enlightenment on human rights.

After graduating in 1762, he served as a law clerk for five years and was admitted to the bar. In 1770, Jefferson moved into his new home, Monticello, on a 5,000-acre plantation.

Two years later he married Martha Wayles Skelton. They would have six children, though only two would live to adulthood. He served as a representative to the Colonial legislature in the years leading to the American Revolution, speaking eloquently about the right to more self-government.

War and declaration

When the Revolution broke out, he was assigned to write the Declaration of Independence, and in his first draft he criticized slavery.

He had inherited slaves and used them for collateral to keep his plantation solvent, but he believed that it was an evil institution that needed to be phased out. Pro-slavery delegates to the Continental Congress had the passage removed.

Jefferson would try four times in his career to reduce slavery, the first in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which banned the institution in states that would be created around the Great Lakes.

Jefferson was governor of Virginia toward the end of the War of Independence and turned down offers to serve as an overseas diplomat to care for his family.

Then in 1782, the year before the war ended, Martha died. Two years later, Jefferson joined the U.S. mission in Paris, bringing over his two daughters. In 1785 he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as ambassador, while Adams was the first ambassador to to Britain.

The year before, Barbary pirates started seizing American vessels because the treaty that gave protection by the French navy had expired.


According to Robert Davis in "Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters," from 1530 to 1780, over a million Europeans were captured and sold as slaves by the Barbary powers. Morocco was an independent sultanate, while Tunis (capital of today's Tunisia), Algiers (Algeria) and Tripoli (Libya) were semi-autonomous provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Most European nations found it cheaper to pay a fee for protection rather than fight.

The Barbary Coast

In 1786, Jefferson and Adams met in London with the ambassador from Tripoli, asking why the U.S. was being targeted, since it had never harmed Muslims.

"The Ambassador answered us," Jefferson wrote, "that it was written in their Quran 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 as prisoners."

"Jefferson recommended to Congress that it refuse all payments of tribute and prepare at once to outfit a naval squadron to visit the Mediterranean," wrote Christopher Hitchens in "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America." "Adams was certain that Congress would never appropriate the money. ... As for the piratical Islamic powers, (Adams wrote,) 'We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.' Jefferson's opinion of Adams began to decline from that point."

Jefferson returned to America to serve as President George Washington's secretary of state in 1790.

The Navy had been sold off to save money, since America was neutral in European wars. Jefferson convinced the president to rebuild so that the U.S. could threaten the pirates, who never seemed satisfied with the bribes. The construction of six frigates began.

Jefferson left the State Department at the end of 1793

Two years later, the U.S. agreed to pay Algiers $1 million (equal to $19.5 million now) to have 115 Americans released. To stop the attacks, the U.S. also started paying the four rogue nations a combined million a year.

This was one-sixth of the entire federal budget, much more than the young country could afford but less than the pirates wanted, so occasional attacks hit American ships in the Mediterranean.

The Veep

Jefferson was Adams' vice president from 1797 to 1801 but disagreed with the president's support for Britain in its war with France, which caused the French navy to seize U.S. vessels.

Adams expanded the Navy to counter this loss, then reduced it after the threat passed, setting the stage for Jefferson's presidential shift to make America a power to be reckoned with.

"There were three nation-building chapters to Jefferson's time in office: the Barbary Wars, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition to the West," wrote Hitchens. "All three of them testify to his astonishing single-mindedness."

In May 1801, when Jefferson said no to Tripoli's latest demands, the pasha declared war. Morocco and Algiers soon joined him, with only Tunis remaining at peace.

Jefferson didn't mess around

Jefferson sent three of his most modern frigates and a schooner to join Swedish ships to blockade Tripoli's harbor and attack any pirates they found elsewhere.

The first victory on the high seas came in August, demonstrating the American sailors' and Marines' superior training. Other U.S. ships over the next four years reinforced the Navy and Marines as the Navy was rebuilt, but the pirates didn't cave.

In August 1803, Jefferson replaced ineffective Navy commander Richard Morris with Commodore Edward Preble, who immediately concentrated his ships with 168 guns in the harbor of Tangier, Morocco, causing the sultan to agree to abide by the treaty.

Two months later, the frigate Philadelphia ran aground on a reef off Tripoli during a battle, and its 307 crewmen were taken prisoner.

The pirates repaired the 36-gun ship to bulk up its fleet.

Jefferson countered by sending Navy commander Stephen Decatur to lead a team to destroy it. "This was an insanely daring plan, since the Philadelphia sat nestled deep in the (pasha's) tricky harbor, next to a dozen other armed ships under the castle's heavy batteries," wrote Richard Zacks in "The Pirate Coast."

On the night of Feb. 16, 1804, Decatur led a detachment of Marines in a captured Tripolitan vessel. They boarded the Philadelphia, killed the guards, burned it and escaped under heavy fire. But defeats of the pirate fleets failed to bring the pasha to the bargaining table.

Jefferson kept the pressure on by authorizing a secret mission to take Tripoli's second largest city, Derne. The plan was to make the pasha step down and put the pro-American brother he had deposed back on the throne.

To keep our honor clean

In April 1805, nine Marines and 900 Arabs marched 500 miles to capture Derne, planting the U.S. flag for the first time on foreign soil. (The event is memorialized in the Marines' Hymn reference to "the shores of Tripoli")

Realizing that he would be toppled, the pasha cut a deal with the U.S. envoy in Tripoli to stay in power. He agreed to release the prisoners for a face-saving $60,000 ransom (his original demand was $1.6 million), on the condition that he never kidnap Americans again.

The other Barbary states agreed to stop, with no compensation.

Ten years later, after the Barbary nations returned to their old ways, Jefferson's protege, President James Madison, sent Decatur to lead a victory that was permanent.

"Jefferson, as president of the first modern democracy and one of the greatest political philosophers of all time, knew we had to stand up to blackmail, and this was the beginning of America's rise as a global power," said Kilmeade. "We didn't try to conquer the Muslim states then and didn't do it more recently, but it will require patience as their people take ownership of their future and realize we are their friends."

Jefferson and Adams had been out of touch for 11 years when they began corresponding again in 1812 and patched up their friendship.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the declaration, at 83. A few hours later, Adams, 90, also passed away. SOURCE

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