The United States’ relationship with the Barbary States was an important issue for the fledgling nation. The way the government handled negotiations with the Barbary powers had far-reaching implications for America’s economy, defense, and taxation policies.
Thomas Jefferson’s involvement with the Barbary issue reaches back to 1784, when Congress appointed him, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as peace commissioners to achieve treaties of amity and commerce with the principal states of Europe and the Mediterranean. The Barbary Coast, which was composed of the Ottoman Regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, along with the independent Morocco, had had a shaky relationship with the European Powers for centuries. The United States entered the Mediterranean shipping scene as an independent nation in 1783 - no longer with the protection of the British navy. At that time, in the absence of a treaty, foreign merchant ships were fair game for the state sponsored “corsairs” or pirates.  Congress saw the necessity of negotiating treaties with the Barbary States and so, charged Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin with the responsibility of doing so. Jefferson and Adams, who were both serving as diplomats in Europe at the time, declined to travel to Barbary themselves. Instead, they commissioned John Lamb to go to Algiers and Thomas Barclay to go to Morocco. They had $80,000 at their disposal which had been apportioned by Congress for the purpose of negotiating treaties with the Barbary States.  The swiftness of Barclay’s success in negotiating a treaty with Morocco satisfied Congress as well as Jefferson and Adams. The treaty with Morocco was especially appealing to the United States because no future tribute obligations were included.  However, Barclay’s success was partially overshadowed by the more complicated situation that Lamb encountered in Algiers.
As it turned out, Algiers was much more dependent on tribute payments than Morocco and less amenable to a peace treaty with the United States.  While Lamb was making his preparations for negotiations in Algiers, Jefferson and Adams received reports of two American ships - the Maria and the Dauphin - being captured by Algerian corsairs. Lamb now had to negotiate both ransom for the captives and a peace treaty with Algiers to prevent further attacks on American vessels. Ransom and a treaty proved to be unattainable given the limited budget approved by Congress.  Negotiations with Algiers dragged on over many years, and were a constant source of frustration for Adams and Jefferson. The captives from the Maria and the Dauphin were not released until 1797, 12 years after their capture.
The events in Barbary shortly after American independence sparked a great deal of debate over how the United States should handle corsair aggression. Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of building a navy, and securing the protection of American shipping through force. He believed this solution would be more honorable and less expensive than paying tribute. Jefferson was also concerned that by giving in to Barbary demands for tribute, America would be seen as an easy target for harassment.  John Adams, on the other hand, believed that paying tribute would be more economical and easier than convincing the people of the United States to fund the building of a navy.  Of course, while America was under the Articles of Confederation, neither one of their opinions provided practical solutions. Congress had very little taxation power, and therefore no money to fund either a navy or annual tribute. In 1794, Congress finally approved the creation of a navy, the construction of which was to be halted if peace with Algiers was achieved. A peace treaty that cost the United States twelve thousand Algerine sequins annually was negotiated the next year, but Congress still allowed construction to continue on three of the six frigates it had commissioned. 
When Thomas Jefferson gained the presidency in March of 1801, he inherited problems with Barbary caused by John Adams’ administration’s preoccupation with the quasi-war with France. The United States’ strained relationship with France had arisen in 1798, when The US resolved its remaining issues with Great Britain through the Jay Treaty. At the time, Great Britain was at war with revolutionary France, and France became antagonized by the deal the US had made with their enemy. Because of the hostilities with France, the Adams’ administration had been chronically late in sending the tribute it was obliged to pay to the Barbary States, and as a result, tensions were brewing. Tensions were especially high in Tripoli where the Pasha, Yusuf Qaramanli was threatening war. With the French issue resolved through the Convention of 1800, Jefferson’s administration could give more attention to the trouble in Barbary. First, Jefferson paid all the tribute that the United States owed so that the government could not be accused of failing to honor its obligations. Writing about the trouble in Barbary in June of 1801, Jefferson said, “We have taken these steps towards supplying the deficiencies of our predecessors merely in obedience to the law; being convinced it is money thrown away, that there is no end to the demands of these powers, nor any security in their promises. The real alternative before us is whether to abandon the Mediterranean, or to keep up a cruize in it, perhaps in rotation with other powers who would join us as soon as there is peace. But this, Congress must decide.” 
Jefferson was aware that sending tribute payments on time was only a temporary solution. The Pasha had begun to demand more money. Under the Naval Peace Establishment Act, the President had the authority to appoint officers and direct the navy.  Jefferson sent the navy, which was composed of six frigates completed under the Adams’ administration, to the Mediterranean. The frigates were expected to fight if Pasha Qaramanli’s threats proceeded any further.  In a letter to the Pasha Qaramanli dated May 21, 1801, Jefferson informed the Pasha of his willingness to use force if necessary, but the conciliatory tone of the letter suggests Jefferson still hoped to settle his issues with the Pasha on peaceful terms.  Unfortunately, the Pasha was not willing to negotiate peace with the Americans unless they were willing to pay more tribute. Since the Americans refused to increase their tribute payments, the Pasha declared war on the United States on May 14, 1801 by chopping down the flagpole that displayed the US flag in Tripoli.  It took a while for news of this development to reach the United States; however, once the news arrived, Jefferson concluded that “the style of the demand admitted but one answer.”
The first engagement with Tripoli, led by Andrew Sterett proved to be successful. Sterett, led the Enterprise in an engagement with the Tripolitan ship Tripoli off the coast of Malta on August 1, 1801. After 2-3 hours of fighting, the Tripoli had lost 30 men, and the Enterprise had lost none. Since the Enterprise was not authorized to take prisoners, the ship was left at Malta.  In February of 1802, Congress passed an act authorizing the President to instruct naval commanders to seize Tripolitan goods and vessels. America lost its advantage in the war with Tripoli in October 1803, when the USS Philadelphia was captured after the Tripolitans ran it aground. Jefferson’s administration received a great deal of criticism over the capture of the Philadelphia. Jefferson’s Federalist opponents were especially critical, claiming that if Jefferson had been willing to spend more on the navy, the Philadelphia would have been safe. The New York Evening Post printed an article in April 1804 criticizing Jefferson’s “economical conduct” which had “lost to the United States a fine frigate of 44 guns and 307 men”  Public opinion swung back in Jefferson’s favor when a naval officer, Stephan Decatur, led a stealth mission into the Tripolitan harbor where the Philadelphia was being kept and set fire to the ship on February 16, 1804. Decatur’s actions set off a wave of patriotism in America, which turned the majority of public opinion in support of the war and brought Decatur lasting fame. Unfortunately, the burning of the Philadelphia did not give America any particular tactical advantage against Tripoli, and 300 crewmen, along with Captain William Bainbridge from the Philadelphia were still being held prisoner in Tripoli. 
The defining campaign in the war against Tripoli was the mission led by William Eaton, former consul to Tunis. Eaton located Yusuf’s brother, Ahmad Qaramanli, in Egypt. Yusuf had deposed Ahmad and installed himself as Pasha. Eaton negotiated a deal with Ahmad to help put the ex-Pasha back in power. Eaton’s plan had the support of the US government and his land campaign was to be supplemented by naval cooperation. Secretary of State, James Madison, commented on the use of Ahmad to aid the US in the war with Tripoli in a letter to another consul, James Leander Cathcart: “Altho’ it does not accord with the general sentiments or views of the U States to intermeddle with the domestic controversies of other Countries, it cannot be unfair in the prosecution of a just war, or the accomplishment of a reasonable peace, to take advantage of the hostile cooperation of others. As far therefore as the views of the Brother may contribute to our success, the aid of them may be used for the purpose.”  Eaton joined forces with Ahmad in Alexandria, Egypt in November of 1804 and together they recruited 1,000 troops consisting of Arabs, Turks, Egyptians, and some Europeans. In March of 1805 the ground troops began a march across the Libyan Desert to the city of Derne. On April 27th Eaton’s forces, joined by three U.S. navy vessels, the Nautilus, the Argus, and the Hornet, launched an attack on Tripolitan forces and took control of the city. Eaton’s forces held their ground at Derne waiting on reinforcements from the U.S. navy.  Those reinforcements never arrived because on June 4, 1805, Tobias Lear and John Rodgers negotiated peace with Yusuf Qaramanli for $60,000. The sum included in the treaty was for the ransom of prisoners from the Philadelphia. The treaty included no tribute payments; however, the United States ‘ standing treaties with the other Barbary States still did.  Treaty payments to all Barbary States ceased after the Second Barbary War in 1815. The 1816 treaty between Algiers and the United States explicitly states in Article 2 that no tribute will be paid to the Dey of Algiers. 
The conclusion of the war in 1805 set off a wave of national pride among Americans, inspiring artwork and patriotic songs. But for President Jefferson, the circumstances under which peace was achieved left his political opponents with ammunition to criticize his decisions. Jefferson’s Federalist opponents championed the cause of William Eaton, who complained that the United States’ Navy had abandoned Ahmad Qaramanli and Eaton’s plan to reinstall him as Pasha. Eaton felt that if his plan had been carried through, the United States would have won a more glorious victory.  Jefferson formally addressed questions about his treatment of Ahmad in a letter to the Senate. Jefferson asserted that “we considered that concerted operations by those who have a common enemy were entirely justifiable, and might produce effects favorable to both without binding either to guarantee the objects of the other” but that “cooperation only was intended and by no means an union of our object with the fortune of the ex-pasha.” According to Jefferson, the U.S. government had never planned a full-scale land attack to place Ahmad back in power. When an opportunity for peace presented itself, Tobias Lear seized it. Along with exonerating himself from playing any part in building up the expectations of Ahmad, Jefferson defended any unauthorized verbal commitments Eaton may have made by saying: ”In operations at such a distance, it becomes necessary to leave much to the discretion of the agents employed, but events may still turn up beyond the limits of that discretion. Unable in such a case to consult his government, a zealous citizen will act as he believes that would direct him, were it apprised of the circumstances, and will take on himself the responsibility. In all these cases the purity and patriotism of the motives should shield the agent from blame, and even secure a sanction where the error is not too injurious.”  The U.S. government did try to work some relief for Ahmad into the treaty. Tobias Lear talked the Pasha into accepting a clause that would require him to restore Ahmad’s wife and family. After the U.S. legislature had ratified the treaty, news of Lear’s questionable actions broke. Lear had added in a secret clause that allowed the Pasha to wait four years to return the family, a fact that may have prevented the ratification of the treaty, had the legislature been aware of it.  Although the Barbary victory had been tainted by questionable actions on the part of Lear and Eaton, President Jefferson and his administration were able to escape the majority of blame because both Eaton and Lear had gone beyond the bounds of their instructions. As a result, Thomas Jefferson’s legacy involving the First Barbary War is generally a positive one.
Primary Source References:
11 July 1786 (Jefferson to John Adams)“Our instructions relative to the Barbary states having required us to proceed by way of negotiation to obtain their peace, it became our duty to do this to the best of our power. Whatever might be our private opinions, they were to be suppressed, and the line marked out to us, was to be followed. It has been so honestly, and zealously. It was therefore never material for us to consult together on the best plan of conduct towards these states. I acknolege I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro’ the medium of war. Tho’ it is a question with which we have nothing to do, yet as you propose some discussion of it I shall trouble you with my reasons. …if it is decided that we shall buy a peace, I know no reason for delaying the operation, but should rather think it ought to be hastened. But I should prefer the obtaining 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 safe-guard 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. I think that so far you go with me. But in the next steps we shall differ. 5. I think it least expensive. 6. Equally effectual. I ask a fleet of 150. guns, the one half of which shall be in constant cruise. This fleet built, manned and victualled for 6. months will cost 450,000£ sterling. It’s annual expence is 300£ sterl. a gun, including every thing: this will be 45,000£ sterl. a year…. Were we to charge all this to the Algerine war it would amount to little more than we must pay if we buy peace. But as it is proper and necessary that we should establish a small marine force (even were we to buy a peace from the Algerines,) and as that force laid up in our dockyards would cost us half as much annually as if kept in order for service, we have a right to say that only 22,500£ sterl. per ann. should be charged to the Algerine war. 6. It will be as effectual. To all the mismanagements of Spain and Portugal urged to shew that war against those people is ineffectual, I urge a single fact to prove the contrary where there is any management. About 40. year ago, the Algerines having broke their treaty with France, this court sent Monsr. de Massac with one large and two small frigates, he blockaded the harbour of Algiers three months, and they subscribed to the terms he dictated. If it be admitted however that war, on the fairest prospects, is still exposed to incertainties, I weigh against this the greater incertainty of the duration of a peace bought with money, from such a people, from a Dey 80. years old, and by a nation who, on the hypothesis of buying peace, is to have no power on the sea to enforce an observance of it.” 
21 May 1801 (Jefferson to Yusuf Qaramanli) “The assurances of friendship which our Consul has given you, & of our sincere desire to cultivate peace & commerce with your subjects, are faithful expressions of our dispositions, and you will continue to find proofs of them in all those acts of respect & friendly intercourse which are due between nations standing as we do in the relations of peace & amity with each other. at the conclusion of our treaty with you we endeavored to prove ourselves contented with it by such demonstrations as were then satisfactory to you; and we are disposed to believe that in rendering into another language those expressions in your lre of the 25th. of May last which seem to imply expectations inconsistent with the faith of that transaction your intentions have been misconstrued.—on this supposition we renew to you sincerely assurances of our constant friendship and that our desire to cultivate peace & commerce with you continues firm & unabated. We have found it expedient to detach a squadron of observation into the Mediterranean sea, to superintend the safety of our commerce there & to exercise our seamen in nautical duties. we recommend them to your hospitality and good offices should occasion require their resorting to your harbours. we hope that their appearance will give umbrage to no power for, while we mean to rest the safety of our commerce on the resources of our own strength & bravery in every sea, we have yet given them in strict command to conduct themselves towards all friendly powers with the most perfect respect & good order it being the first object of our sollicitude to cherish peace & friendship with all nations with whom it can be held on terms of equality & reciprocity. I pray God very great and respected friend that he may have you always in his holy keeping.”
1 December 1801 (Jefferson to Andrew Sterrett) “The Secretary of the Navy, the regular organ for the present communication, being absent from the seat of government for causes which may detain him for some time, I do myself the pleasure without further delay of expressing to you on behalf of your country, the high satisfaction inspired by your conduct in the late engagement with the Tripolitan cruiser captured by you. too long, for the honour of nations, have those barbarians been suffered to trample on the sacred faith of treaties, on the rights & laws of human nature. you have shewn to your countrymen that that enemy cannot meet bravery & skill united. in proving to them that our past condescensions were from a love of peace, not a dread of them, you have deserved well of your country; and have merited the high esteem & consideration of which I have now the pleasure of assuring you” 
Allen, Gardner W. Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs. Cranbury, NJ: The Scholar’s Bookshelf, 2005.
Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.
Roberts, Priscilla H. and Richard S. Thomas Barclay (1728-1793). Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2008.
- 1. Parker, Richard B. Uncle Sam in Barbary (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004), 7
- 2. JCC, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington D.C., 1904-1937), 28:65.
- 3. Thomas Barclay to American Peace Commissioners, Ceuta, September 18, 1786, in PTJ 10:390; recipient’s copy available online from the Library of Congress
- 4. Irwin, Ray W. The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers: 1776-1816 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1931), pg. 37
- 5. Irwin, 38
- 6. Jefferson to John Adams, Paris, July 11, 1786, in PTJ 10:123; letterpress copy available online from The Library of Congress
- 7. John Adams to Jefferson, London, July 3, 1786, in PTJ 10:86; recipient’s copy available online from The Library of Congress
- 8. Treaty of Peace and Amity, signed at Algiers September 5, 1795, in The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy; American State Papers: Naval Affairs 1:25.
- 9. Allison, Robert J. The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World: 1776-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pg 24
- 10. Jefferson to Wilson Cary Nicholas, Washington, June 11, 1801, in PTJ 34:308-309; letterpress copy available online from The Library of Congress
- 11. Act of March 3, 1801, ch. 20 In The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America. Boston: Little and Brown, 1850. V.2 pg. 110
- 12. Allison, 27
- 13. Jefferson to Yusuf Qaramanli, Pasha and Bey of Tripoli, May 21, 1801, in PTJ 34:159
- 14. Jacob Wagner to Jefferson, State Department: Washington, August 31, 1801, in PTJ 35: 188-18; recipient’s copy available online from The Library of Congress
- 15. Jefferson, Thomas. First Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1801, in PTJ 36:58; letterpress copy available online from The Library of Congress
- 16. Jefferson, Thomas. First Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1801 in PTJ 36:58-65; National Intelligencer, “Captain Ship Eugenia, Fitch; Malaga; Mr. Kirkpatrick, American Consal at Malaga, Capture of a Tripolitan Corsair,” November 6, 1801, page 3.
- 17. Act of Feb. 6. 1802, ch. 4. Statutes at Large. v.2, pg. 129.
- 18. New York Evening Post, April 12, 1804, from the Frederick Town Herald, pg 3.
- 19. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 24 vols.); Allison, 31
- 20. James Madison to James Leander Cathcart, Virginia, August 22, 1802 in PJM 3:504-505
- 21. ANB, 7:268
- 22. Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United States of America and the Bashaw, Bey and Subjects of Tripoli in Barbary, June 4, 1805, in The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy
- 23. Parker, 145
- 24. Treaty of Peace and Amity, concluded between the United States of America and the Dey and Regency of Algiers, Dec. 2-3, 1816, in The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy
- 25. Naval Documents Related to the United States War with the Barbary Powers… (Washington: U.S. Govt. print off, 1939-1945), 6:213-219
- 26. Senate Journal. 9th Cong., 1st Sess., 13 Jan 1806, 19-20.
- 27. Irwin, 159
- 28. PTJ 10:123
- 29. PTJ 34:159
- 30. PTJ 36:3, letterpress copy available online from The Library of Congress