Thomas Jefferson and the Mediterranean Pirates
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States. As a Democratic-Republican, he was deeply suspicious of a regular military establishment. He worried that professional officers might turn into a new aristocracy (a privileged ruling class) and that professional soldiers could threaten or coerce the people, depriving of them of their inalienable human rights.
Jefferson initially cut back on the armed forces. For maritime security, he felt that America could be protected by a fleet of small coastal gunboats. He sold off or decommissioned most of the Navy’s conventional warships.
The pasha of Tripoli demands payment
In the late 18th century, the Barbary states of North Africa — which included Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli — often captured ships sailing off their coasts. In return for safe passage through the Mediterranean Sea, they demanded payment from the ships’ crews or their government.
American ships sailed these waters quite often. Throughout the last two decades of the 18th century, the American government negotiated treaties with the Barbary states in return for protection of American commerce. But these protection treaties went only so far. Sometimes Barbary pirates seized American ships and held the crewmen hostage. The U.S. government didn’t always pay the North African rulers as they had pledged in the protection treaties. The result was conflict.
In 1801, Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli, the ruler of Tripoli, demanded payment, or tribute, from the American government for the use of his waters. He felt that the Americans had incurred years of debt without paying. To punish the American debtors, he pledged to make war on American ships off the Tripolitan coast.
Jefferson sends in a coalition navy
Even though Jefferson had only a small navy on hand, he had no intention of caving in to the pasha, who he thought of as little more than a glorified robber. Jefferson sent his small navy to the Mediterranean with instructions to coordinate its efforts with a like-minded coalition of ships from Sweden, Sicily, Malta, Portugal, and Morocco. This worked well; the pasha backed off.
From 1801 to 1803, this small force of American ships, with one frigate and a few supporting ships, sailed the waters off Tripoli. But in October 1803, the frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground on the North African coast. The pasha captured the crew and prepared to ransom them, their ship, and its cargo. A few months later, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur raided Tripoli harbor with a small group, burning Philadelphia so that the pasha no longer had the ship to bargain with. In the meantime, the surviving American ships routinely bombarded the harbor.
An intriguing victory in Tripoli
In the end, Jefferson agreed to pay a ransom for the return of the Philadelphia’s crew. In exchange, the pasha agreed not to mess with American ships. Jefferson reaped a nice political windfall from this episode. The country buzzed with poems, paintings, and statues commemorating the “great victory” over the pasha. However, Jefferson was quite fortunate to have encountered a weak enemy in Tripoli. The United States Navy was so small and weak in Jefferson’s time that it would have struggled to defeat an opposing navy of any decent size and training.