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Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates

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  • Beowulf
    http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_2_urbanities-thomas_jefferson.html Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates Christopher Hitchens America s first confrontation
    Message 1 of 2 , Apr 1, 2010
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      Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates
      Christopher Hitchens

      America's first confrontation with the Islamic world helped forge a new
      nation's character.

      When I first began to plan my short biography of Thomas Jefferson, I found
      it difficult to research the chapter concerning the so-called Barbary Wars:
      an event or series of events that had seemingly receded over the lost
      horizon of American history. Henry Adams, in his discussion of our third
      president, had some boyhood reminiscences of the widespread hero-worship of
      naval officer Stephen Decatur, and other fragments and shards showed up in
      other quarries, but a sound general history of the subject was hard to come
      by. When I asked a professional military historian-a man with direct access
      to Defense Department archives-if there was any book that he could
      recommend, he came back with a slight shrug.

      But now the curious reader may choose from a freshet of writing on the
      subject. Added to my own shelf in the recent past have been The Barbary
      Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, by Frank Lambert (2005);
      Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror 1801-1805, by Joseph Wheelan
      (2003); To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines, by
      A. B. C. Whipple (1991, republished 2001); and Victory in Tripoli: How
      America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped
      a Nation, by Joshua E. London (2005). Most recently, in his new general
      history, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the
      Present, the Israeli scholar Michael Oren opens with a long chapter on the
      Barbary conflict. As some of the subtitles-and some of the dates of
      publication-make plain, this new interest is largely occasioned by America's
      latest round of confrontation in the Middle East, or the Arab sphere or
      Muslim world, if you prefer those expressions.

      In a way, I am glad that I did not have the initial benefit of all this
      research. My quest sent me to some less obvious secondary sources, in
      particular to Linda Colley's excellent book Captives, which shows the
      reaction of the English and American publics to a slave trade of which they
      were victims rather than perpetrators. How many know that perhaps 1.5
      million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa
      between 1530 and 1780? We dimly recall that Miguel de Cervantes was briefly
      in the galleys. But what of the people of the town of Baltimore in Ireland,
      all carried off by "corsair" raiders in a single night?

      Some of this activity was hostage trading and ransom farming rather than the
      more labor-intensive horror of the Atlantic trade and the Middle Passage,
      but it exerted a huge effect on the imagination of the time-and probably on
      no one more than on Thomas Jefferson. Peering at the paragraph denouncing
      the American slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration of
      Independence, later excised, I noticed for the first time that it
      sarcastically condemned "the Christian King of Great Britain" for engaging
      in "this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers." The allusion
      to Barbary practice seemed inescapable.

      One immediate effect of the American Revolution, however, was to strengthen
      the hand of those very same North African potentates: roughly speaking, the
      Maghrebian provinces of the Ottoman Empire that conform to today's Algeria,
      Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. Deprived of Royal Navy protection, American
      shipping became even more subject than before to the depredations of those
      who controlled the Strait of Gibraltar. The infant United States had
      therefore to decide not just upon a question of national honor but upon
      whether it would stand or fall by free navigation of the seas.

      One of the historians of the Barbary conflict, Frank Lambert, argues that
      the imperative of free trade drove America much more than did any quarrel
      with Islam or "tyranny," let alone "terrorism." He resists any comparison
      with today's tormenting confrontations. "The Barbary Wars were primarily
      about trade, not theology," he writes. "Rather than being holy wars, they
      were an extension of America's War of Independence."

      Let us not call this view reductionist. Jefferson would perhaps have been
      just as eager to send a squadron to put down any Christian piracy that was
      restraining commerce. But one cannot get around what Jefferson heard when he
      went with John Adams to wait upon Tripoli's ambassador to London in March
      1785. When they inquired by what right the Barbary states preyed upon
      American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, America's two
      foremost envoys were informed 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 whoever they could find and to
      make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman
      who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." (It is worth
      noting that the United States played no part in the Crusades, or in the
      Catholic reconquista of Andalusia.)

      Ambassador Abd Al-Rahman did not fail to mention the size of his own
      commission, if America chose to pay the protection money demanded as an
      alternative to piracy. So here was an early instance of the "heads I win,
      tails you lose" dilemma, in which the United States is faced with corrupt
      regimes, on the one hand, and Islamic militants, on the other-or indeed a
      collusion between them.

      It seems likely that Jefferson decided from that moment on that he would
      make war upon the Barbary kingdoms as soon as he commanded American forces.
      His two least favorite institutions-enthroned monarchy and state-sponsored
      religion-were embodied in one target, and it may even be that his famous
      ambivalences about slavery were resolved somewhat when he saw it practiced
      by the Muslims.

      However that may be, it is certain that the Barbary question had
      considerable influence on the debate that ratified the United States
      Constitution in the succeeding years. Many a delegate, urging his home state
      to endorse the new document, argued that only a strong federal union could
      repel the Algerian threat. In The Federalist No. 24, Alexander Hamilton
      argued that without a "federal navy . . . of respectable weight . . . the
      genius of American Merchants and Navigators would be stifled and lost." In
      No. 41, James Madison insisted that only union could guard America's
      maritime capacity from "the rapacious demands of pirates and barbarians."
      John Jay, in his letters, took a "bring-it-on" approach; he believed that
      "Algerian Corsairs and the Pirates of Tunis and Tripoli" would compel the
      feeble American states to unite, since "the more we are ill-treated abroad
      the more we shall unite and consolidate at home." The eventual Constitution,
      which provides for an army only at two-year renewable intervals, imposes no
      such limitation on the navy.

      Thus, Lambert may be limiting himself in viewing the Barbary conflict
      primarily through the lens of free trade. Questions of nation-building, of
      regime change, of "mission creep," of congressional versus presidential
      authority to make war, of negotiation versus confrontation, of "entangling
      alliances," and of the "clash of civilizations"-all arose in the first
      overseas war that the United States ever fought. The "nation-building" that
      occurred, however, took place not overseas but in the 13 colonies, welded by
      warfare into something more like a republic.

      There were many Americans-John Adams among them-who made the case that it
      was better policy to pay the tribute. It was cheaper than the loss of trade,
      for one thing, and a battle against the pirates would be "too rugged for our
      people to bear." Putting the matter starkly, Adams said: "We ought not to
      fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever."

      The cruelty, exorbitance, and intransigence of the Barbary states, however,
      would decide things. The level of tribute demanded began to reach 10 percent
      of the American national budget, with no guarantee that greed would not
      increase that percentage, while from the dungeons of Algiers and Tripoli
      came appalling reports of the mistreatment of captured men and women.
      Gradually, and to the accompaniment of some of the worst patriotic verse
      ever written, public opinion began to harden in favor of war. From
      Jefferson's perspective, it was a good thing that this mood shift took place
      during the Adams administration, when he was out of office and temporarily
      "retired" to Monticello. He could thus criticize federal centralization of
      power, from a distance, even as he watched the construction of a fleet-and
      the forging of a permanent Marine Corps-that he could one day use for his
      own ends.

      At one point, Jefferson hoped that John Paul Jones, naval hero of the
      Revolution, might assume command of a squadron that would strike fear into
      the Barbary pirates. While ambassador in Paris, Jefferson had secured Jones
      a commission with Empress Catherine of Russia, who used him in the Black Sea
      to harry the Ottomans, the ultimate authority over Barbary. But Jones died
      before realizing his dream of going to the source and attacking
      Constantinople. The task of ordering war fell to Jefferson.

      Michael Oren thinks that he made the decision reluctantly, finally forced
      into it by the arrogant behavior of Tripoli, which seized two American brigs
      and set off a chain reaction of fresh demands from other Barbary states. I
      believe-because of the encounter with the insufferable Abd Al-Rahman and
      because of his long engagement with Jones-that Jefferson had long sought a
      pretext for war. His problem was his own party and the clause in the
      Constitution that gave Congress the power to declare war. With not atypical
      subtlety, Jefferson took a shortcut through this thicket in 1801 and sent
      the navy to North Africa on patrol, as it were, with instructions to enforce
      existing treaties and punish infractions of them. Our third president did
      not inform Congress of his authorization of this mission until the fleet was
      too far away to recall.

      Once again, Barbary obstinacy tipped the scale. Yusuf Karamanli, the pasha
      of Tripoli, declared war on the United States in May 1801, in pursuit of his
      demand for more revenue. This earned him a heavy bombardment of Tripoli and
      the crippling of one of his most important ships. But the force of example
      was plainly not sufficient. In the altered mood that prevailed after the
      encouraging start in Tripoli, Congress passed an enabling act in February
      1802 that, in its provision for a permanent Mediterranean presence and its
      language about the "Tripolitan Corsairs," amounted to a declaration of war.
      The Barbary regimes continued to underestimate their new enemy, with Morocco
      declaring war in its turn and the others increasing their blackmail.

      A complete disaster-Tripoli's capture of the new U.S. frigate
      Philadelphia-became a sort of triumph, thanks to Edward Preble and Stephen
      Decatur, who mounted a daring raid on Tripoli's harbor and blew up the
      captured ship, while inflicting heavy damage on the city's defenses. Now
      there were names-Preble and Decatur-for newspapers back home to trumpet as
      heroes. Nor did their courage draw notice only in America. Admiral Lord
      Nelson himself called the raid "the most bold and daring act of the age,"
      and Pope Pius VII declared that the United States "had done more for the
      cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have
      done for ages." (In his nostalgia for Lepanto, perhaps, His Holiness was
      evidently unaware that the Treaty of Tripoli, which in 1797 had attempted to
      formalize the dues that America would pay for access to the Mediterranean,
      stated in its preamble that the United States had no quarrel with the Muslim
      religion and was in no sense a Christian country. Of course, those
      secularists like myself who like to cite this treaty must concede that its
      conciliatory language was part of America's attempt to come to terms with
      Barbary demands.)

      Watching all this with a jaundiced eye was the American consul in Tunis,
      William Eaton. For him, behavior modification was not a sufficient policy;
      regime change was needed. And he had a candidate. On acceding to the throne
      in Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli had secured his position by murdering one
      brother and exiling another. Eaton befriended this exiled brother, Hamid,
      and argued that he should become the American nominee for Tripoli's crown.
      This proposal wasn't received with enthusiasm in Washington, but Eaton
      pursued it with commendable zeal. He exhibited the downside that often goes
      with such quixotic bravery: railing against treasury secretary Albert
      Gallatin as a "cowardly Jew," for example, and alluding to President
      Jefferson with contempt. He ended up a supporter of Aaron Burr's freebooting
      secessionist conspiracy.

      His actions in 1805, however, belong in the annals of derring-do, almost
      warranting the frequent comparison made with T. E. Lawrence's exploits in
      Arabia. With a small detachment of marines, headed by Lieutenant Presley
      O'Bannon, and a force of irregulars inevitably described by historians as
      "motley," Eaton crossed the desert from Egypt and came at Tripoli-as
      Lawrence had come at Aqaba-from the land and not from the sea. The attack
      proved a total surprise. The city of Darna surrendered its far larger
      garrison, and Karamanli's forces were heavily engaged, when news came that
      Jefferson and Karamanli had reached an understanding that could end the war.
      The terms weren't too shabby, involving the release of the Philadelphia's
      crew and a final settlement of the tribute question. And Jefferson took care
      to stress that Eaton had played a part in bringing it about.

      This graciousness did not prevent Eaton from denouncing the deal as a
      sellout. The caravan moved on, though, as the other Barbary states gradually
      followed Tripoli's lead and came to terms. Remember, too, that this was the
      year of the Battle of Trafalgar. Lord Nelson was not the only European to
      notice that a new power had arrived in Mediterranean waters. Francis Scott
      Key composed a patriotic song to mark the occasion. As I learned from Joshua
      London's excellent book, the original verses ran (in part):

      In conflict resistless each toil they endur'd,
      Till their foes shrunk dismay'd from the war's desolation:
      And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscur'd
      By the light of the star-bangled flag of our nation.
      Where each flaming star gleamed a meteor of war,
      And the turban'd head bowed to the terrible glare.
      Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave
      And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.

      The song was part of the bad-verse epidemic. But brushed up and revised a
      little for the War of 1812, and set to the same music, it has enjoyed
      considerable success since. So has the Marine Corps anthem, which begins:
      "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli." It's no exaggeration
      to describe the psychological fallout of this first war as formative of the
      still-inchoate American character.

      There is of course another connection between 1805 and 1812. Renewed
      hostilities with Britain on the high seas and on the American mainland,
      which did not terminate until the Battle of New Orleans, might have ended
      less conclusively had the United States not developed a battle-hardened
      naval force in the long attrition on the North African coast.

      The Barbary states sought to exploit Anglo-American hostilities by resuming
      their depredations and renewing their demands for blood money. So in 1815,
      after a brief interval of recovery from the war with Britain, President
      Madison asked Congress for permission to dispatch Decatur once again to
      North Africa, seeking a permanent settling of accounts. This time, the main
      offender was the dey of Algiers, Omar Pasha, who saw his fleet splintered
      and his grand harbor filled with heavily armed American ships. Algiers had
      to pay compensation, release all hostages, and promise not to offend again.
      President Madison's words on this occasion could scarcely be bettered: "It
      is a settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is
      better than tribute. The United States, while they wish for war with no
      nation, will buy peace with none." (The expression "the United States is"
      did not come into usage until after Gettysburg.)

      Oren notes that the stupendous expense of this long series of wars was a
      partial vindication of John Adams's warning. However, there are less
      quantifiable factors to consider. The most obvious is commerce. American
      trade in the Mediterranean increased enormously in the years after the
      settlement with Algiers, and America's ability to extend its trade and
      project its forces into other areas, such as the Caribbean and South
      America, was greatly enhanced. Then we should attend to what Linda Colley
      says on the subject of slavery. Campaigns against the seizure of hostages by
      Muslim powers, and their exploitation as forced labor, fired up many a
      church congregation in Britain and America and fueled many a press campaign.
      But even the dullest soul could regard the continued triangular Atlantic
      slave trade between Africa, England, and the Americas and perceive the
      double standard at work. Thus, the struggle against Barbary may have helped
      to force some of the early shoots of abolitionism.

      Perhaps above all, though, the Barbary Wars gave Americans an inkling of the
      fact that they were, and always would be, bound up with global affairs.
      Providence might have seemed to grant them a haven guarded by two oceans,
      but if they wanted to be anything more than the Chile of North America-a
      long littoral ribbon caught between the mountains and the sea-they would
      have to prepare for a maritime struggle as well as a campaign to redeem the
      unexplored landmass to their west. The U.S. Navy's Mediterranean squadron
      has, in one form or another, been on patrol ever since.

      And then, finally, there is principle. It would be simplistic to say that
      something innate in America made it incompatible with slavery and tyranny.
      But would it be too much to claim that many Americans saw a radical
      incompatibility between the Barbary system and their own? And is it not
      pleasant when the interests of free trade and human emancipation can
      coincide? I would close with a few staves of Kipling, whose poem "Dane-Geld"
      is a finer effort than anything managed by Francis Scott Key:

      It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
      To call upon a neighbor and to say:-
      "We invaded you last night-we are quite prepared to fight,
      Unless you pay us cash to go away."

      And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
      And the people who ask it explain
      That you've only to pay 'em the Dane-geld
      And then you'll get rid of the Dane!

      Kipling runs briskly through the stages of humiliation undergone by any
      power that falls for this appeasement, and concludes:

      It is wrong to put temptation in the pathof any nation,
      For fear they should succumb and go astray;
      So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
      You will find it better policy to say:-

      "We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
      No matter how trifling the cost;
      For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
      And the nation that plays it is lost!"

      It may be fortunate that the United States had to pass this test, and imbibe
      this lesson, so early in its life as a nation.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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