President Obama showed off Jefferson's Koran at a recent White House Iftar Dinner, but ignored the book in its historical context.
According to a press release from the White House dated August 10, 2012, the President told those gathered at the Iftar dinner, where Muslims break the fast of Ramadan, that,
"As I've noted before, Thomas Jefferson once held a sunset dinner here with an envoy from Tunisia -- perhaps the first Iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago. And some of you, as you arrived tonight, may have seen our special display, courtesy of our friends at the Library of Congress -- the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. And that's a reminder, along with the generations of patriotic Muslims in America, that Islam -- like so many faiths -- is part of our national story."
The President ignored the context for that "first Iftar at the White House." To mention it would have been politically incorrect. Here, thought, is the rest of the "first Iftar" dinner at the White House.
The context for the Tunisian envoy's visit to Washington goes back to the trouble the Barbary Pirates were making for merchant ships off the coast of North Africa. On that matter, for Slate the late Christopher Hitchens wrote:
"[I]n 1786, the new United States found that it was having to deal very directly with the tenets of the Muslim religion. The Barbary states of North Africa (or, if you prefer, the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, plus Morocco) were using the ports of today's Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia to wage a war of piracy and enslavement against all shipping that passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Thousands of vessels were taken, and more than a million Europeans and Americans sold into slavery. The fledgling United States of America was in an especially difficult position, having forfeited the protection of the British Royal Navy. Under this pressure, Congress gave assent to the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Jefferson's friend Joel Barlow, which stated roundly that "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 Musselmen." This has often been taken as a secular affirmation, which it probably was, but the difficulty for secularists is that it also attempted to buy off the Muslim pirates by the payment of tribute. That this might not be so easy was discovered by Jefferson and John Adams when they went to call on Tripoli's envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. They asked him by what right he extorted money and took slaves in this way. As Jefferson later reported to Secretary of State John Jay, and to the Congress:
'The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered 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, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.'"
The "envoy" to whom Obama referred was Sidi Soliman Mellimelli. He arrived in Washington, D.C. on November 30, 1805. This is how Montellello.org (the private, non-profit organization that maintains Jefferson's famous home) describes his visit:
"Over the next six months, this exotic representative from a distant and unfamiliar culture would add spice to the Washington social season but also test the diplomatic abilities of President Thomas Jefferson and his administration.
The backdrop to this state visit was the ongoing conflict between the United States and the Barbary states, autonomous provinces of the Ottoman Empire that rimmed the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. Soon after the Revolutionary War and the consequent loss of the British navy's protection, American merchant vessels had become prey for Barbary corsairs. Jefferson was outraged by the demands of ransom for civilians captured from American vessels and the Barbary states' expectation of annual tribute to be paid as insurance against future seizures. He took an uncharacteristically hawkish position against the prevailing thought that it was cheaper to pay tribute than maintain a navy to protect shipping from piracy.
The crisis with Tunis erupted when the USS Constitution captured Tunisian vessels attempting to run the American blockade of Tripoli. The bey of Tunis threatened war and sent Mellimelli to the United States to negotiate full restitution for the captured vessels and to barter for tribute.
Jefferson balked at paying tribute but accepted the expectation that the host government would cover all expenses for such an emissary. He arranged for Mellimelli and his 11 attendants to be housed at a Washington hotel, and rationalized that the sale of the four horses and other fine gifts sent by the bey of Tunis would cover costs. Mellimelli's request for "concubines" as a part of his accommodations was left to Secretary of State James Madison. Jefferson assured one senator that obtaining peace with the Barbary powers was important enough to "pass unnoticed the irregular conduct of their ministers."
James Madison, then Secretary of State, was charged with responding to Mellimelli's request for female companionship. Irving Brant, author of the classic six-volume biography on Madison, referred to the concubine incident. His reference illustrates Madison's (very) occasional wry sense of humor:
"The ambassador [Mellimelli] called at once [after his arrival] on Madison followed by the carrier of his four-foot pipe...The arrangements for him, he reported, were satisfactory, except for one omission. He needed some concubines. Madison supplied the deficiency with 'Georgia a Greek," and charged the cost to the State Department. 'Appropriations to foreign intercourse,' wrote Madison a few months later on another subject, 'are terms of great latitude and may be drawn on by very urgent and unforeseen occurrences.'"
This is absolutely no cause to suspect that concubines were, in any way, involved with the recent Iftar dinner at today's White House.