Jefferson and the Jihad

Thomas Jefferson, Patron Saint of American Liberals, would not recognize his spiritual offspring in today’s liberal President Obama and his handling of the Middle East.  

Jefferson, as a trade commissioner and then ambassador in Paris for six years (1784-90), faced almost daily the tragedy of American hostages enslaved by violent Muslims and his own frustrating inability to liberate them.

However, what he learned served him well as the leading hawk for war a decade later when he became president and went to war against belligerent Islam.

In May, A.D. 1784, immediately after America’s Continental Congress, gathered in Annapolis, had signed the final draft of the treaty with England that formally ended the American Revolution, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson as “trade commissioners” in an effort to open European markets to American commodities -- not an easy mission with Europe’s traditionally closed, mercantile economic system.

But when Jefferson reached Paris in August 1784 to join the other two already there, he discovered that one unanticipated reality posed the greatest and most immediate threat to their fledgling United States. Every state was swamped in Revolutionary War debt and the way to pay it off would be shipping to European markets their great natural wealth, e.g. lumber from their endless forests, the produce of their fertile soil, the skins of animals for clothing, etc. But with the thirteen ex-colonies now independent of England, when their merchant ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean now, they would no longer be protected by the Royal Navy, the greatest in the world and by the “tribute” that the King of England paid to the pashas of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and the Sultan of Morocco. This was basically protection money given to North Africa’s so-called “Barbary Pirate” states to keep them from preying on British shipping.

When Jefferson boarded his friend Mr. Tracy’s private vessel in Boston Harbor in July 1784 for the month-long voyage, he took along for reading Don Quixote, Cervantes’s classic novel in which several central chapters take place in the slave dungeons of Algiers episodes based on Cervantes’ own five years as a Christian slave to the Muslims, so the subject of Barbary piracy could not have been wholly foreign to Thomas Jefferson, principle author of America’s Declaration of Independence.

But what surprised him was that, contrary to popular usage, these North African predators were not common pirates out for loot -- who when ashore liked to hang out in taverns, get drunk, sing “yo ho ho” and paw at wenches. No, these “Barbary Pirates” were in fact just normal Middle Eastern Muslims -- or Mahometans or Mussulmen as they were then called -- who did not drink alcohol at all. Unlike real pirates, they also prayed to Allah several times a day. Not at all venal, independent freebooters, they were simply the crewmen in the official cruisers of the Mediterranean Sea’s Islamic city-states. While their livelihood was capturing cargo and passenger vessels, their rationale for doing so was religious. They saw themselves engaged in a jihad and called themselves mujahidin/soldiers in the jihad. In the late 18th century, one man’s pirate was another man’s holy warrior.

Jefferson, like Franklin and Adams, expected that his principle work for Congress would concern trade with Europe, but saw right away the immediate danger to U.S. freighters no longer protected by warships flying the Union Jack. America’s ships would now be flying the Stars and Stripes, which flag no Mussulman had ever seen.  

Jefferson foresaw catastrophe and thus spent the fall of 1784 reading up on Islam and probing fellow diplomats in Paris on how their countries dealt with the problem. He discovered that for a thousand years the Muslims of North Africa had plagued Europe with their hijacking, hostage-taking, and enslaving. (In truth, Europe also engaged in capturing Muslims and selling them in slave markets too, but that practice had died out earlier in the century.)

Jefferson discovered that in practically every century some European country got fed up and ordered its navy to bombard these Muslim port cities where on any given day there were thousands of Christian enslaved.

But no bombardment ever succeeded in ending the menace. There was also, from Europe’s perspective, a religious dimension to the relationship. Christians were themselves, for over a thousand years, locked no less in an eternal holy war with Islam that, according to Catholic doctrine, was not another religion but a heresy with which there could be no peace. The kings of Catholic Spain on their coronation oaths for centuries pledged eternal war against infidel Muslims. The Crusades may have ended centuries earlier but not the animosity between the two cultures or the low-level violence.

Jfferson learned as well of a major turning point in history that occurred in the 1680s when Protestant England of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism became the first Christian state to dismiss religion and see the problem pragmatically. British merchants reasoned that it would be better to pay the tribute that the Mahometans were demanding to refrain from their barbaric attacks. It made better commercial sense to pay the “tribute” and free the Royal Navy for safeguarding their burgeoning global empire elsewhere. Why remain bogged down in the Mediterranean to protect the increasingly smaller percentage of their business?

Two years later, Louis XIV of France copied England and before long, every maritime trading country in Christian Europe was paying for the right to do business in the Middle East unmolested.

But Jefferson also learned that the purchase of peace was at best temporary. The Mussulmen would always find some excuse to break the agreement, claim it was the European country’s fault, renew the hijacking, and force new negotiations for higher tribute.

Jefferson is remembered as the father of the American principle of a “wall of separation” between church and state and thus was appalled that in their enlightened age -- what friend Tom Paine nicknamed “The Age of Reason”-- there were still such people in the world as these Muslims who continued to kidnap and enslave people as part of their religion.

Jefferson also discovered that the ‘tribute” was in reality less a demand for cash and jewels, spices and fine fabrics, and more about weapons. The “tribute” was largely a demand for arms shipments of ammunition and naval supplies without which the “pirates” could not be pirates at all. The Muslims were much too backward to have their own foundries capable of producing cannon and shot, iron spikes, gunpowder, and the nails required for wooden sailing ships.

And the Europeans, led by the English and the French, were only too happy to oblige. Sending weapons meant helping the Arabs arm themselves for their attacks on other Christians, meaning, fellow Europeans traveling on innocent sailing vessels. European states were routinely in a state of war with one another, so, for example, what cared the French if the weapons they supplied the Algerines (sic) and Tripolitans (sic) were used to hijack and enslave Englishmen and Spaniards?

So Trade Commissioner Jefferson, after three months in Paris and research into the history and menace of militant Islam, formulated a policy in opposition to his partners, both of whom had spent years as diplomats in Europe. Benjamin Franklin the Quaker reckoned that since most U.S. maritime business was conducted elsewhere, U.S. importers and exporters should just avoid that dangerous sea. He did not think the country did enough business there to warrant the risk.  

But John Adams, a lawyer to Boston merchants well-versed in maritime commerce and the laws of piracy, knew that in fact the U.S. did enough business in the Mediterranean not to want to abandon that market. He too knew something of the history of the threat and reasoned that since the superpowers England, France, and Spain with their major navies had chosen the path of tribute rather than violence, America with no navy had no choice. After the Revolution, the U.S. had sold off or scrapped every armed vessel it owned.

But Jefferson, the future father of original American Liberalism, wanted to fight. He found it intolerable that their revolutionary and little-in-population, infant republic would join this corrupt European practice in which civilized nations gave arms and money to uncivilized “barbarians” -- his word -- who used the weapons to attack civilized people and enslave them as part of a “holy war,” no less.

Within weeks of formulating his strategy for dealing with Islam, which included his prescription for the building of a fleet of American warships, news of a hijacking by Morocco reached him in Paris. In the following summer of 1785, two more American vessels were captured, this time by Algiers. The ten merchant seamen seized by the Moroccans would be ransomed after nine months by Congress for $40,000 which capitulation Jefferson protested against, but not the twenty-one others enslaved in Algiers.

Jefferson remained in Paris for another five years during which time he and Adams never succeeded in freeing the American slaves in Algiers. They were still there when in 1790 Jefferson returned home to become the United States’s first Secretary of State and among his first acts was filing a report on the depressed status of American commerce in the Mediterranean and the plight of the hostages still in Algiers.

For the next three years, Secretary of State Jefferson was the No. 1 hawk for war in America pressing Congress and President Washington to build a navy to rescue the hostages and put an end to hijacking, hostage taking, and enslavement in the Mediterranean.

In 1792, he commissioned John Paul Jones, the great naval hero of the Revolution who was a fellow radical liberal, to sail for Algiers to see what could be accomplished diplomatically but also covertly, to size up the place as a possible target for a U.S. attack, though Jones died before he could execute the mission.

In late 1793, Secretary of State Jefferson wanted to retire, and in his last report to Congress on any subject he dealt again with the menace of militant Islam and the recent, dreadful news that Algiers had struck again, this time hijacking eleven more American merchant ships carrying over one hundred seamen and passengers. He outlined the blow to the American economy. When word reached New York of the mass hijacking, the stock market crashed.  In the few days it took for the news to travel up and down the Atlantic seaboard, voyages were canceled in every major port; seamen were thrown out of work, ship stores merchants went out of business. What 9-11 did to the U.S. economy in 2001, the mass hijacking by Muslims in late 1793 did too.

So it is not surprising that four months later, on March 27th, 1794, Congress -- after debating the topic sporadically over a decade since the first hijacking to Morocco -- finally decided to build a fleet of warships: six extra-large frigates including the first Constellation, today a tourist attraction in Baltimore’s Harbor Place and Constitution (the future “Old Ironsides”) in Boston harbor. In a nutshell, the United States Navy was born in response to unprovoked Muslim aggression.

Congress’s compromise was to build the ships and hope that the construction itself would frighten the Algerines while at the same sending negotiators to appease them by imitating Europe and offering to join the tribute system. The Naval Establishment Act tried to please both hawks and doves by ordering the building of a fleet while simultaneously sending negotiators, with the text specifying that if they succeeded, the building of the warships, immensely expensive in every generation, would stop.

And that is what happened. The U.S. wound up paying close to $1,000,000 in ransom and to atone for its tardy delivery in barrels of gold coins also agreed to build for free a brand new warship as a gift to the pasha of Algiers. It was built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and christened “The Crescent,” in honor of the Islamic flag.

Jefferson, understandably, objected to the national humiliation under his erstwhile friend President John Adams.

In 1796, eighty-five surviving American hostages, crippled and emaciated by the ordeal, were freed from slavery.

Eventually the shipbuilding resumed, but the menace of Barbary piracy remained. Not until 1801 was action taken when Jefferson became America’s third president. After 17 years of calling for war, one of his first acts was dispatching a naval squadron of four warships to the Mediterranean, and what ensued was a four-year war “to the shores of Tripoli” memorialized in glory for generations of Americans to come, one of whose dashing heroes was Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. after whom more than a dozen American towns and counties would be named.  

Sha’i ben-Tekoa’s PHANTOM NATION: Inventing the “Palestinians” as the Obstacle to Peace is available at and

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