Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Thomas Jefferson & The Barbary Pirates

You may be surprised to learn this! Right here in this Colonial Revival influenced museum, first opened in 1924, resides a hand-written letter containing information that may help the United States Navy tackle the current problems presented by pirates on the high seas. In this letter, a very prominent man in our Nation's history offered his advice. He was the President of these United States and he held very strong opinions about dealing with the terror wrought by pirates! This, however, is no recent missive. It was written in November 1801, by Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson Bronzed Metal Plaque, early 19th century

Jefferson was writing to Thomas Newton. He wanted to thank him for the casks of "Hughes's crab cyder" (sic) Newton had sent to Jefferson. But the pirate issue weighed heavily on his mind. Jefferson had just become President in March of that year and he had made a bold decision regarding the Barbary pirates. Since 1784 Congress had been paying as much as $1,000,000 each year in tribute to the North African states of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers (the Barbary Coast) to protect it's ships from piracy. Jefferson had argued that simply continuing to pay the tribute would never solve the problem. He felt the only way to effectively deal with the issue of piracy was instead to protect our shipping interests with a strong Navy.

When Jefferson refused to pay the tribute, war was immediately declared on the U.S. by the pasha of Tripoli. U.S. Navy frigates were dispatched from the Mediterranean to defend U.S. interests. Thus began the Barbary Wars. Jefferson's refusal to submit to the extortion so surprised the North Africans that Tunis and Algiers broke their alliance with Tripoli. Jefferson's plan seemed to be working. The first Barbary War lasted from 1801 to 1805.

In The Alice's letter, Jefferson wrote Newton (then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia's 11th congressional district) referring to Navy Lieutenant Sterritt's "having captured the Tripolitan... I wish it true the rather as it may encourage the legislature to throw off the whole of that Barbary yoke."

Letter written by Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Newton, Nov. 1801

I'll not reveal more in hopes you will come read this letter yourself. It is currently on exhibit in The Lincoln Library, along with another letter written by Jefferson, as well as the first English edition of his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1787. This is the only book written by Jefferson that was published in his lifetime.

Also, while visiting The Alice ask your guide to explain how one U.S. Navy Lieutenant finally got his revenge on the Barbary pirates
over 200 years after being held captive by them!

Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson,
First English Edition 1787


  1. That is an interesting episode in American history. It was our first overseas military operation. Interestingly, it (the Battle of Derne) was carried out by mercenaries led by U.S. Marines. The U.S. later eschewed the use of mercenaries in favor of a standing army, until recently (i.e., Blackwater and friends).

  2. Fascinating! Thank you for writing about this!