The United States was barely a nation in 1785… but we were already feeling the pinch of international commerce. America’s commercial fleet was under attack in the Mediterranean by the Islamic Barbary states of North Africa. Between 1650-18oo near 2 million European and American sailors were sold into slavery by Muslims.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were part of our first… diplomatic delegation in London in 1785. They were instructed to seek out Tripoli’s ambassador, Abdra-Rahman, and seek a maritime agreement. The ambassador shocked the Americans with his exorbitant demands for ransom and tribute- even a fee for his personal attention. Jefferson protested the piracy by stating the facts: The US had no quarrel with the Muslim world, we had never been Crusaders, we took no part in the Spanish conquests of Muslim lands- what right did Tripoli have to exact such a toll?
The response must have struck every reasoned bone… in Jefferson’s body- Abdra-Rahman claimed that the Koran gave Tripoli permission; The US and Europeans were infidels, and therefore subject to war and slavery by the Holy Ottoman Empire. Monarchy and theocracy combined to create terror and wickedness. Jefferson immediately responded to the US Congress that no such payment should be made to such an objectionable form of tyranny and banditry. He advised that a naval squadron be outfitted and sent to the Mediterranean to enforce our commercial rights.
John Adams was appalled by the Barbary terror… but felt the bribe was worth paying to maintain peace. This policy carried over to the new Federal government and the Washington administration. The negotiations would take place yearly, the tribute increased, yet the results were a travesty. Jefferson predicted that negotiations and payment would only embolden the terrorists and prompt more and bolder transgressions. When elected President in 1800, Jefferson made pacifying the Barbary states his #1 foreign policy initiative.