1783: Wealth Travels by Sea
The United States, having won independence from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War, was a small nation positioned from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean on the east, to the Great Lakes to the north, and to the Mississippi River on the west. The land claimed by the new nation was the property of the native peoples who had lived on it for generations. Some of this land had been bought, some had been fought over, most had been taken unceremoniously. In addition, Spain claimed territory to the south and west of the country, as did Great Britain to the north.
Before the Revolution, merchant ships carrying goods to sell in Europe had been protected by British warships and, during the war, by French ships. But those arrangements were over. Now, American ships had to fend for themselves—and the new country did not yet have a navy.
The Revolution had been fought with money borrowed from France and the Netherlands, and repayment of those debts depended upon ongoing international commerce. One key piece of the nation’s economic health was trade with southern Europe, accessible only by sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and into the Mediterranean Sea. One-quarter of New England’s most important export, dried salt cod, went to markets there, as did one-sixth of the country’s grain. Rice and lumber were also important, and the merchant ships provided employment for more than a thousand seamen. Trade and employment were essential to the growing American economy, and that meant sending ships into international waters.
Merchant ships did not carry cannons or ammunition. It was understood that if a ship did not have weapons, it could not be considered an enemy ship. In a conflict or war, one side might stop a merchant ship, refuse it passage, or even sink it after removing the crew, but the merchant ship would not be fired upon without warning. However, this code did not apply to pirates, and so these merchant ships, sailing from the new United States without any military vessels to escort them through international waters, were especially vulnerable.
The nations along the northern coast of Africa that border the Mediterranean Sea were known until the nineteenth century as the Barbary States. The name “Barbary” refers to the Berber people, who were the original inhabitants of much of North Africa. The region then contained the countries of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.
Pirates from the region had preyed on foreign shipping for centuries, attacking ships in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, along the northwest coast of Africa, and along the Iberian Peninsula, off the coasts of Portugal and Spain.
Since at least the sixteenth century, the pirates had been turning over their booty to the nations’ leaders to enhance their wealth. A portion of the profits were sent to Constantinople (today Istanbul) as tribute to the Ottoman rulers, the recognized overlords of the Mohammedan world; a smaller portion went to the parties who made the capture; and the remainder became the property of the local ruler. The pirates made their money from selling stolen goods and captured sailors as slaves.
Even such naval powers as France and Great Britain were not immune to the threat of piracy, though they chose to deal with the problem by paying annual “gifts” to Barbary leaders—bribes paid to the Barbary States to persuade the pirates to leave their merchant ships alone. But the prices were always changing, and the ships of those nations that did not meet the exorbitant demands were not safe from greedy pirates.
By 1783, the growing wealth of the United States had caught the pirates’ attention. No longer would they attack just the American vessels unlucky enough to cross their path; they were now actively seeking out American ships.
For Jefferson, the Issue Is Personal
Thomas Jefferson had sailed for Europe in the summer of 1784 with his daughter Martha, whom he called “Patsy,” to act as a trade commissioner. He joined John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the United States’ minister to France at the time. Together, they were to negotiate trade agreements with European countries. In Paris, Jefferson enrolled his daughter in a convent school with many other wellborn, English-speaking students. There he would be able to visit her regularly, though he had been forced to make a more difficult decision regarding Martha’s two younger sisters. Mary, not yet six, and toddler Lucy Elizabeth, both too young to travel with their father across the sea, had been left behind with their “Aunt Eppes,” his late wife’s half sister. The separation was painful, but it was nothing compared with the heartbreak he experienced just months into his Paris stay when Mrs. Eppes wrote sadly to say that “hooping cough” had taken the life of two-year-old Lucy.
As a fresh wave of sorrow rolled over him, Jeffersonlonged for “Polly the Parrot,” as he affectionately called his bright and talkative Mary, to join his household again. The father wrote tohis little girl that he and her sister “cannot live withoutyou” and asked her if she would like to join them across the ocean. He promised that coming to France meant she would learn “to play on the harpsichord, to draw, to dance, to readand talk French.”
Jefferson began to plan for her safe travel. Having already lost his wife and one child, he did not want to risk losing Polly, and looked for ways to reduce the dangers of the journey. He instructed her uncle, Francis Eppes, to select a proven ship for Polly’s crossing. “The vessel should have performed one [transatlantic] voyage at least,” Jefferson ordered, “and must not be more than four or five years old.” He worried about the weather and insisted that his daughter travel in the warmer months to avoid winter storms. As for supervision, Polly could make the journey, Jefferson advised, “with some good lady passing from America to France, or even England . . . [or] a careful gentleman.”
Yet an even more intimidating concern worried Jefferson: more frightening than weather or leaky ships was the threat of pirates.
Polly would not sail to Paris for several more years, and when she did, her trip was uneventful. But the awful worry Jefferson felt as he imagined an encounter between his daughter and pirates stayed with him even after her safe arrival.
The Two Ambassadors
In 1785, Benjamin Franklin returned to the United States to become the president of the executive council of the state of Pennsylvania, a job similar to that of a governor today. Thomas Jefferson took his place as minister to France, and that same year, John Adams was named the country’s first ambassador to Great Britain.
In early 1786, the two friends Jefferson and Adams met in London to discuss several matters, including how to deal with an emerging threat to American interests: piracy.
Fifty-year-old John Adams welcomed Jefferson into his London home. Overlooking the tree-lined Grosvenor Square from the town house Adams had rented, the two men sat down to talk in the spacious drawing room.
Unlike most of the European diplomats they encountered, neither Adams nor Jefferson had been born into a tradition of diplomatic decorum. Adams was a rough-and-tumble lawyer, the son of a farmer from south of Boston, Massachusetts, known for speaking his mind. A man of quiet natural grace, Jefferson was slowly learning the cosmopolitan ways of Paris, but at heart, he was a wellborn country boy, heir to large farms outside Charlottesville, a tiny town in central Virginia. Both men were novices in the game of international negotiation, a game their country needed them to learn quickly.
When the Americans and British signed the Treaty of Paris back in 1783, bringing an end to the Revolution, the United States’ legal status changed in the view of every nation and world leader. No longer under British protection, the fledgling nation found that its status was lowly indeed. Even two years after their arrival in London, Adams’s letters to the British government tended to go unanswered, and Jefferson’s attempts to negotiate trade treaties with France and Spain were going nowhere. Now a more hostile international threat was rearing its head, and Adams had summoned Jefferson from Paris to discuss the danger posed by the pirates of North Africa.
In the United States, trade was booming. But John Adams thought trade numbers could easily improve even more if a diplomatic solution in the Barbary region could be reached.
Adams and Jefferson worried over the fate of the Dauphin and theMaria. It had been nearly a year since the pirates from Algiers had taken the ships and cargoes, and now the regent of Algiers had made known his demand: until he was paid an exorbitant and, it seemed, ever-escalating ransom, the American captives were to remain his slaves.
The American government had initially approved payment to the North African nations. But the bribes demanded were impossibly high, many hundreds of thousands of dollars, when the American treasury could afford only token offerings of a few tens of thousands. In an era when not a single American was worth one million dollars, paying such excessive bribes seemed almost incomprehensible. Unable to pay enough to buy the goodwill of the Barbary countries, America was forced to let its ships sail at their own risk. Sailors like those on the Maria and the Dauphin had become pawns in a very dangerous game.
Despite their pity for the captives, Jefferson and Adams knew the young nation couldn’t afford another war or a new source of debt. They also understood that the cost of keeping American ships away from the Barbary Coast would be greater than the cost of addressing the problem. That left the two American ministers, as Jefferson confided to a friend, feeling “absolutely suspended between indignation and impotence.”
Yet neither Jefferson nor Adams could afford to remain paralyzed in the face of the danger. Not only had American families and the economy been endangered, but rumor had it that the pirates had also captured a ship carrying the venerable Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson’s predecessor as minister to France. (As one correspondent wrote to Franklin, “We are waiting with the greatest patience to hear from you. The newspapers have given us anxiety on your account; for some of them insist that you have been taken by the Algerines, while others pretend that you are at Morocco, enduring your slavery with all the patience of a philosopher.”) To everyone’s relief, the reports proved false, but the scare brought the very real dangers posed by the Barbary pirates too close for comfort.
Sitting in Adams’s London house, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson discussed the idea of a negotiation that might break the impasse. The two ministers set about deciding upon the right approach.
Jefferson and Adams Disagree
In the coming months, the two old friends would find they disagreed about how to deal with the Barbary pirates. Adams remained determined to continue the negotiations. The Americans should be willing to pay for peace, he believed, even if they had to borrow money to pay the tributes. “If it is not done,” he wrote to Jefferson from London, “you and I . . . ought to go home.”
Back in Paris, Jefferson expressed another view. He did not wish to “buy a peace,” as he put it. He did not trust the Barbary powers to keep their word. At the same time, he did not think America could afford to stop trading with the European countries on the Mediterranean. He believed in freedom on the seas, and he proposed a tougher position.
“I should prefer the obtaining of it by war,” he wrote to Adams from France in 1786. Jefferson argued that America needed a navy to confront and destroy the pirates of the Barbary Coast. The fifty ships that had defended the colonies during the Revolutionary War had been sold off at the end of the war to raise money for the new country.
Jefferson told Adams that justice, honor, and the respect of Europe for the United States would be served by establishing a fleet in “constant cruise” in Barbary waters, policing and confronting ships of the outlaw states as necessary. He argued that an armed naval presence made budgetary sense. According to his calculations, establishing a small navy would be less costly than the sum of the ransoms, bribes, and maritime losses.
Adams disagreed. He believed that a war against the Barbary nations could be unwinnable, and that it would certainly require too large a military force for America’s budget. Opposing Jefferson’s belief that a small navy could solve the problem, he told Jefferson, “We ought not to fight them at all unless We determine to fight them forever.”