Jefferson and the Pirates

“From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli”. All the Marines sing it. Most everyone has heard it. The shores of Tripoli is worth remembering. If you want to know what Old America was like, Thomas Jefferson’s decision not to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates is a telling story. For centuries, the Barbary pirates had raided the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. More than a million people had been made slaves. Most European powers paid tribute and ransoms and accepted the pirates as part of the cost of doing business.

When America declared independence the British stopped providing protection to American shipping and three ships were taken. Efforts to negotiate were met with demands for money. And there the matter stood when Jefferson became President in 1801. New demands for more tribute were sent to Jefferson. He sent a small fleet instead. The rest is history and deserves to be remembered.

Ships burned, harbors bombed, cities taken, including the raid led by a Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon on Derna, a city in Tripoli. In the end all four of the Barbary States signed treaties with Old America and swore off piracy, kidnapping and extortion.

The first military monument in the United States commemorated this war and the American victory. It used to stand on the grounds of the Capitol but it has been moved away.


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