The Corner


The early republic’s experience of piracy shows how long it can take to stamp it out. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dealt with the Barbary pirates — essentially a north African Muslim protection racket — when they were diplomats in the 1780s. The problem continued through the first four presidential administrations, until after the War of 1812.

George Washington negotiated, and John Adams signed, a treaty with the bashaw of Tripoli in which we agreed to pay protection money to spare our ships from attack and asserted that America “was not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Latter-day secularists often cite the Tripoli treaty, without seeming to realize that it was an attempt to blackmail thugs.

As President Jefferson tried a combination of war and negotiation, the fighting had some splendid moments — William Eaton, our consul in Alexandria, led a handful of Marines, mercenaries, and Arab allies across the Egyptian desert to Dirne, Tripoli’s second-largest town, which they captured (hence “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Corps hymn). But then Jefferson settled for a rather unsatisfactory deal with the bashaw he had been fighting.

James Madison had to send the Navy back a second time — all business, no negotiating. Britain and Holland sent punitive expeditions of their own, and France conquered most of North Africa in the 1830s. Libya, the former Tripoli, resumed terrorism if not piracy in our day, though it changed its tune after the second Gulf War.

Moral: It’s a long haul.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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