When the Libyans held Americans for ransom

Today, the United States has the upper hand with Gaddafi in Libya—but there was a time when the U.S. president felt powerless to fight in the region. Back in the day, north Africans kidnapped a few hundred Americans, and then demanded a ransom of 16 percent of U.S. tax revenues for their safe return. Would the U.S. president agree to those terms? He did.

The president was George Washington. With Congress’ consent, he paid an enormous bribe to secure the release of Americans held in captivity. What’s more, this wasn’t an isolated incident. In America’s first decades, Washington and John Adams consistently paid out as much 25 percent of U.S. government revenues to extortionist countries in north Africa. Collectively, these nations were called the Barbary States: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—probably the most successful organized crime operation in history. Their scheme was actually very simple: If a nation didn’t pay the required extortion money, the Barbaries would pirate the nation’s merchant ships—and sell the crew into slavery. Countries that paid were left alone, but states that refused faced constant piracy and the enslavement of its citizens. And slavery in the Barbary states was unimaginably horrific....
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First, you were shackled to an iron chain, then tossed into a filthy lice and vermin-infested prison. Day after day was filled with hard labor, perhaps chipping rocks or hauling earth. For a slave who disobeyed, the punishments involved torturous impalements that are too gruesome to even describe.

To deal with the problem, America built a fleet of well-armed fighting ships—and then gave them to the Barbary States. Yes, you read that correctly. The U.S. built high-powered warships and turned them over to the Barbaries as a bribe, called a “tribute.”

Then Thomas Jefferson was elected—and Tom decided to kick some butt. Jefferson believed that the only way to deal with bullies is to face them, so he sent the Navy to fight. Interestingly, Congress never officially declared war on the Barbary states. The ink on the U.S. Constitution was barely dry, and an American president was already ignoring it. But we can forgive him, because the Barbary states were so very, well, barbarous.

Unfortunately, Jefferson put the wrong guy in charge of the fight. More on that tomorrow.....

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