We've Done It Before Washington, Jefferson Ransomed Captives

Posted: December 09, 1986

``As low a price as possible," cautioned Thomas Jefferson, as he dispatched his negotiators to ransom U.S. seamen from the clutches of the Muslim terrorists of his day.

Good advice, a commendable regard for the taxpayer's dollar, but since the Barbary pirates had the keys to the dungeons and Jefferson didn't, it didn't

cut much ice in Barbary. Jefferson was to learn, as Ronald Reagan has, to endure the chafing "degrading yoke" of having to pay off terrorists to get his people back. And pay big, too.

In George Washington's day, it cost the government $41,000 to spring 21 seamen from a Morocco jail. That, plus a $25,000 "closing fee" for a peace treaty, and an annual $25,000 worth of sailcloth, cordage, spars, pitch, and the like, so the pirates could outfit more of their speedy low-slung corsairs to board more U.S. merchantmen, seize more seamen, get more ransom money,

commission more raiders . . .

An endless round that went on and on, from the late 1700s into the early 1800s, with Washington/Jefferson accused of the same kind of "duplicity" Reagan's being hammered for: Breathing defiance of blackmail one minute, ''millions for defense, not one cent for tribute," then ladling out money

from the U.S. Treasury the next.

As soon as Algeria saw what Morocco was getting, it sallied forth, grabbed 106 sailors, and stuck up the U.S. Treasury for a whopping one-sixth of the federal budget - $760,000 ransom and $24,000 a year to launch more ships.

And all the while, Jefferson was openly entertaining hopes so unreal, so zany, that Reagan would have been certified, straitjacketed, and committed for even suggesting them - assembling an international armada to blockade Barbary and convert the natives from a "predatory to an agricultural people." With proper coaching, they would "betake themselves to husbandry." A variation on the Jeffersonian theme of the sturdy "yeoman," son of the soil, bedrock foundation of the Republic. Must have been something in the air at Monticello.

Despite his oft-cited "wall of separation," Jefferson contracted with the Mathurins, an order of Roman Catholic priests, to check the Barbary jails for U.S. hostages. Writing to James Madison, Jefferson said they were the best around when it came to ferreting out and identifying the imprisoned. He also noted that they had a well-earned reputation for freeing them "on better terms than any other body, public or private."

In an echo of the Reagan overture to Iran, the Mathurins insisted on the same veil of secrecy Reagan drew across his negotiations with the Iranian moderates. As Jefferson explained it to Madison, the minute you go public, things get emotional. Under pressure of the hostages' families, the government feels compelled to deliver. A fact Barbary's quick to sense. And the price, as Jefferson remarked, is "enhanced." For whatever reason, the Mathurins flunked the assignment.

And so things went with the Founding Fathers as they tried everything from negotiations, to covert operations, running sea engagements, port bombardments, and paying ransom. From the record, cash worked best.

It wasn't until 1815 that the pirates finally got their come-uppance at the hands of U.S. naval hero Stephen Decatur, bemedaled veteran of the War of 1812. He had been to Barbary before, in 1804. In what British Admiral

Viscount Horatio Nelson described as the most "daring feat of the age," Decatur had executed a classic naval maneuver known as "cutting out."

Under cover of darkness, Aug. 3, 1804, he stole in under the Barbary guns, ''cut out" a captive U.S. warship from under its covering covey of pirate corsairs, and set her afire to keep the pirates from turning her guns on his flotilla. Rousing stuff, but the lesson didn't take, and it wasn't until he came back in 1815, to talk terms "from the mouth of the cannon," that the pirates finally got the message.

The parallel with the Reagan experience is striking. First, the F111 fighter-bombers, then the humiliating expedient of ransoming hostages the F111s can't reach.

The more things change, the more they're the same.

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