John Adams and the pirates

Actor John Curd as Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the new United States Navy.
Actor John Curd as Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the new United States Navy. Courtesty image

You’ve heard time and again that the US won’t negotiate with terrorists, and a pair of future presidents tested that policy more than two centuries ago.

Soon after the Revolution, the brand new United States of America had a pirate problem. The young country had dismantled its fighting ships in the 1780s, but then discovered it had no way to protect the West Indies trade that provided 90 percent of its revenue. Two ambassadors - Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - were sent to Algiers to negotiate with the pirates.

Actor and historian John Curd says the US offered $600,000 — and threw in a 32-gun warship.

"John Adams basically came to the summary that it is cheaper to pay tribute than it is to build a navy," says Curd.

Thomas Jefferson objected, though, fearing future demands, and Curd says that’s exactly what happened a few years later.

"Basically three French agents approached President Adams and said in 1797, 'If you want normal relations back with France again, you need to pay a huge bribe to the country and to each of us.'”

The French agents also wanted Adams to apologize publicly for his criticism of the French Revolution. That outraged Congress, which authorized the outfitting of a dozen ships for the newly created US Navy.

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