It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. — James Madison

Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden




A Pirate Story

Let us go back to Thanksgiving Day, 1793, seven years and a half before Thomas Jefferson came to be president. Morning services were being held in the small church of the little New England town of Newburyport.

Dressed in their sober best, with here and there a gay-colored bonnet or a bright feather or ribbon among the women, the congregation sat listening to the words of the preacher.

"I have a letter which it seems fitting that I should read to-day," he was saying, as he lifted a folded paper from the desk. "I have been speaking of the many things for which we should give thanks. Among them is the opportunity given us of sending to help the writer of this letter and other poor souls like him, who have been captured by the cruel pirates of the Mediterranean and sold into a slavery worse than death. Listen to this sad message from one of our own townsmen."

Pausing a moment, he looked gravely about into the raised and earnest faces of his hearers and then read slowly:

"'I was captured on the eighteenth of October by an Algerine corsair and stripped of everything. On arriving at Algiers, I was conducted to the Dey's house; and in the morning was sent to the slaves' bagnio, and there received an iron shackle round my leg and a chain of twenty pounds, and three loaves of coarse bread for twenty-four hours, and some water, and was immediately put to hard labor. My situation is so deplorable that to mention but a small part of it would require much longer time than I am allowed!' "

The reader looked up. A tremor passed through the congregation. This was not a new thing to them. Appeals had been made before for money to send to the "King of Cruelties" to buy back to freedom American seamen he had thrown into slavery. Many a time had they gone deep into their scanty savings, only to get news long after the money had been sent that the poor Americans who waited so prayerfully for freedom had died of ill-treatment before it reached the coffers of the pirate king.

But to-day it was different. It was Thanks-giving Day. Also, the man whose cry of suffering had come to them was a citizen of their own little town. Most of them had known him since his boyhood. So this letter seemed like the cry of a brother from the wilderness.

Hands began fumbling eagerly with bags and in pockets, and the clink of silver coins caught the ear. Tears were rolling down the cheeks of many as the minister came to the end of the letter.

"Before taking up the collection, friends," he said, "there is one here whom I am asking to tell you something about the acts of the Barbary pirates, and of the ransom Newbury-port is being asked to send."

A weather-beaten man who had been sitting almost unseen in a corner got slowly up and walked limping to the pulpit, where he turned toward the startled congregation a face lined and seamed with pain. A dark purple scar ran from his forehead down to his bearded chin, and the fires of his sunken eyes told of some past grim struggle and long-endured suffering.

"Friends," he began, his voice harsh and grating like the rush and roar of the wind across the decks of a storm-driven ship, "friends, I brought the letter you've just heard. I've been more than a year getting here with it. Your townsman may still be alive, or he may have joined those who have paid their last ransom of life itself to the Dey of Algiers, 'King of Cruelties,' as we call him.

"I, myself, was a slave in Morocco. I was aboard the good brig Betsy  when she was taken by the pirates. They came aboard us, every man of them carrying a knife in each hand and one in his teeth. We fought as best we could, friends, but we hadn't men enough to stand against 'em. I was laid low by the stroke that left me this"—he pointed one shaking finger at the scar—"and, with the others, I was carried off into slavery.

"It was Spain and its officers that got our freedom for us. What became of the others I don't know, but I took ship for home, only to be captured by the pirates of Algiers off the coast of Portugal. They threw me once more into slavery.

"They took away everything I had except just clothes enough to cover me, and gave me only two small cakes of bread a day. Hard labor I had to do on this. How I did it, nearly starved as I was, I can't tell you, for I don't know. At last I managed to send a letter, much like the one I brought to you, to our American minister in France, Thomas Jefferson.

"I know now that he worked hard to get the money to ransom me and others. At last he secretly sent a Christian monk, who bargained for me with the Dey of Algiers and succeeded in buying my freedom. But your townsman and many others were left groaning in their chains, half-starving and wearing out what is left of their lives, until their friends can send the money to ransom them.

"Sickness and misfortune kept me from getting to you. Twice I have sent you copies of this letter, which, I am told, never reached you. The letter I had promised to bring myself and make a plea for the money needed to free a man of your own town from suffering, slavery and death.

"Here is a table of the ransoms the pirates require." The speaker drew from his breast pocket a yellowed paper and read:

"For a captain     $6,000

For a mate      4,000

For a passenger     4,000

For a seaman      1,400"

Without speaking further, the gaunt stranger folded and returned the paper carefully to his breast. Then, with a brief bending of his neck he walked slowly to his corner and sat down. The sound of muffled sobs was heard throughout the little church.

Scenes like this were not uncommon in other towns and cities of New England. The corsairs, or pirate ships of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco and Algiers, were the wolves of the sea, boldly attacking any vessel they thought weak enough to capture.

While plenipotentiary in France, Thomas Jefferson had given much anxious effort to the cases of the suffering prisoners, hundreds of whom were held in these African countries waiting until money should be sent to ransom them or, lacking this, kept in a slavery that ended only with death.

Other Christian nations paid the rulers of the Barbary States a tribute, or tax, in order that the vessels carrying their flags might be free from attack by the pirates. Our own country, while disliking this way of securing peace, was also too poor, just after the revolution, to afford the large sums of money demanded. What little it could afford was offered, only to meet with the disdain of the greedy pirate princes.

Jefferson, while he was in France, tried to persuade the different nations of the Old World to join with the United States in keeping a small fleet of ships ready to wage war on the corsairs and so protect travelers on the sea, but the plan, a bold and sensible one, fell through. The Congress of that day was not strong enough to carry it out. When he was Secretary of State for Washington, he again brought up the matter of forcing the pirates to respect our flag, but nothing could be done.

Finally, in 1796, a peace was brought about at the cost of a million dollars. But to maintain this peace and prevent the breaking of it by the pirates, another million had to be paid within the next four years. One hundred and twenty-two captives, ten of them having been slaves to the pirates for eleven years, came home to America, half-starved, their health wrecked, but pitifully happy to gain the freedom for which they had long given up hoping.

The worst part of these transactions with the pirates was that they insisted on having the tribute sent them in articles that would help them to go on in their cruel business. A frigate which cost nearly a hundred thousand dollars was built and paid for by the United States, fitted with thirty-six cannon, loaded with an-other hundred thousand dollars' worth of powder, lead and ship supplies, and sent to the Dey as one item of our country's tax. All this was before Thomas Jefferson became president.

When that time came, Jefferson, who had tried so long and untiringly to stop this state of things, sent four of our six war vessels to the Mediterranean to whip the pirates into a proper and decent frame of mind. America was the first nation to show the cruel pirates that peace with them was not to be bought with money.

This act of Jefferson's, which opened the way to others, led, finally, to the deathblow of piracy in the Mediterranean.