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Jefferson and the first war on terror

Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger are coauthors of "Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History" (Sentinel, 2015), from which this excerpt appears

Brian Kilmeade

and Don Yaeger

are coauthors of "Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History" (Sentinel, 2015), from which this excerpt appears

In 1785, the same year Richard O'Brien was captured by pirates, Thomas Jefferson learned that all politics, even transatlantic politics, are personal.

He was a widower. The passing of his wife in September 1782 had left him almost beyond consolation, and what little comfort he found was in the company of his daughter Martha, then age 10. The two would take "melancholy rambles" around the large plantation, seeking to evade the grief that haunted them. When Jefferson was offered the appointment as American minister to France, he accepted because he saw an opportunity to escape the sadness that still shadowed him.

Thomas Jefferson sailed for Europe in the summer of 1784 with Martha at his side; once they reached Paris, he enrolled his daughter in a convent school with many other well-born English-speaking students. There he would be able to see her regularly, but he had been forced to make a more difficult decision regarding Martha's two sisters. Mary, not yet 6, and toddler Lucy Elizabeth, both too young to travel with him across the sea, had been left behind with their "Aunt Eppes," his late wife's half sister. The separation was painful, but it was nothing compared with the new heartbreak he experienced just months into his Paris stay when Mrs. Eppes wrote sadly to say that "hooping cough" had taken the life of 2-year-old Lucy.

As a fresh wave of sorrow rolled over him, Jefferson longed for "Polly the Parrot," as he affectionately called his bright and talkative Mary, to join his household again. The father wrote to his little girl that he and her sister "cannot live without you" and asked her if she would like to join them across the ocean. He promised that joining them in France meant she would learn "to play on the harpsichord, to draw, to dance, to read and talk French."

"I long to see you, and hope that you . . . are well," the now 7-year-old replied. But she added that she had no desire to make the trip, harpsichord or no harpsichord. "I don't want to go to France," she stated plainly. "I had rather stay with Aunt Eppes."

Jefferson was undaunted and began to plan for her safe travel.

Having already lost two dear family members, he did not want to risk losing Polly and looked for ways to reduce the dangers of the journey.

He instructed her uncle, Francis Eppes, to select a proven ship for Polly's crossing. "The vessel should have performed one [trans-Atlantic] voyage at least," Jefferson ordered, "and must not be more than four or five years old." He worried about the weather and insisted that his daughter travel in the warm months to avoid winter storms.

As for supervision, Polly could make the journey, Jefferson advised, "with some good lady passing from America to France, or even England [or] . . . a careful gentleman."

Yet an even more intimidating concern worried Jefferson: More frightening than weather or leaky ships was the threat of pirates off North Africa, a region known as the Barbary Coast. The fate of the Dauphin and the Maria was a common one for ships venturing near the area, where the Sahara's arid coast was divided into four nation-states.

Running west to east were the Barbary nations Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, which all fell under the ultimate authority of the Ottoman Empire, seated in present-day Turkey.

The Islamic nations of the Barbary Coast had preyed upon foreign shipping for centuries, attacking ships in international waters both in the Mediterranean and along the northwest coast of Africa and the Iberian peninsula. Even such naval powers as France and Great Britain were not immune, though they chose to deal with the problem by paying annual tributes of "gifts" to Barbary leaders - bribes paid to the Barbary states to persuade the pirates to leave merchant ships from the paying countries alone. But the prices were always changing, and the ships of those nations that did not meet the extortionate demands were not safe from greedy pirates.

To the deeply rational Jefferson, the lawless pirates posed perhaps the greatest danger to his sadly diminished family. He knew what had happened to O'Brien and could not risk a similar fate for his child. As he confided in a letter to brother-in-law Francis Eppes: "My anxieties on this subject could induce me to endless details. . . . The Algerines this fall took two vessels from us and now have 22 of our citizens in slavery."

The plight of the men aboard the Maria and the Dauphin haunted him - if their hellish incarceration was terrifying to contemplate, "who can estimate . . . the fate of a child? My mind revolts at the possibility of a capture," Jefferson wrote. "Unless you hear from myself - not trusting the information of any other person on Earth - that peace is made with the Algerines, do not send her but in a vessel of French or English property; for these vessels alone are safe from prize by the barbarians." He knew those two countries paid a very high annual tribute, thereby purchasing safe passage for their vessels.

As a father, he could feel in his bones a fear for his daughter's safety. As an ambassador and an American, Jefferson recognized it was a fear no citizen of a free nation embarking on an oceanic voyage should have to endure.

Brian Kilmeade will discuss "Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philaelphia, 1901 Vine St. For information, call 215-567-4341.